Saguaros Nourish Civilizations

Saguaros also sustained desert-dwelling Indians. The Pima and Papago, now called the Tohono O’odham, relied heavily on the sweet, nutritious fruit of the saguaro. They dry-farmed corn, squash, and beans, channeling both winter and summer rains onto farmed terraces and stream meanders. Fortunately, the saguaro fruit offered a nutritional bounty perfectly timed between their twin annual growing seasons. They called the Big Dipper the Cactus Puller for its resemblance to the long, sticks made of the ribs of saguaros they used to knock the succulent red fruits from the saguaros’ towering tops.

Some Tohono O’odham stories say the saguaro sprang from beads of sweat dropped into the dust from the brow of one of their deities, I’itoi, who also made human beings. Another story says that a boy neglected by his mother slipped into a tarantula spider hole, to sprout again as the first saguaro. They held the saguaro sacred, burying the placentas of their newborns at the base of one of the sacred trees to invoke long life and lining the graves of their loved ones with saguaro ribs.

The songs of desert Indians express their reverence and respect for the saguaro, like this Papago song translated by Ruth Underhill in Singing for Power.

Within itself it rustles as it stands;
Within itself it thunders as it stands;
Within itself it roars as there it stands;
Within it there is much soft rain.

The flowering of the irrepressible saguaro’s white, trumpet-shaped flowers in May and June prompted joyful ceremonies. The huge, delicate, luscious flowers generally remain open only for a single night, drawing eager pollinators. White-winged doves perch on the crown of thorns by day. True deep-desert birds, white-winged doves fly great distances to water holes and remain one of the few birds that can suck in water, rather than swallowing it a mouthful at a time. The bounty of the saguaro helps them survive the summer. At night, the saguaro nectar sustains long-nose bats, whose migration north out of the Tropics is perfectly timed to take advantage of the flowering of a succession of cacti and agave, including the saguaro. Biologists worry that the sharp decline in the great flocks of migratory, long-nosed bats might pose long-term problems for the saguaro.

When the saguaro flowers yield to swollen, lush red fruits, the O’odham scatter across the desert to gather this bounty in the harshest time of the year. Some 600 families would cooperate to gather an estimated 450,000 pounds of saguaro fruit each year. About 25 pounds of fruit could be mashed, strained, and converted into a gallon of thick, reddish-brown syrup that yielded a sweet, mild wine used in ceremonies to invoke blessings and visions and songs. Ruth Underhill, in Singing for Power, recorded one Papago song for drinking saguaro wine.

’Tis at the foot of little gray Mountain
I am sitting and getting drunk.
Beautiful songs I shall unfold.

The little playful women,
The little playful women,
Whence got they dizziness?
Therewith they made my heart drunk.
The little playful women,
When they are dizzy
Surely they will take me.

Much dizziness,
Much dizziness
Within me is swelling
And more and more.
Every which way I am falling.