Shaping Sticks, Traditions of Tóka

The mesquite tree, made pliable by winter rains, is a necessary and timely tool for the women of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Now is the time for fashioning usiga sticks from mesquite branches, for play in the Nation’s ancient game called tóka.

It would be easy to describe tóka simply as a women’s-only game, but that would belie the spirit in which it was created and the strength and skill it requires of the players.

Women Playing Toka

Tóka game, date unknown, Venito Garcia Library Collection, Himdag Ki: Archives

For Crystal Narcho, museum specialist at the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum in Topawa, her tóka play is part of community life. “For as long as anyone can remember, women of my village have always played tóka, so it was natural for me to learn it,” says Crystal, who is responsible for the storytelling program at the Cultural Center and Museum and who is from Ge Wo’o (or Gu Vu on maps). “Tóka is something far more important than just a game. It is a traditional skill to master.”

Tóka play involves an ola made out of two thick mesquite wood pieces (approximately 3½ inches) tied together with leather. Mesquite branches are fashioned into the curved sticks called usiga.

Usually seven to 15 women play the game. A team will include blockers in the middle and the fastest girls as runners holding the end of the lineup. Players can be as young as four years old, and Crystal knows elders in their 80s, including Ena Lopez, basket weaver and tóka player, who still participate.

Tóka has comparisons to football and field hockey, as the size of the play area is similar to the size of a football field. That’s where the comparison ends, however, as there are no out of bounds limits to the field and no net by the “goal line.” Even when the ola goes over that goal line, the puck is still in play, says Crystal, because it must be picked up and brought back to the center to be considered for a point. Play then is continuous, with the team earning the best out of seven points declared the winner.

“It’s a tough game, requiring good strength and skill,” Crystal says, also noting that the game is played with no helmets, no knee pads or other protection, and with no breaks.

Women and Girls are Still Playing Toka

Current-day tóka play, Himdag Ki: Archives Collections 3940, Photo credit: Bernard Siquieros

According to legend, the game of tóka was given to the Tohono O’odham by the Elder Brother I’itoi. “From what I was told, the game was given to the women as something to do in their free time while men were away hunting,” explains Crystal. “The Creator gave games to both women and men, and while some men’s games like the kickball are just being revived, the tóka games for women were never lost, and have been played continuously in our villages.”

Crystal, who has played since she was seven and now participates as often as she can, notes that moisture in the mesquite branches from winter rain makes spring the season for fashioning sticks and pucks. “The first thing I was told was to always have at least two usiga. So girls in the villages now are selecting their branches to work with, cleaning and bending them, using heat.”

Games begin with teams singing the tóka song: “It is about running with the stick, kicking up the ground dust, and the power of the puck. Red means power, and some women dye their ola red,” explains Crystal. Each team wears its selected, unique color, and wagers are placed in a designated area before the games. Some girls bet baskets, soccer sticks, even Gatorade, Crystal notes.

More and more O’odham girls are showing an interest in tóka. Tournaments are held all year, with the traditional playing time in the fall. The annual February O’odham Rodeo includes demonstrations and a national tournament. There are 10 teams on Nation with two more from the Gila River O’odham. Crystal notes the importance of elders in the sport, including Verna Enos (a local teacher, and her daughter April Ignacio), who instituted tóka play at the Rodeo. Ena Lopez, now in her 80s, attends games, participating as well as relating tóka stories. The stories are important to many girls in the Museum storytelling program, which Crystal coordinates. Tóka is a powerful game and part of our history, Crystal says.


Ancestors and Artifacts

Archaeology puts eyes on powerful messages left by our ancestors, who tell us through artifacts how they experience their folklife. The staff of Archaeology Southwest ( — the Tucson-based nonprofit focused on preservation archaeology across the American southwest and Mexican northwest — helps this BorderLore edition recognize Arizona Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month, at the same time speaking to the convergence of archaeology with folk cultures.

How do archaeology processes provide a mechanism to help probe the meaning of everyday, traditional culture? Would you give us an example of your work at Archaeology Southwest (and artifacts recovered locally) that might illustrate this?

Archaeology Southwest (Doug Gann, Digital Media Specialist and Preservation Archaeologist):
Most people will read “archaeological processes” and think of digging, not 3D digital modeling. But that’s what I do, and my work is very much an extension of the archaeological process. I use new media technologies to interpret archaeological information for the public and explore such themes as cultural continuity, technological change and persistent places.

One of my favorite local projects has been developing a digital visualization that takes viewers back in time from a familiar view at Sentinel Peak — “A” Mountain — to historic and ancient views from the same vantage point. At a specific moment in the experience, viewers may enter the 1820s landscape of the Tohono O’odham village of Chuk Son, including the San Agustín Mission. The last traces of the Mission were lost in the 1950s, as the City of Tucson’s landfill overwhelmed the mission site. It was a sad fate for such an important place.

Digital Model

Digital visualization, courtesy Archaeology Southwest, Doug Gann, Digital Media Specialist and Preservation Archaeologist

I’m going to turn your question around a little bit now, because on this project, ordinary things informed about things archaeology could not, and also underscored the presence that the Mission had in the community in the past. I used multiple lines of evidence to create our digital model of the Chapel and Convento. I had archaeological data recovered by William Wasley of the Arizona State Museum in 1956 and additional data — including tiny plaster fragments that turned out to be significant — recovered by Desert Archaeology, Inc., in 2000 and 2003. But I also drew from an account by Tucson pioneer Atanacia Santa Cruz de Hughes (1850–1934) published in 1930; hand-drawn plans from 1926; an antique postcard our colleague Homer Thiel found for sale online; an 1856 watercolor by John Russell Bartlett; an oil painting that was exhibited in a private gallery in Tucson in 2008–2009, and more than fifty historic photographs! Some of these photos were loaned to us by Tucson families of long standing, who responded to our public appeals for images of the Mission.

It was rewarding to work on a project that community members with such deep roots found meaningful. And as the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace gain support and projects like the Mission Garden move forward, it’s clear that community is celebrating and finding meaning in that place again. I’m glad to have played a part by giving people a sense of what it looked like.

Rock art is a heritage so many recognize and love. What (or how) does rock art tell us about traditional culture and the everyday life of our region’s ancient communities?

Archaeology Southwest (Janine Hernbrode and Peter Boyle, Archaeology Southwest Board members, and Henry D. Wallace, our colleague at Desert Archaeology, Inc.):
Over the past few years, we’ve been documenting the Sutherland Wash Rock Art District, a complex of sites located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The complex centers around a bedrock canyon with deep tinajas (water catchment basins) that even today contain water much of the year. This was a special place for the Hohokam between about A.D. 1000 and 1300, and we think it was an important ceremonial center. Its location may have been a major entry point into the mountains, where people would have gathered a variety of resources, so it is a logical location for a communal ceremonial place.

There are more than 600 petroglyph panels in the district, including many representations of flowers, butterflies and birds. Such imagery is characteristic of a spiritual landscape known as the Flower World. In this Uto-Aztecan belief system of ancient Mesoamerican origin, believers evoked a flowery, colorful, glittering paradise through prayers, songs, and other actions. The likelihood of this connection is strengthened by the discovery of Mesoamerican copper bells at Honey Bee Village (a nearby Hohokam settlement) and in a cache of Hohokam artifacts found near the rock art district.

Through our documentation, it has become clear that some of the rock art panels at Sutherland Wash were intended—at least in part—to mark the position of the sun. Ethnographic evidence suggests that people may have done this to correctly time ceremonial gatherings. It is also possible that this was done as a celebration of the sun itself.

Can you comment on archaeology’s role in “placemaking”?

Archaeology Southwest: (Bill Doelle, President and CEO):
I think Archaeology Southwest’s mission statement puts it quite nicely: By exploring what makes a place special, sharing this knowledge in innovative ways, and enacting flexible site protection strategies, we foster meaningful connections to the past and respectfully safeguard its irreplaceable resources.

The key is not just to share what archaeology tells us makes a place special, but also to explore what diverse stakeholders have to say about why they feel a place is special, and then share that, as well. When people have or find a connection to a place, they can become engaged in preserving that place and ensuring that its story continues forward. That’s what happened with Doug’s project on the Mission.

This year’s Archaeology Expo (March 29) will be held in Catalina State Park, with plenty of activities, including rabbit-stick throwing, atlatl throwing, corn grinding, flint knapping, and pottery making, with information booths and materials focused on archaeological research in the state. According to Matt Peeples, Preservation Archaeologist (and Archaeology Southwest’s representative on the Expo’s planning committee), there will be tours and special lectures, including our board member Janine Hernbrode’s presentation on the Sutherland Wash Rock Art District and former Archaeology Southwest research associate Matt Pailes’s discussion of the Cerro Prieto site. Along with Catalina State Park staff, Archaeology Southwest staff members will offer several tours of Romero Ruin within the park. Our ancient technology expert, Allen Denoyer, will give tours of our replica Hohokam pithouse at nearby Steam Pump Ranch, and our close colleague, archaeologist Henry Wallace of Desert Archaeology, Inc., will guide two tours of Honey Bee Village, a significant Hohokam settlement in Oro Valley.

(Communications Coordinator Kate Sarther Gann):
Other upcoming events include the April 8 Archaeology Café (a monthly program co-hosted by Archaeology Southwest and Casa Vicente Restaurante Español.) At the April 8 café archaeomalacologist Arthur Vokes (Arizona State Museum) will explain what marine shell and other precious raw materials reveal about the extent and significance of trade in the ancient Southwest. Some of the routes people used to obtain these materials remain important to descendant groups today.

References (Kathleen Bader, Membership and Marketing Coordinator):
Selected readings from the Archaeology Southwest website (

Both publications will be for sale at the March 29 Expo (see:

Spring Blooms at Mission Garden

Community Outreach manager Dena Cowan tells us that spring has arrived at the four-acre agricultural and cultural Mission Garden showcase, built on the original site of the San Agustin mission along the floodplains of the Santa Cruz nearby A Mountain. Her update follows:

Mission Gaden

Garden Ramada overlooks heirloom fruit trees. Photo Credit: Leigh Spigelman

  • Gardens are ever-changing and evolving and Mission Garden is certainly no exception to this rule. As Dena writes these words the apricots, quinces and sweet limes are blooming, and the grapes and figs are already leafing out, the latter also displaying a promising array of incipient fruits.
  • There is quite an impressive show of pollinators and wildflowers, including poppies, marigolds, brittlebush, a variety of fiddle-necks, globe mallows… and of course the abounding London Rockets and malvas, most of which the Mission Garden crew has felt obligated to “weed out” of the orchard. The appearance of such a profusion of spontaneous plants has given rise to a beneficial opportunity to learn about each and every species, as we have been faced with the conundrum of which to remove and which to let be. An attempt to come to a consensus in this regard and establish a Mission Garden Weed Policy has not proven an easy task, but a visit by 30 sophomores from Salpointe High School on February 15th as part of a service project in conjunction with Tucson Clean & Beautiful made it imperative!

    In addition to yanking out some Buffelgrass growing on the corner of Mission Road and Mission Lane (there is still a lot more Buffelgrass out there in case anyone has a penchant for that sort of thing!) the well-meaning students also helped remove kernels from cobs of the ancient varieties of Chapalote corn that we harvested from the Timeline Garden in the fall. Some of these kernels will be returned to Native Seeds/Search, others will be planted in the garden this summer, and still others will be packaged and traded for donations, a new addition to our fledgling San Agustin Mission Garden Seed Collection.
  • The forest buffer planted outside the wall along Mission Road is flourishing with spring growth, the barrel cacti in the Native Plant Area are loaded with fruit, the heirloom variety of chard in the Winter Garden is bursting with future seed, zillions of potential new extremely hardy desert-adapted and exceedingly prolific plants, also to be added to the seed collection.
  • This semester Mission Garden is fortunate to be working with two interns from the U of A’s School of Geography and Development — Community and School Garden Workshop, one of whom is interested in the business side of agriculture and will be helping Mission Garden develop its seed and produce marketing strategy. The other is a graduate student in landscape architecture and aims to draft some proposals for the ideal placement of several heritage olive trees grown from cuttings from the Statehood-era trees in the U of A arboretum. She is also acting as liaison with the Mission Garden project with Manzo Elementary School (more on that later), and works with Trees for Tucson, with whom Mission Garden will organize a series of workshops for the Tucson High Magnet School garden community.
  • February was particularly busy as Mission Garden took advantage of the pruning season to initiate a volunteer training program through two pruning, propagating and grafting workshops sponsored by the LEAF Network and given by Sonora Arizona Desert Museum Education Specialists, Marie Long and Jesús García. Moreover, Mission Garden is thrilled to attest to the successful development of Phase II, Educational Propagation Program, with Manzo Elementary School. Students from the third grade ecology class came to the Garden on February 11th for the second of four field trips scheduled this year. They split into groups and by turns went back 4000 years in a time-machine that traveled through the history of agriculture in the Tucson Basin; they helped prune some of the descendants of the fruit trees that were brought here from the Old World hundreds of years ago by the missionaries; they planted and labeled the resulting cuttings, tasted some of their fruits and took the cuttings back to their school greenhouse, where they will grow them out.
  • Iskashitaa Refugee Network has also joined Mission Garden to grow out some of the season’s cuttings in their own greenhouse. With all this TLC Mission Garden hopes to have many young trees to share with the community in the coming years and that the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees will once again be growing and producing storied and delicious heirloom fruit in backyards all around town.
  • Mission Garden is not only embracing the future conveyers of this legacy, but also honoring its pioneers. On Sunday March 9th a gathering was held at the Garden in honor of eminent local historian Arnold Smith, and Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson who initially helped raise the funds that enabled Mission Garden to become a reality.
  • Mission Garden is now looking forward to preparing this year’s planting of the Timeline Gardens, the first of which were planted last summer and replicated the agricultural traditions here in Tucson prior to European contact; and further developing the Native Plant Area with additional cacti and interpretive ‘vignettes’.