The Land Between Here and There: Picacho Peak and the Story of the West

The Land Between Here and There: Picacho Peak and the Story of the West

[photo credit: David Martínez]

For anyone driving along the I-10 Freeway, Picacho Peak rises out of the horizon like the dorsal fin of a great sea creature amidst the sea of desert that expands between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Once a part of the Gila River Pima and Tohono O’odham homelands, today it is under the care of the Arizona State Park System. As a tourist destination it draws thousands every year because of the magnificent but short-lived desert wild flowers that blossom along its slopes. Also, hundreds camp around the foot of the mountain for an annual reenactment of one of the most insignificant Civil War battles of the entire Union-Confederate conflict, otherwise known by the more honorable name of the “Battle of Picacho Pass.” At the time, in 1862, Picacho Peak was largely under control of the Indigenous communities, named above, that had inhabited the area for countless generations. They were witness to the skirmish that took place between the blue and the gray soldiers, which they preserved in their oral history. According to Frank Russell, a Harvard-trained ethnographer, who did fieldwork among the Gila River Pima at the turn of the twentieth century, a tribal historian recorded the event on a “history or calendar stick,” which is a long saguaro cactus stick into which symbols are carved, enabling an oral historian to remember the sequence of events relevant to the community in which the oos:hikbina is kept. At one time there were as many history sticks as there were Pima villages. As for the one that recorded the Battle at Picacho Pass, it stated simply: “The soldiers from the west fought the soldiers from the east and were defeated.” Obviously, this battle did not mean much to the Indigenous people. It was not their fight. It was not their war. In the spirit then of those Pima who witnessed the soldiers from east and west fight each other, I too remained aloof from the modern day reenactment that was underway the weekend I visited Picacho Peak. Instead, I was there to respect the power and beauty of this place, which in my mind is still integral to an ancient homeland. The photo posted here is my way of paying homage to this land. Indeed, if you click through to the attached photo set, you will get to see what I saw on that beautifully cloudy day. You may also get to see my wife Sharon in a handful of images.


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