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Gossip about the Pimas

A young Pima man in 1894.

Inscribed “Pima Buck,” this meticulously posed photograph of a young Pima man was taken in 1894, probably in a Tucson studio. While inherently demeaning, the photo was indicative of the “noble savage” motif then popular among Easterners and others.

In 1732, Jesuit padre Phelipe Segesser arrived in present-day Arizona on a mission of conversion. Although his proselytizing was met with mixed results, he was able to take the opportunity to record his observations about the Pimas. He was impressed by their amiability but appalled by their drinking habits and practice of polygamy. He was not amused when a Pima man asked him, “Don’t you see that the rooster has more than one hen, a stallion more than one mare? And you say that we shouldn’t have more than one wife!”

Nocturnal dancing and an alleged lack of hygiene concerned Segesser. “Cleanliness is not found among them, rather the opposite. When a cow is slaughtered, they besmear themselves completely with its blood. Others paint themselves with yellow, red or white paint so that they resemble specters [rather] than human beings. They paint themselves in this way especially when they dance.” The padre insisted that dancing made the Pimas lazy.

Most appalling to Segesser, however, was a war dance performed by women after the men returned from campaigns against Apaches. “With the tokens of victory — hair, hands, and feet of the dead enemies — hoisted on poles, the Pima women danced jubilantly…”

In 1848, Col. William H. Emory, a topographical engineer, was sent to present-day Arizona to study its topography, plant and animal life, and native people. He considered much of the country worthless but, unlike the padre, found much to admire about the Pimas.

“To us it is a rare sight to be thrown in the midst of a large nation of what is termed wild Indians, surpassing many of the Christian nations in agriculture, little behind them in useful arts and immeasurably before them in honesty and virtue.” Emory did not, however, find the Pimas attractive, noting their scantily dressed women were “ugly and coarse-looking.”

The same year, Capt. Philip St. George Crooke marched his Mormon Battalion through the Pima villages on the Gila River. He was also impressed by the Pimas. He noted in his diary that “the Pimos [sic] are fine-looking, seem well fed, ride good horses, and are variously clothed, though many have only the center [breech] cloth; the men and women have extraordinary luxuriance and length of hair. With clean white blankets and streaming hair, they present… quite a fine figure.”

Between 1864 and 1865, J. Ross Browne wrote a series of articles for Harper’s Monthly which later appeared in book form. Browne was by no means a historian and many of his “facts” were convoluted, nonetheless his eyewitness material is no less creditable than most. While he found little to appreciate about the Apaches, he displayed a certain affinity for the Pimas.

Writing about what he called a “grand pow-wow” near Sacaton, Browne recorded that Pimas “came pouring in. They came from the river-bottom, from the villages, from the weeds, from the grass, and possibly from holes in the ground,” which by noon created a “busy scene of savage enjoyments.”

The Pima women also impressed Browne as “plump and good-natured; their pretty eyes fringed around with black paint; their teeth shining in pearly whiteness; their bosoms bare; their forms of almost Grecian symmetry and delicacy.” The writer found it “gratifying at all events to know that the Pimos [sic] were rapidly becoming a civilized people.”

With the exception of ethnographic studies inaccessible to the general reading public, objectivity in literature about Native Americans was rarely found until the latter half of the 20th century. It is not surprising, then, that some superficial stereotypes linger today.

— W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy of the author.

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