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Who are the Pima Indians?

By Summer Banks
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Pima Indians are a group of Native Americans living in Arizona and parts of Mexico. Before 1694, they referred to themselves as Otama. The name Pima is thought to have derived from communication problems between Europeans and members of the Otama tribe. The term pi ‘ani mac or pi mac means, “I don’t know”, which is said to be what the Indians replied repeatedly to Europeans, while trying to communicate.

Early history described eight tribes located along the Gila River. Often referred to as the O’Odham, these groups lived on its banks and considered its waters holy. Tribal traditions, activities, and celebrations were centered on river life. The O’Odham also settled on banks of the Salt River, Yaqui River, and Sonora River.

Between 1694 and 1853, the Pima Indians lived in Mexico. Contact with Europeans there introduced the people to wheat, livestock, and disease. In 1853, the Pima moved into the United States, and the American Era began. This was started as a result of the Gadsden Purchase. Southern Arizona, once part of Mexico, was absorbed by the United States by terms of this agreement.

By 1898, drought had nearly phased out farming as a primary form of economic support for the Pima Indians. Many tribal people then began woodcutting to make money. The San Carlos Project of 1924 attempted to revitalize Pima farming efforts by building a dam and storage system on the Gila River. Water was used to irrigate 50,000 acres of Pima Indian land, but the effort proved fruitless for a variety of reasons.

From 1924 and 1945, cultural pressure changed the face of Pima Indian life. Economic development and sovereignty between tribe members dwindled. After World War II ended, Pima people reorganized and established their own tribal government.

As a self-governing tribe, Pima Indians have re-established stronger cultural roots and economic support for members. The tribe owns and operates casinos, telecommunications companies, and farms. Agricultural prowess was regained after a water delivery system was built to move water throughout the reservation. Two major communities of Pima Indians are located on the Gila and Salt Rivers.

The Gila River Indian Community controls 583.749 sq mi (1,511.902 km2), and housed more than 11,000 people as of 2000. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community inlcudes 53,600 acres (217 km2) and was home to more than 6,000 people in that same year. About 19,000 acres (77 km2) in those areas are preserved lands. Elected presidents or governors, along with a tribal council, manage both tribes. The Gila River tribe also elects a lieutenant governor to serve in this capacity.

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Discussion Comments
By StormyKnight — On Nov 05, 2010

Great article!

By CarrotIsland — On Nov 05, 2010

The ancestors of the Pima Indians were among the first people to set foot in the Americas over 30,000 years ago. They have lived near the Gila River for at 2000 years.

The Pima Indians have contributed to the medical community significantly. For the past 30 years, they have participated in research to help people avoid diabetes, have healthier hearts, healthier kidneys, and healthier eyes. Their volunteer work has been greatly beneficial in these studies.

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