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Tucson approves move to return ancestral land to the Tohono O’odham Nation

By: - May 1, 2023 10:11 am

A mural in Tucson created in 2017 by Victor Ving and Lisa Beggs. Local muralist Rock Martinez contributed by adding his artwork to the letter C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith | Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Tucson City Council is moving forward with the effort to return the ancestral homelands near the base Sentinel Peak to the Tohono O’odham Nation for its continued preservation and reverence.

The city council unanimously approved the motion to transfer land ownership during a study session before their regular council meeting on April 18. The move comes after decades of conversations the City of Tucson has had surrounding what to do with the land. 

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said the piece of land near Sentinel Peak has more than 4,500 years of history and archeology that proves it is an ancestral Hohokam Village.

“This is where our city was born,” Romero said


The initiative to return the land to the Tohono O’odham “without any strings attached” has been led by Romero and Tucson Council Member Lane Santa Cruz. 

Santa Cruz said over the years, many different efforts and ideas have been introduced to the city on what to do with that land. But, in the end, returning the land was the best and most respectful option.

Santa Cruz said when they started having conversations with the tribe about returning the land, they were skeptical. 

“Rightly so,” she added, “they’ve never had a good relationship with the city.”

Santa Cruz said it always seemed as if the city treated the tribe separately, as if they are over there and we are over here, even though many Indigenous people live in the city. 

She said it took that ongoing conversation and meeting with tribal members, listening to their stories about the land and what it meant to them. She recalls how tribal members talked about how even if the city chose to acknowledge or not that the land rightfully belongs to the Tohono O’odham, they already know it is theirs. 

“We know it is. You don’t need to tell us,” Santa Cruz said, and she agreed. 

When the motion was introduced during the April 18 study session, Santa Cruz said she was shocked they could get it to this point.

Santa Cruz said she’s always felt the City of Tucson didn’t honor or revere the area’s Indigenous peoples. She noted that Indigenous peoples made the city possible and continue to care for the land, which the city needs to pay attention to and listen to.

“I believe that there is a reverence that is owed to this land,” she said. “A reconciliatory acknowledgment of the desecration, destruction, and erasure that was perpetrated on our Tohono O’odham relatives.”

Santa Cruz said that returning the land to the Tohono O’odham Nation honors Tucson’s Indigenous legacy by showing that they are still here and these lands are sacred.

Romoero said during the session that the City of Tucson has an excellent opportunity to become a city that would dare take this step and do the right thing of putting this land into the hands of the Tohono O’odham people, who are the rightful heirs.

The motion passed 6-0, and the city attorney and staff will draft a resolution for the mayor and City Council consideration and approval at an upcoming meeting.

Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. attended the council session, and after the motion was approved, he expressed his gratitude for the council members’ support. 

“I just can’t express what my heart is feeling by your actions,” Norris said. “Our ancestors are pleased with your decision today, and we look forward to continuing this relationship.”


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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.