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Field Division of Education
Material Culture of the Pima, Papago, and Western Apache
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The food exhibit offers the greatest opportunity to relate the tribes under consideration to their environment. The habitat of all these groups is notably inhospitable. The story to be told here is of the adjustment that has been made to find a livelihood in a region where it would appear impossible to the uninitiated.


Among both Pima and Papago the men clear the ground, plant and irrigate the crop. The women harvest. (Russell, 1908, 89; Kissell, 128.) Corn or maize, beans, and squashes were the principal aboriginal crops. Modernly wheat has become the most important crop of the Pimas but is, of course, post-European. Corn or maize (Zea mays) was the central agricultural plant formerly. The exact kind is not known, the varieties now grown being almost certainly post-European improvements. Corn is planted in April, harvested in June, planted again in July, and harvested in October. (Kissell, 129.)

The foregoing applies to the Papago also, except that the seasons are more irregular and slightly earlier in places. Papago fields, unlike Pima fields are at a distance from the villages and are often quite scattered. The family migrates to the fields and lives there for the planting time and again when the crop is maturing remaining until the harvest. (Kissell, 128-9.)

At harvest the Pima bring the husked corn from the field to the house, placing it on a thin layer of brush. When all the corn is in, the brush is fired and the corn slightly roasted. It is then cut from the cob, dried, and stored. It is sometimes ground on the metate and baked in large cakes in the ashes. It is also boiled with ashes, dried (this procedure sounds unusual), the hulls washed off, dried again, ground, and made into gruel or pinole. Both the tortilla and the Pueblo wafer bread are lacking. Green corn is roasted. (Russell, 1908, 72-3; Pictures of processes: Hrdlicka, 1906, Plate 8, opp. page 42; Kissell, 192.)

There is little data on Apache agriculture. Women do all the work in distinction to the Pima-Papago. Medicine men formerly buried eagle plumed sticks in the fields, scattered tule pollen, and sprinkled pollen on it again. (Reagan, 299; Bourke, 1892, 502.)

In harvesting the corn, Apache women break the ears off the stalk, tossing it over their heads into a carrying basket on their backs. The basket is emptied on a level spot and when the harvest is completed the corn is shucked, stacked to dry, shelled, and stored in baskets. The green ears encountered are roasted in the earth oven. (Reagan, 292-3; 295; 299-300.)

The corn is ground on the metate and cooked in cakes in or under the ashes, sometimes wrapped in green corn husks. At present the tortilla is the most common form of cooking but this is probably derived from the Mexicans. A soup of corn meal is made, stirred with two sticks. Green corn is eaten by boiling or roasting in the pit oven. In the latter case it is dried, shelled, and stored in baskets or jars. Sometimes it is cut from the cob, mashed on the metate, and boiled or made into a cake and baked. Corn is sometimes gathered before it is in the milk and eaten, cob and all, after boiling. (Reagan, preceeding citation.)

Russell indicates the Pima cultivated a variety of the red or kidney bean (Phaseolus vulgarus Linn.). While this is true of most agricultural American Indians, there is a possibility the aboriginal Pima bean was the tepary (Phaseolus acutifolius, var. latifolius), believed to be a native wild species in the Southwest. It appears established as the aboriginal bean cultivated by the Cocopa and specimens have been collected indicating it is still cultivated by the Papago. (Gifford, 1933, 265; Freeman.) Although the data are not yet conclusive, the probabilities are that the tepary was domesticated by the Pima-Papago or some of their near neighbors and this fact deserves exposition. There are no data on the harvesting, storing, and preparing of beans.

One and probably several varieties of Cucurbita were cultivated aboriginally. It is impossible to determine which were aboriginal. The ordinary pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo, Linn., may well have been one, to judge by the early descriptions. This includes a number of varieties of "squashes" (scallop, summer crook-neck, etc.) Cucurbita moschata Duschene is also grown in several varieties. Pumpkins and squash were originally preserved by cutting them in strips and drying them in the sun. They were soaked and boiled when eaten. Seeds were parched and eaten.

An aboriginal cotton (Gosypum sp.) was cultivated. It is said still to be planted by the Papago. Cotton and tobacco were planted when the mesquite leaves came out (about March). (Russell, 1908, 70-78; Cremony, 217; Browne, 109; Kissell, 128.)

Post-Spanish plants of the Pima include wheat, the garbanzo or chick-pea, watermelon, and muskmelon. (Russell, 1908, 70-78.)

Agricultural implements were of the simplest kind aboriginally. The Pima irrigating canals were made with the digging stick and a wooden shovel. (It has been asserted the wooden shovel is post-Spanish but I believe there is fair evidence that it may be aboriginal in this region. Beals, Yaqui-Mayo ms.) These are illustrated by Russell (1908, Figs. 10, a, b, page 97.) The digging stick is of ironwood or Zizyphus lycioides, 1.140 m. long, 44 mm in diameter (typical specimen), with a chisel shaped end. It is used for planting, prying out bushes, a pick, and an impromptu weapon. The shovels were of misquite or cottonwood, .850 m. long, the blade .276 m. long and .167 wide. Earlier forms were possibly flat bladed rather than curved as shown by Russell, although the curve is merely the outer shape of the trees from which it is fashioned. A "hoe" was formerly in use consisting of a flat, sword-like piece of ironwood .680 m long, .083 m. wide, with a cutting edge 17 cm. long, used to cut weeds and cultivate plants. It was necessarily used in a kneeling position. Although found in the Casa Grande ruins, this peculiar implement, together with the shovel, has a limited distribution, being confined to the Pima-Papago and the coastal region down to central Sinaloa. (Beals, 1932, 163.) Specimens no longer exist but could probably be reconstructed. Russell also shows surviving Spanish types of implements in the dibble, plow, and ox yoke. (Russell, 1908, 97-99.)

Apache agriculture was probably simpler and cruder than that of the Pima-Papago. It lacked irrigation but further data are unavailable.

Wild Plants Utilized

Even the Pima, most highly developed agriculturists of the three tribes considered, depend more on wild products than on their agricultural staples. Most important in the food supply was the bean of the mesquite. In times of crop failure, it became their principal reliance. The mesquite bean (Prosopia veluntina) was gathered in late summer and stored in the pod in cylindrical bins on the roofs of houses or sheds. Formerly these bins were probably on low platforms when the old style house was used. The beans were prepared for use in two ways. They were ground or pounded in a mortar with a stone pestle (for larger quantities a wooden pestle was used), or the beans were separated from the pods and parched by tossing them in a pan with live coals, after which they were ground to a meal on the metate and made into pinole (i.e., the flour mixed with water.) The catkins or blossoms were stripped from the stem between the teeth and eaten raw. The gum of the mesquite was chewed.

The screw bean (Prosopis pubescens) was prepared somewhat differently, being roasted in an earth oven, dried, pounded in a mortar and made into pinole. (Russell, 1908, 74-75; Hrdlicka, 1906, plate 8, opp. page 42, illustrates the pounding of mesquite beans.)

The mesquite and screw bean were less used by the Papago and still less by the Apache, being scarcer in both habitats.

Other mainstays of Pima diet were the fruits of various opuntias, yuccas, chenopodiums, salvias, ironwood nuts, and various species of atriplex (salt brushes). The latter were extensively used, not only for their seeds, but were boiled with other foods because of the salty flavor. The viznaga cactus was also employed. A favorite food, which was used less than it would otherwise have been because of the long and somewhat dangerous mountain trips necessary to gather it, was the mescal (Agave americana, Linn., and probably other species.) Its method of preparation differed little among the three tribes (see below under Apache). Saguaro (Cereus giganteus, Engelm.) fruit was highly prized, particularly for making an intoxicating beverage, especially as a prelude to a war expedition. Its harvest was so important that the Pima started their new year count with it. The fruit was eaten fresh and was also dried in balls some 15 cm. in diameter. The juice was extracted from both fresh and dried fruit by boiling all day. The residue is ground to a paste on the metate and eaten without further preparation. The juice makes a thick syrup which may be stored in jars sealed with clay. When diluted and allowed to ferment, it makes a sweetish intoxicating drink. For further details and a complete list of plants and their preparations see Russell (1908, 69-78, Plates 8, a, b, 9, c, d, Fig. 18, b, c, page 103. Also see Hrdlicka, 1908, 263-265.)

The success of the Pima in their inhospitable environment may be judged from a compilation given by Russell. He notes 22 plants of which the leaves, stems, or flowers were eaten, 4 furnishing bulbs or roots, 24 giving seeds or nuts, and 15 supplying fruits or berries. (Russell, 1908, 68.)

The Papago use much the same foods as the Pima but in different proportions. They utilized much more mescal and saguaro then the Pima. Densmore (1929, 151, Plate 19) gives a good description of the treatment of saguaro fruit and the making of saguaro wine. The saguaro is gathered by both peoples by a pole with a hook at the end. Among the Papago it is recorded that the shape is important. It is believed to resemble the Big Dipper, which is called the Cactus Hook. They also make use of an oak (Quercus oblongifolia); at least it is reported as an article of trade with the Pima. The latter remove the shells, parch the meats, and grind them. There is no leaching as is common in the great acorn using region of California, although ironwood nuts were sometimes prepared by a typical California leaching method, soaking the cracked nuts over night or pouring water over them in a depression in the sand. Some of the opuntia fruits, especially Opuntia arborescens, are picked with wooden tweezers, a split twig about 31 cms. long. (Densmore, 192, 148-151; Russell, 1908, 78; 103, Fig. 18; Hrdlicka, 1908, 263-265.)

The great dependence of the Apache aborginally was the mescal. The hearts or roots or both are gathered and cooked in a pit oven. Probably a wooden chisel was formerly used but the only mescal knife recorded has a metal blade reminiscent of the shapes of the wooden implements of neighboring tribes. The pit oven is made by digging a large pit and filling it with dry wood on which are piled a quantity of stones. This is burned and when the fire is reduced to coals, the stones are covered with a foot or more of wet grass and twigs upon which the mescal is placed. These are covered with another layer of grass and twigs and the whole covered with earth to the depth of a foot. A fire is then built on top. After twenty four hours the mescal is removed. Sometimes the hearts are cooked for fifteen days and are then crushed, the liquid being used to make a fermented and intoxicating drink. (Cremony 217; Goddard, 1913, 138; Regan, 3-4.)

Pima methods were similar but the hearts only seem to have been used. (Russell, 1908, 70.)

An intoxicating drink known as Tulupi is made in great quantities by the White River and San Carlos Apache from sprouted corn. It is of late introduction, being learned from the Chiricahua, who are said to have secured it from the south, probably the Tarahumare, where it appears to be aboriginal. A description of its manufacture and use is given by Hrdlicka (1904, 190-191).

Other wild foods gathered by the Apache included the pods and bean of a locust resembling the eastern honey locust. These are gathered and dried when not quite mature, later being ground on the metate and mixed with water. It is eaten both cooked and raw. Probably all the various cactus fruits were utilized but there is no specific information as to varieties. Pinon nuts are gathered extensively, the cone being burned off or dried until the nuts fall out. The nuts are placed in storage jars. When used, they are parched on a basketry tray with coals, ground into a flour, and made into soups or baked into a sort of bread. The pods (not the seeds) of one of the yuccas is roasted before the fire or in the ashes or is dried and boiled. An acorn (Quercus undulata, var.) is hulled, ground, and eaten raw or cooked with wheat flour. No even approximately complete list of Apache foods exists but Hrdlicka has some additional ones. (Reagan, 293-295; Hrdlicka, 1908, 257-259.)

Animal Foods

Fish are nearly as important as game for many of the Pima to judge by a comparison of Russell and Spier (Spier, 1933, 14 et. seq; Russell, 1908, 83). They were poor in quality. No data exists as to methods of catching or preparing. The Papago apparently had no access to fish, at least directly, while they were never eaten by the Apache, the latter sharing in the wide-spread tabu in the Southwest against fish. (Reagan, 295).

Large game was apparently of relatively little importance to the Pima. Most of the varieties were in the hills and during the period in which we know them, to go any distance from the village was to be in danger of Apache raiders. Also the task of hunting was considerable. Animals hunted included the peccary, badger, topknot quail (Lophortyx gambeli) which was tabued to women, an unidentified rat, beaver, horse, antelope, puma, white tailed deer (Odocoileus couesi), black tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus (sub-species?)), cottontail rabbit, two varieties of the jack rabbit (Lepus texianus and Lepus alleni), mountain sheep, raccoon, gopher (Procyon cervinus), donkeys. Snakes and lizards were not eaten according to Russell. Hrdlicka mentions a species of lizard eaten but says snakes, dogs, cranes, fishhawks, eagles, buzzards, and crows are not eaten. He states clams were formerly abundant and much used in the Gila region. (Russell, 80-83; Hrdlicka, 1908, 24.)

There is no information on the Papago but presumably they made more use of deer, peccary, and other large animals, as they lived closer to the mountains in which they were most abundant. Densmore mentions that before hunting the Papago smoke Pihol flowers mixed with tobacco and sing songs. Pihol, according to Russell, is the name of a Pima evil spirit living in the east. The Papago father of an unborn child must not see the death movements of a deer or cut certain portions. On the whole the Pima and Papago were singularly lacking in hunting rituals, which is perhaps a reflection of the lack of importance of this source of food. (Densmore, 1929, 210; Russell, 1908, 79.)

Modern Apache apparently do little hunting. Reagan scarcely mentions it other than to say an Apache will not kill a bear or eat bear meat. Hrdlicka adds that beaver were not eaten either. Pima, Apache, and probably Papago used disguises in stalking deer and antelope. (Reagan, 295; Hrdlicka, 1908, 20.)


None of the sources make apparent a distinction which should be observed in cooking methods. In general all methods of frying or cooking with fat or baking in ovens other than the pit oven are of white origin. The predominant native methods are to grind or pound vegetable foods and make them into cakes cooked in the ashes or into soups. Even here a distinction may be made. These tribes all make great use of the metate in preference to the mortar. Consequently it appears that many of the foods in the previous lists are parched, not from any necessity, but simply to make them dry enough to grind on the metate. Meats are usually broiled over the coals, less commonly boiled. Many vegetable products and some meats are cooked in the earth oven. (See various references above and in addition Kissell, 191-197, for parching and winnowing methods.)

Food Percentage

Sufficient field study has not been made to form more than a rough estimate of the importance of various food substances to the various tribes. I give here a guess at what they once were in descending order of importance.

PimaPapago Apache


Corn, beans, squash.

Wild seeds, cactus fruits, etc.

Small game, esp. rabbits.

Fish, molluscs.

Large game, deer, antelope.

Wild vegetable foods, mescal, corn, beans, squash.

Small game, esp. rabbits.

Large game, deer, peccary, etc.


Large game, deer.

Wild seeds, cactus fruits.

Small game, rabbits.

Corn, beans, squash.

Museum Display

The museum can most advantageously concentrate on the display of vegetable foods. If an ethno-botanical garden is planted, many of the important sources of wild foods may be shown living. The grounds of Tumacacori have several important trees and shrubs already growing upon them. A good display of corn growing should suffice for the agricultural products as it is always the major crop, other plants being secondary. A wall chart showing the various planting times in relation to the flowering and harvesting time of various wild plants of importance might be of interest. Maize being the staple of all aboriginal agriculture in North America, a small map of the distribution of maize agriculture might accompany this exhibit. (Such a map may be copied from Wissler, 20, but should be modified in the mexican area according to Beals, 1932, map 4, page 159.) Agricultural implements may be made from pictures and dimensions given; pictures of fields may be shown, corn in the husk, shelled, and in various stages of preparation, grinding on the metate, cooking, etc. If a more elaborate exhibit is desired, models with figures would be feasible. The mesquite may be handled in the same way as a representative wild product, illustrating storage, gathering, pounding in the mortar, cooking, and the food products. (Mortar and metate described under heading of Houses and Furnishings.) A miniature cross-section of the earth even might be used as a part of the display with indications of the economic importance of various points as: mountains, mescal, yuccas, deer, pinon nuts (Apache), acorns; foothills and mesas, saguaro, opuntias, etc., rabbits, antelope; lowlands, agriculture, mesquite, etc.; rivers, fish and molluscs. This might be correlated with the map showing residence. A chart of the relative importance of various classes of food similar to that outlined above (page 22) should make clear their relative economic importance. A miniature hunting scene might be shown or, at any rate, hunting weapons (see weapons).

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Last Modified: Mon, Dec 24 2001 10:00:00 am PDT