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What is the Pima Tribe?

By Brenda Scott
Updated: May 17, 2024

Around 300 BC, an ancient Pueblo people known as the Huhugan migrated to the Salt River in southwestern Arizona and built adobe homes and cities. They were farmers who constructed mud dams and miles of extensive irrigation canals which are still in use. The Huhugan remained in that area until the thirteenth or fourteenth century, when they suddenly disappeared. The Pima Tribe is a Native American Indian nation located in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico which is believed to have descended from the Huhugan. The language spoken by the Pima is an Aztec dialect and is still taught on the reservations.

Known for their agreeable nature, the Pima Tribe was a stationary people living in huts constructed of poles covered with mud and brush. They maintaining miles of irrigation canals along the Salt and Gila Rivers and planted corn, squash, beans and cotton. They hunted and traded and were generally at peace with their neighbors with the exception of the Apache, their long-standing rival. The women were known for their beautiful woven baskets, and the men were famous for their skill with a bow and arrows.

The first record of European contact with the Pima was from Father Kino in 1694. The Indians graciously welcomed the priest, even taking him to see the remains of the ancient dwellings of their forefathers. Father Kino settled with the Pima sharing Christianity and introducing more seed crops, most importantly wheat. Many members of the tribe willingly embraced the new religion, and Father Kino became an important member of the community.

While the Pima Tribe preferred to remain at peace, they were fierce warriors if attacked. Unlike other tribes in the region, however, the Pima did not take scalps. They believed that their enemies, especially the Apache, were demonically possessed. As a result, they refused to even touch their enemies once they were dead.

As white settlers began to move across the country toward California, the Pima Tribe welcomed them into their homes, sharing hospitality and selling supplies. Some Pima men served in the United States Cavalry as scouts and members of the tribe have continued to serve in the different branches of the US military. Ira Hayes, a Pima who joined the U.S. Marines, was one of the men photographed raising the flag in the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

In the late eighteenth century, another tribe called the Maricopa was driven into the Salt River area. The Maricopa approached the Pima with a request to be allowed to settle nearby. The Pima Tribe agreed on the condition that the Maricopa would become allies against the Apache. This friendship has lasted through the years, and the Pima and Maricopa still live together with the Papago Indians on the Gila River, Salt River and Ak-Chin reservations in Arizona.

After centuries of farming, the Pima Tribe was forced to abandon their agricultural lifestyle in the nineteenth century for a lack of water. Non-natives living upstream illegally created dams and rerouted the water from the Salt and Gila Rivers, leaving the reservation too dry to sustain vegetation. The poverty and starvation that followed the loss of their agricultural industry left the tribe dependent upon the starchy, sugar-laden government provisions. This has created a health crisis; the Pima Tribe in Arizona has the highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. After a century of battling in the courts, some of the water was released back into the rivers in 2005, and is now flowing through the reservations.

While Pima Indians are US citizens, the Pima Tribe is also recognized as a sovereign nation. They are governed by an elected president and tribal council. Their primary sources of income are from crafts, industrial projects, casinos and mineral leases. Since the return of water to the reservation, the tribe is attempting to revive agriculture as an industry.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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