When we went looking for the Chuichu West Cemetery in Casa Grande, we didn’t quite know what we’d find. We lucked out. As the GPS directed us away from the city and into the desert, we were soon on reservation land. The Tohono O’odham (Papago) are a Piman-speaking American Indian tribe living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. There are four reservations in Arizona with a combined acreage of over 2.8 million. We were on Ak Chin (1912).
The bright silk flowers stood out against the green-spotted browns of the desert, their colours providing a sharp contrast to the simple white crosses. Walking around Chuichu West Cemetery I wondered at the obvious Catholicism but further reading tells me that
Although many Papagos became Catholic in the eighteenth century, having clustered around Spanish presidios and missions to escape the Apache, it was a Catholicism heavily mixed with traditional beliefs.
In addition to statues of Our Lady, the crosses, and the rosary beads, other symbols dotted the graves in Chuichu West Cemetery. The man in a sombrero next to a cactus might well be a hat tip to their Mexican brethren. But it was the Man in a Maze image, the Tohono O’odham emblem, that fascinated me.
The man entering the maze has only one path he can travel – life and all it entails.
The Man in the Maze design symbolizes experiences and choices we make in our journey through life. The center of the life symbol is your goal in life. There is a dream at the center and you reach the dream when you get to the middle of the maze. Upon reaching the center of the maze you have one final opportunity (the last turn of the symbol) to look back at your choices and path, before the Sun God greets you, blesses you and passes you into the next world.
At the entrance of the maze, the figure of the man represents birth. The white path is the journey through life with all its ups and downs. Life lessons are many and include observation, independence, and truth. It’s the symbol of life for the tribe, one I hope has not been lost.
Few of the graves had names or dates that were decipherable. But all had flowers and most had cans of coke and bottles of water. Unopened. The few that had names were difficult to research. I did find an obituary for Hugh James Antone, who was born in Toawa, AZ and served in the Army during WWII. Antone, a labourer by trade, received the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign and Good Conduct medals and the Distinguished Unit Badge. Buried here in Chuichu West Cemetery, he was a member of St Augustine Church.
We had passed St Augustine’s on the way in and stopped there on the way out. Billed as a typical village church, it dates back to 1912. Sadly, like most Catholic churches around the world, it was locked. A peek in the opaque part of the stained glass window in the door showed that the seats faced each other and not the altar. It made for a much more welcoming environment and gave it a friendlier feel. That set me thinking. Perhaps the best sort of religion is a religion that is a blend of many beliefs. I like that the Tohono O’odham are welcomed by the Sun God at the end of their days and love the fact that their church offers a sense of community. I’d very much like to go to mass there one day.