Tohono O’odham/Hohokam


San Tan Mountain Regional Park on the edge of Tohono O’odham territory

According to their own website Hohokam origins are linked to their homeland in the Sonoran Desert. Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of the Hohokam, settled along the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers in southern Arizona.

In the 1990s, archaeologists identified a culture and people that were ancestors of the Hohokam. They grew corn and lived sedentary lives in villages all year round. It is now believed that they might have occupied the territory now known as Arizona as early 2000 BC! They originated as archaic hunters and gatherers who lived on wild plants and animals, and eventually settled in permanent communities and produced their own food instead of living a more mobile life and gathering what nature provided.

The Hohokam culture included  an astonishing skill to build very sophisticated water storage systems and irrigation systems to water their crops.

The Hohokam were master dwellers of the desert, creating sophisticated canal systems to irrigate their crops of cotton, tobacco, corn, beans, and squash. They built vast ball courts and huge ceremonial mounds and left behind fine red-on-buff pottery and exquisite jewellery of stone, shell, and clay.

Following their ancestral heritage, they became what they call “scientists of our environment.”  Like other nations in the Americas they used and continue to use meteorological principles to establish planting, harvesting, ceremonial cycles and they developed complex water storage and delivery systems. Those principles also continue to have spiritual resonance.

They learned to make the best of their environment, migrating with the seasons from their homes in the valleys to cooler mountain dwellings. Over time they learned to raise a wide variety of crops including tepary beans, squash, melon, and sugar cane. They also gathered wild plants such as saguaro fruit, cholla buds, and mesquite bean pods, and we hunted for only the meat that they needed from the plentiful wildlife, including deer, rabbit, and javelina. They continue to live this proud heritage today as 21st century Tohono O’odham.

The Hohokam were the only culture in North America to rely on irrigation canals to supply water to their crops. In the arid desert environment of the Salt and Gila River Valleys, the homeland of the Hohokam, there was not enough rainfall to grow crops. To meet their needs, the Hohokam engineered the largest and most sophisticated irrigation system in the Americas.

The canals were perfectly laid out on the landscape to achieve a downhill drop (or gradient) of 1 to 2 feet per mile. Many of the canals were massive in size. The Arizona Museum of Natural History discovered a prehistoric canal in the Phoenix Valley that measured 15 feet deep and 45 feet wide. As a result of irrigating up to 110,000 acres by AD 1300, the Hohokam irrigation systems supported the largest population in the prehistoric Southwest, and until I came to visit Arizona I had never heard of them before. My ignorance was profound.

The Hohokam traded goods widely across the American Southwest and even into Mesoamerica (what is now called Mexico).  The Hohokam produced cotton and woven goods that were highly desired by other Indigenous nation Hohokam cotton and woven goods from which they made things like blankets could be traded for very good prices

There continues to be a significant and thriving O’odham population living in the region. The members of the Salt and Gila River communities celebrate their heritage as descendants of the ancient Hohokam.


When we are in the San Tan Valley we often go to San Tan Mountain Regional Park for hikes and outings.  Although not in Maricopa County it is administered by them as part of that marvellous County Park system, the finest in the United States, they claim.  It is beautiful country and it is on the edge of current territory of the O’odham nation and inside the historic territory of the Hohokam Nation. All who go there should respect that.

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