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Pima Indians

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An important tribe of Southern Arizona, centering along the middle Gila and its affluent, the Salt River. Linguistically they belong to the Piman branch of the widely extended Shoshonean stock, and their language, with dialectic variation, is the same as that spoken also by the Pápago and extinct Sobaipuri of southern Arizona, and by the Navome of Sonora, Mexico. In Spanish times the tribes of the Arizona group were known collectively as Pimas Altos (Upper Pima), while those of Senora were distinguished as Pimas Bajos (Lower Pima), the whole territory being known as the Pimería. The tribal name Pima is a corruption of their own word for "no", mistaken by the early missionaries for a proper name. They call themselves simply 'Aàtam, "people", or sometimes for distinction 'Aàtam-akimûlt, "river people". Notwithstanding their importance as a tribe, the Pima have not been prominent in history, owing to their remoteness from military and missionary activity during the Spanish period, and to their almost unbroken peaceable attitude towards the whites. It was at one time claimed that they were the authors of the ruined pueblos in their country, notably the celebrated Casa Grande, but later investigation confirms the statement recorded by Father Garcés as early as 1780 that they were built by a previous people connected with the Hopi.

The real history of the Pima may be said to begin with the German Jesuit missionary explorer, Father Eusebio Keno (Kühn), who in 1687 established a missionary headquarters at Dolores, near the present Cucurpe, northern Senora, Mexico, from which point until his death in 1711 he covered the whole Pimería in his missionary labours. In 1694, led by Indian reports of massive ruins in the far north, he penetrated along along the Gila, and said Mass in the Casa Grande. In 1697 he accompanied a military exploration of the Pima country, under Lieutenant Bernal, and Captain Mange, baptizing nearly a hundred Indians. In 1701 he made the earliest map of the Gila region. He found the Pima and their cousins the Pápago most anxious for teachers. "They were, above all, desirous of being formed into regular mission communities, with resident padres of their own; and at many rancherías they built rude but neatly cared-for churches, planted fields, and tended herds of livestock in patient waiting for the missionaries, who, in most cases, never came" (Bancroft). From 1736 to 1750 Fathers Keller and Sedelmair several times visited the Pima, but no missions were established in their country, although a number of the tribe attached themselves to the Pápago missions. The revolt of the southern tribes in 1750 caused a suspension of the work, but the missions were resumed some years later and continued under increasing difficulties until the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, at which time the whole number of neophytes in Arizona, chiefly Pápago, was about 1200. In the next year the Arizona missions were turned over to Franciscans of the College of Querétaro, who continued the work with some success in spite of constant inroads of the Apache. Although details are wanting, it is probable that the number of neophytes increased. The most noted of these latter workers was Father Francisco Garcés, in charge of the Pápago at San Xavier del Bac (1768-76). In 1828, by decree of the revolutionary government of Mexico, all the missions were confiscated, the Spanish priests expelled, and all Christianizing effort came to an end.

About 1840 the Pima were strengthened by the Maricopa from the lower Gila, who moved up to escape the attacks of the Yuma, the common enemy of both. Both tribes continue to live in close alliance, although of entirely different language and origin. Their relations with the United States Government began in 1846, when General Kearney's expedition entered their territory, and met with a friendly reception. Other expeditions stopped at their villages within the next few years, all meeting with kind treatment. With the influx of the California gold hunters about 1850, there set in a long period of demoralization, with frequent outrages by the whites which several times almost provoked an outbreak. In 1850 and 1857 the hostile Yuma were defeated. The Apache raids were constant and destructive until the final subjugation of that tribe by the Government. In all the Apache campaigns since 1864 the Pima have served as willing and efficient scouts. In 1857 a non-resident agent was appointed, and in 1859 a reservation was surveyed for the two tribes, and $10,000 in goods distributed among them as a recognition of past services. In 1870 the agency was established at Sacaton on the reservation, since which time they have been regularly under government supervision. The important problem of irrigation, upon which the future prosperity of the tribes depends, is now in process of satisfactory solution by the Government. As a body the Indians are now civilized, industrious as farmers and labourers, and largely Christian, divided between Presbyterian and Catholic. Presbyterian work was begun in 1870. The Catholics re-entered the field shortly afterwards, and have now a flourishing mission school, St. John the Baptist, at Gila Crossing, built in 1899, in charge of Franciscan Fathers, with several small chapels, and total Catholic population of 600 in the two tribes, including fifty Maricopa. The 5000 or more Pápago attached to the same agency have been practically all Catholic from the Jesuit period.

In their primitive condition the Pima were agricultural and sedentary, living in villages of lightly-built dome-shaped houses, occupied usually by a single family each, and cultivating by the help of irrigation large crops of corn, beans, pumpkins and native cotton, from which the women spun the simple clothing, consisting of a breech-cloth and head-band for the man, and a short skirt for the women, with sandals or moccasin for special occasion and a buckskin shirt in extreme cold weather. They also prepared clothing fabrics from the inner bark of the willow. The heavier labour of cultivation was assumed by the men. Besides their cultivated foods, they made use of the fruits of the saguaro cactus, from which they prepared the intoxicating tizwin, and mesquite bean, besides the ordinary game of the country. They painted and tattooed their faces and wore their hair at full length. Their women were not good potters, but they excelled as basket makers. Their arms were the bow, the club, and the shield, fighting always on foot. Their allies were the Pápago and Maricopa, their enemies the Apache and Yuma. The killing of an enemy was followed by an elaborate purification ceremony, closing with a victory dance. There was a head tribunal chief, with subordinate village chiefs. Polygamy was allowed, but not frequent. Descent was in the male line. Unlike Indians generally, they had large families and welcomed twins. And unlike their neighbours, they buried in the ground instead of cremating their dead. Deformed infants were killed at birth, as were at later times the infants born of white or Mexican fathers. They had, and still retain, many songs of ceremony, war, hunting, gaming, love, medicine, and of childhood.

According to their elaborate genesis myth, the earth was formed by "Earth Doctor", who himself evolved from a dense cloud of darkness. He made the plants and animals, and a race of never-dying humans, who by their increase so crowded the earth that he destroyed his whole creation and made a new world with a new race subject to thinning out by death. Another hero god is "Elder Brother", and prominent place is assigned to Sun, Moon, Night, and Coyote. The myth also includes a deluge story. Although the linguistic relations of the Oima are well known, all that is recorded in the language is comprised chiefly in a few vocabularies, none exceeding two hundred words, several of which in manuscript are in the keeping of the Bureau of American Ethnology (See KINO; PÁPAGO INDIANS.)


BANCROFT, Hist. Arizona and New Mexico (San Francisco, 1889); Idem, Hist. Mexican States and Texas (2 vols., San Francisco, 1886); BARTLETT, Personal Narrative XX of Boundary Commission (2 vols., New York, 1854); BROWN, Adventures in the Apache Country (New York, 1869); Catholic Indian Missions, Bureau of, annual reports of Director of (Washington); Diary and Itinerary of Francisco Garcés, ed. CONES (2 vols., New York, 1900); Documentos para Historia de México (20 vols., Mexico, 1853-57); includes BERNAL, Relación de la Pimería, MANGE, Hist. Pimería, etc; EMERY, Notes of a Military Reconnaissance (Washington, 1848); RUSSELL, The Pima Indians in Twenty-sixth Rept. Bur. Am. Ethnology (Washington, 1908); WHIPPLE, Rept. of Expedition from San Diego to the Colorado (one of official Pacific Railroad Repts., Ex. Doc. 19, 31st Cong., 2nd sess., Washington, 1891).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1911). Pima Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Pima Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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