Gabriela Maya Bernadett
This image, titled "Baboquivari's Concept", was on display at the "Vail Meet Yourself" event on April 30 in Vail, Arizona. Community members from Vail and the Tohono O'odham Nation gathered to discuss land, sites, and identity.

Cultural Exchange in Arizona Teaches Tohono O’odham History to White Neighbors

Gabriela Maya Bernadett

For those who live in southern Arizona, it is easy to forget that at one point all of the land in the area belonged to the Tohono O’odham Nation. The residents of Vail, Arizona, however, are trying to change this narrative through a collaborative project called “Together We Will Tell Our Story.”

The Vail Preservation Society, which represents the predominantly white town of about 10,000 residents, partnered with the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum to create public art and engage in a cultural exchange between the youth of the two communities.

Students from Esmond Station K8 and Cienega High School, located in Vail, collaborated with students from Baboquivari Middle/High School in Topowa, located in the Baboquivari District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has 11 districts. Over six-month span, students from the schools visited various attractions throughout southern Arizona such as Colossal Cave, Cienega Creek, and Baboquivari Cave, and created two murals, one which will be displayed in Vail and the other in Topowa.

The students had the chance to showcase their artwork and talk about their experiences at the 7th annual “Vail Meet Yourself,” held this year on April 30, that celebrated the land, history, and culture of the town. The event opened with a blessing from the Wa:k Youth Council, from the San Xavier District, and followed with a screening of two documentaries; one titled “Ours Is the Land,” which follows the Tohono O’odham Nation’s fight against a proposed mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, and another titled “Voices of Vail-To:wa Kuswo,” which looks at the history of Vail from an O’odham elder’s point of view.

Afterward, there was a panel that included members of both the Vail community and O’odham community who talked about their experiences learning from each other and gaining a deeper knowledge of the Vail area.

Alonzo Miguel, from Sells District, is a junior at Baboquivari High School and was one of the members on the panel. In an interview with ICTMN, he said his art teacher encouraged him to be a part of the project, and he is glad he did it because he learned so much and grew stronger in his O’odham identity.

“Before I wasn’t very cultured,” Miguel said. “When I was younger I was … but after a while that self-worth kinda disappeared, and I kind of got caught up with the modern world. But this [project] … kinda made me realize that there is self-worth, and how much people take pride in that, and that it all relates back to where you come from.”

Another member on the panel, Lexi Pena, who is a freshman at Cienega High School in Vail, said in an interview with ICTMN that her experience taught her that Vail is more than just a horse town, and she learned a lot from interacting with O’odham students about how their history and culture connects to the town of Vail.

“I think they are a really interesting community and they’re really bound together,” Pena said. “I think they’ve really bonded with all of us and we’ve bonded with them and we’ve built a strong connection that will last us throughout our life.” The event culminated in a showing of artwork by the students.

J.J. Lamb, executive director of the Vail Preservation Society and one of the initiators of the project, told ICTMN in an email that “from Vail Preservation Society’s perspective, we want to foster inquiry, respect, honest dialogue, connections between community members and a commitment to discovering and sharing the history and stories related to Vail. We do that by building relationships and working with the people and groups who represent that part of our local history.”

She hopes that this project is just the start.

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