This time of year in Southern Arizona temperatures are in the triple digits and most people are finding ways to stay cool. For Tohono O’odham this is the time of year when they harvest Saguaro fruit and celebrate the beginning of a new year.
Within the Saguaro National Park West there is a Bahidaj Camp where O’odham stay and harvest Saguaro fruit. They sleep outside under a traditional O’odham ramada called a watto with no running water or electricity. The camp dates back to the early 1900s when Juanita Ahil (Tohono O’odham) and her family would travel by horse-drawn wagon to the area to harvest.
In 1961, the Saguaro Nation Park West which was then called Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Monument was established. According to the Saguaro Nation Park website, The Park staff had no idea the Bahidaj Camp existed or that 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.
Tina Vavages-Andrew (Tohono O’odham), the Environmental Education Intern under the Next Generation Ranger Program at the Saguaro National Park, said the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall did not want the Park to stop the O’odham from harvesting the Saguaro fruit. He went ahead and amended the regulations concerning resource protection.
“When the regulations were next amended, Udall’s amendment was left out inadvertently. An opinion provided later by a solicitor indicated that the regulations were worded such that the harvest could continue. Annual permits signed by SNP and the Tohono O’odham Nation have since guided the annual event,” according to the Saguaro Nation Park website.
Thanks to Udall’s efforts, Ahil continued to use the Bahidaj Camp for 75 years until her granddaughter Stella Tucker took over. Tucker still uses the camp every year.
For the last two years, Vavages-Andrew has been working with Tucker.
“When I began working at the Park a year ago, I wanted to help with the Bahidaj Harvest so I asked my boss how can I get involved and he suggested maybe I could talk with Stella Tucker and work on building a relationship with her,” she said.
Vavages-Andrew talked with Tucker and told her she would like to help with organizing groups to come to the camp.
“Stella had been doing the Bahidaj Camp on her own, people come to her and she is used to having groups come in,” Vavages-Andrew said. “I talked with her and asked if I could help with setting up groups and she was fine with it.”
Last year, Vavages-Andrew was only able to get one group to participate which was due to getting a late start on sending out invitations. However, this year she has every weekend in June booked.
The first group picked Saguaro fruit on Saturday, June 18. The 20 participants and their families were from the Tohono O’odham Student Association at the University of Arizona (TOSA) and Arizona State Museum.
For many it was their first time picking Saguaro fruit while for others it was their first time to the Bahidaj Camp. For Lisa Palacios-Rivas (Tohono O’odham), she grew up picking Saguaro Fruit but this was her and her son Marcel’s first time to the Bahidaj Camp.
“It was great,” she said. “There were many laughs had with many great people. It was great picking and processing with O’odham from all over the Nation. Stella and Tina were both very open and made everyone feel welcome.”
Everyone partnered up, grabbed a picking stick which is called a kuipad in O’odham, as well as bucket then headed out into the Park. The group picked for over an hour then gathered under Tucker’s watto to begin cleaning the Saguaro fruit. Tucker then shared the importance of the harvest as well as how the Saguaro fruit is made into syrup and jam. The event concluded with everyone trying the Saguaro fruit syrup.
Erika Heacock, a museum specialist at the Arizona State Museum, enjoyed every minute of the event and couldn’t get over how tasty the Saguaro fruit was.
“I think we would have had a little more in our bucket if we stopped eating the fruit after knocking it down,” she said. “I have tasted Prickly Pear fruit before so it’s interesting to see the variety the desert gives you, especially when people think it is such a barren place to live which is farthest from the truth.”
As long as Vavages-Andrew is working at the Saguaro National Park she is going to make it a priority to help Tucker with the Bahidaj Camp every year.