NOT JUST A CACTUS
Told by Marie FallingStar Felix
My people, the Tohono O'odham, have lived in the Sonoran desert for over a thousand years. We mark our new year when we harvest the fruit from the towering saguaro cactus. The main stem or trunk of these huge plants can grow to fifty feet or more, and they often grow long arms as they get older. Saguaro can live to be one hundred and fifty or even over two hundred years old, and do not flower and bear fruit until they are about sixty years old. In April or early May their tops and the ends of their arms are crowned with beautiful white flowers. In late June or early July, the fruit, encased in a flower-like pod, has grown to about the size of a hen's egg, and ripened to a bright red.
Led by our grandmothers, we O'odham women and girls go into the desert to harvest the saguaro fruit. We carry long, pole-like tools that we have made to pick the fruit from high atop the saguaro. To make the tools, we take two or three saguaro ribs, which are long sticks left after an old saguaro decays, and tie them together. We also bring our hand woven baskets to fill with the fruit. We scoop the fruit into our baskets, taking care to leave the empty pods face up on the ground so that the spirits will send rain.
When we bring the fruit home, we prepare it over an open fire of mesquite wood. First we boil the fruit in water, then we strain it and cook it some more until it is a thick syrup. We seal the red, sweet syrup in ollas, which are large jars we have made of the red desert clay. Then we place the ollas in our village roundhouse, which we also know as the rainhouse, for a few days. While the ollas are in the rainhouse, our community medicine man or woman performs secret prayers, allowing the winemaker to transform the juice into wine.
When it is ready, the village gathers outside the rainhouse for the rainmaking ceremony. Ritual wine is presented to the elders, then to all of us who stand encircling them. Our songs asking for the blessing of rain for the desert earth bring in the new rains.