Ha:san Bak

Saturday, July 09, 2011
The title of this entry is the O'odham language phrase for "the saguaro is ready". It's what the native peoples of Southwestern Arizona call the Saguaro Harvest Festival. Sometime in May, the saguaro cactus is crowned with beautiful white blooms. These give way to green fruits that ripen around the end of June or early July. This coincides with the start of our annual monsoon season and historically the harvesting of the fruit has been part of a ceremony to "bring down the rain".

There are several places that allow you to experience something of the saguaro harvest and I've wanted to try doing this ever since I moved to Tucson. This year I got my chance. I signed up to take part in Ha:san Bak at La Posta Quemada Ranch on the grounds of Colossal Cave Park. It started early. We were supposed to arrive between 5:30 and 6:00 A.M. to check in. Even in southern Arizona, it was still dark when I left the house, although the sun had risen by the time I got there.

The first part of the workshop was learning how to make a ku'ipad (which sounded like kweepah) from three generations of Tohono O'odham women. Grandma Ina is on the left, daughter Delphine is in the pink shirt, and the granddaughter is in the turquoise shirt sitting on the bench. On the right is Lauren, the park employee who directed the workshop. 

The ku'ipad is made from the ribs of a saguaro that has died. Several long pieces are lashed together so they are long enough to reach the top of the cactus where the fruit grows. Shorter horizontal pieces are added so you can hook them around the fruit and pull it loose.

Here Ina is explaining how to construct the ku'ipad in great detail. She spoke softly in the O'odham language and Delphine translated for us. It's important to choose straight pieces of roughly the same thickness. Grooves are cut in the sides to fit the pieces together snugly. Then they are lashed together. Today they use wire, but I believe the traditional lashing was a rope made out of yucca fiber. Ina was very particular about the care that had to be taken to construct this tool. We also learned that it was the men who made the ku'ipads while the women got the pots and baskets ready.

I forgot to mention that families would go out into the desert, usually to the same place each year and spend a week harvesting the fruit. They would build a ramada to shelter them from the sun. The native peoples had a close relationship with the saguaro, referring to them as people. Delphine said that very few follow the old traditions now. She and her daughter live in the city of Tucson in order to go to school and they are not unusual.

We then constructed our ku'ipads, which was really repairing poles that had been used in prior years. This was not really cheating, because the Native Americans would leave their ku'ipads out in the desert to be used the following year as well. When we were done, we went looking for saguaros that had ripe fruit. This was quite a challenge. In addition to the harsh winter, which affected most plant life in Southern Arizona, we had some severe monsoon storms earlier this week. There was wind blowing at close to eighty miles an hour with driving rain, so a lot of the fruit had been knocked to the ground. The fruit we did find was frequently not ripe enough.

This shows Delphine reaching up with a ku'ipad to knock the fruit down. We insisted that she do the first one because the harvesting of the first fruit requires that you say a blessing. The fruit is broken open and you draw a cross on your heart while saying thanks for the harvest. I'm not sure if the cross was always used or came about as a result of the Spanish missionaries who converted most of the Tohono O'odham to Christianity. The fruit is then opened up and the halves laid on the ground facing the sky so the clouds will see it and bring the rain.

We then headed off into the desert to find more fruit to harvest. This turned out to be more difficult than we expected. The terrain was hilly and, as you can see, the Sonoran Desert is not like the Sahara. There are lots of plants and undergrowth, most of which can attack you as you walk by. Well, it doesn't actually attack you, but it has spines to prevent being eaten by wildlife. I ran into a couple of prickly pear cacti whose spines pierced the fabric of my jeans and drew blood. I wasn't the only one. Between the climbing and the washed out sections and the high humidity, it was very hot work. It's one thing to see pictures of the saguaro harvest. Doing it myself gave me a much greater appreciation for the work that goes into it.

After about an hour and a half, we returned to the ranch area with the fruit we did find. This picture shows some members of the group removing the pulp from the interior. The bottom of the fruit still has cactus spines on it, so you have to be careful how you hold it.

This is the syrup being boiled. It has to be boiled for a couple of hours to remove enough water to give it the consistency of syrup. The syrup is also made into a wine that is drunk as part of the celebrations. It takes a lot of fruit to get this much syrup, which isn't very much.

While the syrup boiled, we had breakfast. This was also traditional foods, mesquite flour muffins and tepary bean soup. The muffins were dense and dark with a slightly nutty flavor. I didn't notice anything unique about the beans. I often have bean-based soups in the winter and this one was very similar. There is a movement to get the Tohono O'odham people to return to eating more of the traditional foods. Native Americans have a very high rate of diabetes because they've switched over to a more American diet. Well, processed foods diet. Mesquite flour has been proven to combat diabetes. Unfortunately, it's very expensive, unless you gather the pods from the trees and grind them yourself. But that's another blog.

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