'Time-honored' O’odham harvesting knowledge altered by climate change
Baidaj harvesting is a time of celebration and marks the O’odham New Year right before monsoon downpours sweep through the Southwest with the smell of desert rain. The harvest is a cultural pillar to the O’odham people in the Sonoran Desert, however they are growing increasingly concerned about earlier blooms of the saguaro cactus flower and earlier ripening of baidaj, the saguaro fruit.
In the summer heat, the saguaro cactus fruit ripens, turning bright red before it bursts open with its juicy pulp and black seeds on full display. Traditionally, the O’odham celebrate the new year by baidaj harvesting in late June, a vital part of their culture. Families contribute a portion of their harvest to the community’s rain ceremonies – known as Jujkida. It’s a time to reflect, pray and to celebrate the renewal of life.
Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham have ancestral knowledge of the desert that’s been passed down generations. It helps them maintain a growing body of observations and empirical evidence that span millennia. In more recent years, O’odham throughout the desert are noting the saguaro cactus fruit is ripening earlier and more sporadically.
“One of the benefits of knowing the land intimately and continuing these practices of harvest, not just of baidaj but different types of food throughout the year, we're able to observe those differences with our own eyes,” said Amy Juan, who is a Tohono O’odham Nation citizen and a manager at the San Xavier Co-op Farm.
Baidaj harvesting was interrupted 60 years ago with the establishment of the Saguaro National Park but now the effects of climate change are mounting concerns.
Baidaj harvesting in the Southwest
O’odham teachings have long maintained that the ha:sañ – the saguaros – are their sacred relatives and that the first saguaro started as a human. They see the baidaj as a gift from their relatives and harvesting the fruit is a celebration. The practice is an important part of fulfilling the O’odham himdag – which is a way of being, a holistic life path that values living in balance and mental, physical and spiritual health.
When the fruit ripens red, it’s ready to eat but they don’t harvest it right away. “We wait about two to three weeks in to let wildlife and birds eat first. They wait all year for the fruit to ripen, we want to make sure they eat first,” Juan said.
The last week of June is typically the week families start to go out to harvest, she says. “It’s usually after the summer solstice when everybody kicks into gear and starts doing their harvesting. Schools and camps are harvesting. Families are planning on going out on the Fourth of July weekend,” Juan said. “Instead of celebrating a colonial holiday we are celebrating harvesting and it all goes back to the rain ceremonies.”
Before they begin they sing the baidaj harvesting song. “We have songs that connect us to everything that we do, the mountains around us, our foods, the different times of the year for different harvests and ceremonies and all of those good things,” Juan said. The harvesting song is about how red the fruit is when it ripens on top of the ha:sañ (pronounced, ha-shan). “It's enticing you, it's calling you out to the desert and if you have ever gone baidaj harvesting, you know exactly what that feeling is, you start off in one place and you can wander and wander because you're enticed by the fruit as you're going deeper and deeper into your harvesting,” Juan said.
Baidaj harvesting is an essential part of the Jujkida – the O’odham rain dance ceremonies – between late July and early August. Baidaj sitol – saguaro fruit syrup – is used to make wine for rain ceremonies. But before that they make a kui:pud - a picking stick - out of the ribs of dead saguaros. The act of harvesting in itself is considered a ceremony, pulling down the fruit from a 40 foot tall saguaro is like pulling down the rain from the clouds, Juan explained.
The dry flower can be snapped off from the fruit and used as a knife to cut open the pod. A piece of the fruit picked from the first harvest is put over the heart and prayed over. It’s a regenerative time, a time to be reflective and to determine where you want to be, Juan said. The pod is supposed to be left at the base of the saguaro it came from, on the ground with the red side facing up to entice the clouds to bring down the rain. Families stay at camps in the desert for days or even weeks to harvest as much fruit as they can.
However, the Tohono O’odham faced issues in the Tucson area in 1961 when the Saguaro National Park was established. According to the National Park Service, staff had no idea baidaj camps existed or that Tohono O’odham came to the area to pick Saguaro fruit. In 1962, they “allowed” O’odham to pick fruit but wanted to end the activity. Since then, NPS says officials have worked with the tribe to continue this traditional practice but Juan says they still run into issues.
“Some families have had run-ins at the park. They’ve been told they can’t harvest or they’re harvesting too much, there’s those kinds of conversations. But we’ve fought and have stood up for ourselves and helped others when they brought up those concerns,” Juan said. She added that the park uses O’odham culture and traditions to promote tourism and that O’odham have a right to ancestral gathering and hunting grounds.
“In the park’s eyes, it’s harmful to the land, harmful to the ha:sañ. We don’t see it that way. It’s a relationship,” Juan said. “If we’re not out there, they’re not going to feel wanted or needed, we’re not going to be out there celebrating their harvest, celebrating their fruit.” Juan says O’odham science is in observation and in being present consistently. Baidaj harvesting is a reciprocal relationship with the environment and she plans on reestablishing her family’s presence in the park. She believes it’s important to remind national parks that Indigenous people are just “as much of a land conservation effort as they are.”
Alarming trends disrupt ‘time honored dates’
The Akimel O’odham are the river people. They have historically resided along the Gila River and Salt River, in what’s now known as the greater Phoenix area. The Akimel O’odham live in the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and the Ak-Chin Indian Community.
The Tohono O’odham are the desert people and live in villages throughout the Tohono O’odham Nation, which stretches across southern Arizona bordering Tucson. The sister tribes all have baidaj harvesting in common but the desert and river people have always had slight differences in their harvests because they live in slightly different climates.
Tucson’s elevation is 2,643 feet above sea level and Phoenix has an elevation that’s 1,086 feet above sea level. That difference in elevation makes the average high temperature in Phoenix slightly higher than Tucson. Phoenix has more sunny days and gets less rainfall than Tucson each year – with Tucson averaging over 12 inches of precipitation a year and Phoenix averaging just over 9 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
In both Tucson and Phoenix it’s typical for the saguaro flowers to bloom toward the end of May. Shortly after the flower is pollinated, the fruit ripens. In Phoenix, baidaj is typically ready to harvest at the end of June, says Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community tribal citizen Jacob Butler, a plant expert. But this year the flowers in Phoenix bloomed an entire month earlier. He said many flowers have been blooming earlier in May in recent years, how it’s been more like the beginning of the month than the end and called it “surprising” that they bloomed a whole month earlier in April.
He says the weather varied so much from week to week and believes that’s why some fruits ripened earlier. Throughout May temperatures fluctuated in Phoenix, with each week of the month experiencing a roughly 10 degree difference in temperature from the start to the end of the week. Butler, who is Salt River’s community garden coordinator, says this past season there were some ripe fruits around the traditional time they harvest but noted ripening was infrequent and started early. “It is a scary thing,” he said. “You can look for some benefits or supplement things but it’s a change in traditional ways, time honored dates.”
Overall, Butler says the fruit was not as plentiful as it has been in the past. Some fruits ripened at the end of June, the time the fruit “should be” ripe in Phoenix, he says, but not as many. He believes the earlier and more sporadic blooms meant the fruits were virtually “all gone” by June 21. “The hot and cold days were drastic and fruit dropped soon,” he said. A lot of fruit did not get ripe this year and for those that did, he says, it was “weird” how soon some ripened.
In southern Arizona, the west and north ends of the Tohono O’odham Nation are lower and dryer and see ripening before the east end of the nation, about two to three weeks earlier than the east, Juan says. “And those are the things we’ve learned by observing, getting around, talking to people, our own scientific observations,” Juan said.
O’odham families traditionally start their harvesting after the summer solstice, Juan says, because June is Ha:sañ Ba:k Masad – the Saguaro Ripening Moon. They harvest as much as they can before heavy downpours hit in mid-July, which is the Ge’e Jukiabig Masad – Big Rains Moon. That’s because when it rains on ripened fruit that’s open, it spoils and begins to ferment while it’s still on the cactus.
There were some fruits available for harvesting after the solstice this year but overall it was an early harvest in Tucson too, with families harvesting as early as the end of May and early part of June. “I was anticipating to harvest during the Fourth of July weekend, which is also a time that a lot of families harvest,” Juan said. “But we actually got a really big storm the Friday before that Monday and that actually washed out what was left.”
Juan says even the slightest differences in elevation made a noticeable difference in fruit ripening. While driving through the Saguaro National Park on Father’s Day she noticed the baidaj in the hills weren’t as ripe as the baidaj on the flat lands, which were already red and opening. “I think just those slight differences in temperature and elevation also make a big difference and play into what we’re seeing in Gila River and Salt River,” she said. This year in Tucson there wasn't as much fruit, or as many blossoms, as there were the past two years, Juan said.
2020 was the driest year on record in Arizona, according to the National Weather Service. Juan believes that the fruit was plentiful in 2020, despite the exceedingly dry climate, because the saguaros were pressuring themselves to produce more under stressful conditions. “We feel like because of the stress of the heat and the lack of water that they also stressed themselves out to produce twice as much as they usually would. So, we saw a lot of blooms earlier. We saw a lot of blooms in strange places,” Juan said. “And now that we got a little bit more rain they didn't push themselves to produce as much.”
Both Butler and Juan noted the strange locations of buds. Typically, the green buds grow, in the spring, on the top of the saguaro and its arms. But this year, Juan said, “they were on the sides. So it seemed very unusual and something that we hadn't seen before, that was also the case last year.” It’s also been documented by the Saguaro National Park staff, who have also observed “flowers are not evenly distributed over the crown.”
Recent research by park staff shows that buds are first appearing on the eastern side of saguaro crowns and are consistently more abundant on the northern part of the crown than the eastern part. They theorized that it may have to do with early buds taking advantage of the morning sun on the east side and believe buds later in the season may be located to avoid the sun as the temperature climbs. Temperatures in the park have increased by 2 degrees fahrenheit over the past century and many people are wondering whether the increasing temperatures will cause flowers to bloom earlier and become out of sync with pollinators, according to the national park.
Both Juan and Butler believe many of these new observations stem from an increase in record breaking heat and more hot days due to climate change. Butler says the effects are most prominent in Phoenix because of increasing temperatures and water scarcity.
According to the National Weather Service, for the period on record between 1896 and 2020 the average first 110 degree day in Phoenix is June 18. But the first 110 degree day has been coming earlier in recent years. For the period on record between 1991 and 2020, the average first 110 degree day is June 11. But this year the first 110 degree day was on June 8. Last year the first 110 degree day was on June 12. And in 2020, it was 112 degrees on May 29 – tying a high record set in 1910.
Butler says they’re on a “heat island” in Phoenix. “We are surrounded,” Butler said about the Phoenix area's sprawling concrete developments, which show no signs of slowing encroachment. According to Census data, Maricopa County – where Phoenix is located – is the fastest growing county in the U.S. even though 40 million people in the Colorado River Basin currently face decreased watershed runoff and water management policies that allow systemic overuse, making long-term sustainability uncertain and elusive.
Finding balance, a ‘continuous fight’
Despite the circumstances some O’odham citizens, like Juan and Butler, try to find the silver lining. They say since fruit ripened early it allowed ample time for it to get sweeter while it was drying out and caramelizing in the sun. The dry saguaro fruit is perfect for jams, Juan says. It can be eaten like candy because of the added natural sweetness.
Butler says there are “some benefits to an extended season” because they can grow crops for a longer amount of time. But there are still lingering concerns about that, like not being able to transition to the next season properly. During the time when farmers are supposed to get ready for the next season, plants may still be in the field, Butler explained. Farmers are facing a lot of adjustments, planting late or in some cases even planting too soon.
“We're paying attention to our environment and really paying attention to what it looked like,” Juan said. She imagines what it was like when she was younger and compares the differences to what she’s seeing now. “It's something to continuously pay attention to and that’s what everyone is learning to do right now, learning to adapt to what we’re seeing out there on the land.”
Juan encourages the younger generation to learn more about O’odham culture and practice traditions. She says they have to continue to protect the knowledge. “We have seen things like prickly pear become things like margaritas and wine and all those different things that co-opt our food which we pray for and we use for ceremonies,” she said. They’ve always been protective over baidaj for good reason. “We want to maintain the integrity of the food and connection that we have,” she said.
“It’s a continuous fight,” Juan said. Because the effects of climate change aren’t going to stop at state lines or county lines, she wants officials to be considerate of their neighbors on tribal nations. “I think that small teaching is a big teaching for them. Don’t forget about us, we’re here, you have two tribes that are here and are going to be affected, especially around water,” Juan said. The city of Tucson has been working on a climate action plan. It’s a 10 year plan which she insisted tribes be included in because no outreach had been done prior to her advocacy.
“Indigenous all over the world have been exploited by not having access to those things that keep us healthy,” Juan said. Indigenous people are being murdered or displaced for ancestral territory and water. “It is worrisome,” she said. “No matter what we face and see in the future, it will be scary but don’t let fear into your heart. Don’t let it take over because then other things can come in and take over.” Young people have the tools they need to keep them strong, Juan says spiritual health, mental health, and physical health are all tied to the land.
She says it’s important not to lose hope. “We have duties and responsibilities. Generational roles. It’s my job, my responsibility, to be in this line of work,” she said. Juan is committed to bringing her family's camp back to the Saguaro National Park because O’odham having a consistent presence is a crucial part of reestablishing balance in the arid southwest.
This report was first published by Indian Country Today.