ARTIFACT: K’uipud, for Reaching Saguaro Fruit

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ARTIFACT: K’uipud or “cactus puller,” also the O’odham word for the constellation, the Big Dipper

SIZE: 15-30 feet in length

MATERIAL: Saguaro ribs, creosote branches, wire

FOLKLIFE: Foodways, saguaro harvest, tools, plant usage, Sonoran Desert, Tohono O’odham traditions

by Tanisha Tucker-Lohse, as told to Kimi Eisele

Going out to the bahidaj camp when I was little, everything was new to me. The wato or ramada. The whole desert area. I remember seeing my grandma Juana doing her baskets and processing some of the saguaro fruit, the dried fibers. I remember seeing my mom, Stella, grab a bucket and that pole, the k’uipud. She said they were going to go out and pick. I didn’t know anything about what they were picking—it was just this huge, long pole. That was my earliest memory of seeing the k’uipud. I remember being very curious.

Two people walking in the desert carrying a K’uipud.
Helping to harvest saguaro fruit, using k’uipud. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

The actual pole itself is made of saguaro ribs. The ribs are tall enough to reach the top of saguaro. Sometimes it’s two or three of them wired together to make a longer pole. Saguaro ribs are very porous, and they’re light. So even if you have a long pole, it doesn’t feel very heavy. The only thing you have to worry about is balancing it and watching where you’re walking with it.

The top portion, the hooks, are made of the creosote bush. The wood is a little bit stronger and sturdier. You’re using so much force sometimes to pull those fruit down—if you use a piece of the saguaro rib as the hook, it could break.

Usually, the men made the k’uipud. I’d watch my cousin Calvin, my uncle Archie, and Cipriano Pedro and his uncles construct them. Oh my goodness. They made these beautiful k’uipud. Later, I remember looking back and seeing they were so well made, the structure, the workmanship. They had been making them for years, so they knew what to do. They knew how to get them really tight so that the poles, the two saguaro ribs, weren’t moving or shifting. And they were perfectly straight. Cipriano was a basketweaver and his uncle made wire baskets, so they just had the know-how to make them. They lasted for a long time.

A K'uipud, made from saguaro ribs and creosote branches reach for fruit at the top of a saguaro.
K’uipud are made from saguaro ribs and creosote branches and help pickers reach fruit at the top of the saguaro. Photo by Kathleen Dreier.
BorderLore's managing editor Kimi Eisele using a k'uipud to harvest saguaro fruit
BorderLore’s managing editor Kimi Eisele using a k’uipud to harvest saguaro fruit in one of Tanisha’s workshops. Photo by Kathleen Dreier.

I remember asking my mom how they got them so tight. She told me they would wrap the bailing wire around a post or put the ribs on the floor and step on them then use their weight to pull on the wire to get it really tight to wrap. That’s how they get to the point where they’re so tight, they won’t shift. So then that’s how I started doing them. I just keep practicing that way. And they’re getting better, they’re getting better.

The men would also cut all the firewood and build the ramada and construct our k’uipud for us. Then the women did the harvesting, the cooking, the preparations of getting the fruit ready. Sometimes the men would get the fire going for us. Now, I do a lot of it myself. Unfortunately, so many relatives have passed away.

I don’t think my mom really made k’uipud very much. She had her friends who were not O’odham make them. They came up with some pretty interesting ways. Sometimes I’d stop them and say, “That’s not how I remember it.” Of course, you could definitely incorporate modern tools. Even some O’odham do this. One of our friends who comes out to the camp has a cane that folds up and folds out. You know, whatever you need to get the fruit down I think is a good tool. As long as it works.

Stella, an older O'odham woman, and her daughter, Tanisha, sit, looking at the camera, listening in sweat.
The late Stella Tucker and her daughter, Tanisha Tucker-Lohse, in 2016. Stella and Tanisha were recipients of a 2018 Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance. After Stella’s death in 2019, Tanisha and her family members took over the bahidaj camp in Saguaro National Park.

After the season, I usually store the k’uipud around the camp. Saguaro ribs and saguaros, when they hit water, they absorb the water and expand, and then dry out and retract. Sometimes when I go back the following year, the wires are a little rusted, and they actually get a little bit looser. That’s because of the all the rainfall they have absorbed during the year, and then the sun just sucking all the rainwater out of there. It just shrinks a little bit. So, we just do a little bit of tightening on them, and they’re ready to go.

That’s the tool that we use to harvest with. We’ve made more and more throughout the years, because the groups that come out get larger, and we want to make sure they have the k’uipud when they go out picking. We won’t make one for each person because it’s a lot to work the bucket and that pole. My grandma could actually pick and catch at the same time. My mom too. But it’s always good to go out with another person, sometimes three, because then the roles switch off: who’s going to carry the pole, who’s got the bucket to catch, and who’s gonna knock off the fruit. The more people you’re with, the quicker you harvest.

An upclose photo of a K'uipud harvesting budding fruit from atop a saguaro.
An upclose photo of a K'uipud harvesting budding fruit from atop a saguaro.
An up-close photo of a K'uipud harvesting budding fruit from atop a saguaro.
A pair of hands opening up the green casing showing off a rich, red saguaro fruit with black seeds.
Five K'uipud lean onto a ramada with the desert and sky in the background.
K’uipud made by Tanisha’s family members in use and at rest in the family bahidaj camp in Saguaro National Park. Photos by Kathleen Dreier.

Tanisha Tucker-Lohse is a member of the Tohono O’odham nation. She was taught traditional saguaro fruit harvesting at an early age by her mother, Stella Tucker. This harvest is done every year during the summer months of June and July in Tucson, Arizona and surrounding areas. The saguaro fruit is harvested and processed into syrup, jam, and wine. The wine is used during the rain ceremonies which happen after the saguaro harvest is over. This tradition has been a part of Tohono O’odham culture for hundreds of years. Tanisha is currently an Artist At Work fellow with The Office, and is working with Tohono O’odham Young Voices Podcast to share stories about Indigenous foods and foodways in the Sonoran Desert.

1 thought on “ARTIFACT: K’uipud, for Reaching Saguaro Fruit”

  1. Es muy interesante saber la cultura de los pueblos nativos y todo lo que nos comparten de sus tradiciones de sus antepasados. Sólo me queda decir gracias por todo lo que nos enseñan.


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