Art, Tradition: A Walker’s Staff

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There’s no doubt — after great sacrifice, meditation and sharing — an individual may start a pilgrimage on his or her own, but that the individual completes it as a member of community.

Allison Francisco’s Walking Staff
Visual artist and Tohono O’odham Nation member Allison Francisco’s Walking Staff (as pictured, with permission, at 2014 Tucson Meet Yourself)

Generations of Tohono O’odham have made an annual pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico for personal ritual but also as part of a Catholic tradition honoring St. Francis. They walk for themselves, for their families, for the world, for people needing prayer. By accomplishing the Walk, the intention is to realize personal, private goals and petitions of prayer and well-being. The Walk occurs late September and early October, around St. Francis Day, when walkers from San Xavier or Sells make a journey of more than 55 miles, by foot, to stand before the statue of St. Francis, located in Magdalena’s church chapel and to join in a fiesta held around the feast day for St. Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscan Order). The statues in San Xavier and Magdalena represent St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who died in 1552. The bones of Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino also are in Magdalena.

A tradition that dates back generations, the Walk draws hundreds of tribal members each year, including Tohono O’odham Nation member and visual artist Allison Francisco, who also worked as a TMY Folk Arts coordinator this year. Borderlore asked Allison about the Walk, her Walking Staff and its traditions:

Can you tell us the origins of the Walk?
I don’t know the full story or origins of the pilgrimage or Walk as it is commonly called among the community. I only know about my family’s story and then only pieces of that story. I know that my grandfather made the pilgrimage with his family (his wife and children). I once asked my mother how they traveled, she said “In the wagon and on foot.” She thinks she was about 4 years old. My mother’s brother Felix also walked then. Felix continued to carry on the tradition and then after he passed away my aunt (my mother’s younger sister) along with several trusted good people took on the tradition. I know other families would make the same pilgrimage; although, I do not know which way they went (through Nogales or by way of Cedagi Wahia …). It seems little is known about this because it is so personal to the O’odham and those who make the pilgrimage.

When did you start participating and walking in the pilgrimage, and why did you start?
I don’t remember when I first walked, but I think I started in 2009. It’s taken me several years to complete my “4 years.” This year, 2014, I completed my four year vow or Manda. I think most people walk year after year until they complete their fourth year, but not in my case. I started because at that time my niece, who was very young, wanted to walk (again), but she needed help. The journey can be a difficult and emotional one and I wanted to protect her, and I (also) wanted to know what it was about. Before then I had many misconceptions. I thought it was only for certain people or you had to be invited. I was also scared of being away from my family. The first year didn’t resolve some of these misconceptions, but the second year I felt it. I felt connected. To care for others before yourself, learning patience and being part of a tradition is an incredible feeling and experience that I would have never known if I didn’t choose to challenge myself or explore my fears. Having a shared memory is a great part of being human and being part of the natural environment. I use the time to reflect and to pray for my family, friends and the World. I hope, with every step that I could bring relief to anyone in pain or emotional distress.

I guess I should mention the toll on the body that this kind of journey takes. For many there are blistered feet, sore muscles, sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst and individual and very personal challenges. Each person’s experience is different, every year is different.

How many leave every year from Sells? How many days does it take?
The group is large. The number of people going varies from year to year but at least 100 walkers I’d guess. I can’t give an exact number for privacy and security reasons and we have to be mindful of our safety and remember we are guests of the people of Mexico.

The pilgrimage takes about a week, walking in the early morning hours to the late hours of the day. Once we reach Magdalena de Kino, or Mali:na as we know it, we wait in line, like everyone else to see San Francisco Xavier. After everyone has paid their respects, we gather to say one last rosary. Walkers receive their ribbons and the pilgrimage is complete for the year. We do not leave at the same time, as departures vary depending on persons schedule and ability to stay longer for shopping or visiting.

There are other things going on during the celebration: There is a carnival, a lot of vendors selling their wares and lots of food and drink. Personally, I stay with my family for a day or two but other families might stay for a week, while others leave that same day, returning back home to their families, work or to try and make the October 4th celebrations that are happening on the reservation.

It is definitely a community-like atmosphere. We may not know one another but we all look out for eachother. The line moves at different speeds, the front being the fastest and the rear with a slower pace. I think depending on there you are in the line you’re able to talk a bit with your neighbors during breaks. We are discouraged from talking while walking out of respect for those in prayer and meditation.

Is there something you can remember from this year’s walk that was most meaningful?
This year was physically demanding. I wanted to stop plenty of times, but I thought, if I quit, how will my prayers for the world be heard? There are line leaders that watch over us, making sure we are doing okay and, at the times when I wanted to stop there would be someone asking, “Are you okay?” After hearing that, I could go on. I felt weak but there was always someone supporting me, even if I didn’t know them, just the way I wanted to be for the people of the world.

Please tell us about the Walking Staff
The morning of our first day, the group gathers to hear words from the leaders. New Walkers are called to the front, so they can be addressed specifically. New Walkers are asked to choose a staff, one that feels like it belongs to them. Once all of them have chosen they are given words that give insight to the purpose of the staff.

New Walkers cannot put anything on their staff until they complete the first year. The first ribbons on their staff will be 3 of a certain color: a Red, Green, and Blue, each with its own meaning or meanings. All Walkers (this includes the New Walkers) choose one ribbon from a bag of blessed ribbons. So New Walkers receive 4 ribbons the first year. After the first year, the second, third, fourth and so on, Walkers receive one new ribbon. A person’s Staff is a good indicator of how many years they’ve walked; however, some may have received ribbons from someone, so those ribbons might be on the staff as well, but that is personal.

The Staff is mesquite (a tree, a living thing), and it too has meaning. Most of the knowledge one learns about their Staff is gained by choosing to take part in the pilgrimage. One thing I can share is that the Staff becomes an extension of the self and is yours to aid you on your journey. Every person’s staff is adorned by that individual and the meaning is theirs to share or not. Although I know the meanings of the ribbons, it would be better if one of the leaders shared that knowledge. If anyone wanted to know, they could choose to make the pilgrimage.

Does the Staff have functional/practical use or is it a more symbolic item you carry on the Walk?
The Staff’s function is to aid the Walker, in every way it can, both practically and spiritually.

The beautiful statue and the woven cross on your Staff, would you explain these?
Earlier, I mentioned that people might gift certain items to Walkers. The saint on my staff, The Blessed Virgin Mary was given to me by my Godmother. My staff feels like a female so I cover it with roses and other flowers to portray that. Those embroidered crosses were made by a group of women from San Xavier District. It is a gift to us. Along the way the items on the staff are blessed and become part of the journey. A Walker might reminisces about a certain year when they look upon an items on the staff.

And the embroidered cloth, what is the meaning?
That handkerchief is Yoeme. It was a gift from a very good friend. I don’t know exactly what meaning it has for the Yoeme but for me it reminds me of my friend and how I hold them in my prayers. The flower also reminds me of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the handkerchief itself is my way of keeping my staff warm on cold nights and cool on hot days.

The rosary — do you remove and use it during the year, or does it stay on the staff?
It’s funny: I have a few rosaries on my staff. One is my son’s, so I won’t feel without him. One is Yoeme, given to me by a medicine man and it protects me. One is a gift from my aunt. I have one other that I use and carry on myself during the pilgrimage (it is not seen in the photo). When my Staff is at rest I place it on with the others, until I need it again.

Where does the Staff stay during the year? Do you ever use it for anything other than the Walk?
I don’t know how or where others keep theirs, but mine rests in a corner with my art things. I’ve seen others have theirs next to their altars or in their rooms. We sometimes take them with us if a Walker has passed away and we attend their services. If a Walker takes it anywhere else, that is their decision because they feel they need its support.

Is there anything more you would like to add about the Staff?
Caring for your staff takes practice. In the beginning one might leave it laying on the ground, which is a no no, but walkers quickly learn the gravity of having one. Like I said, it is an extension of ourselves, a reminder to take care of ourselves, to respect ourselves and to be responsible for our actions. It is as part of ourselves as the air we breathe, the water we drink and the choices we make. I’m not saying it makes us any better than anyone else, only that it is a much needed aid in our personal journey, through good and bad times. After all what is tradition and culture anyway.

If not too personal, would you tell us about the meaning of your wrist tattoos, which are also shown in the BorderLore photo?
My tattoos are nothing special in meaning. I’ve always loved tattoos or adornment of the body. Both are basically reminders of my culture. In the future I will get more, armbands that may reflect my culture or just something I think is pretty. In the end it’s Art, a document of my life.


1 thought on “Art, Tradition: A Walker’s Staff”

  1. Dave Walker joined the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections in 2014 as an audio preservation specialist, a position funded by the Collections Care and Preservation Fund administered by the Smithsonian National Collections Program. Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, he holds a B.S. in audio engineering technology and BAin art history from Belmont University and an MA in museum studies from The George Washington University. His primary focus is the preservation, conservation, and digitization of historic audio media such as open-reel tapes and instantaneous discs. He has also performed audio mastering on commercially released albums and independent films and served as technician at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
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