Record Rod: Tales of Truth Enscribed

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How do various cultures view time? Record books or ledgers may not be the only form of documentation: Some used knotted or beaded calendar strings, others used spiraling drawings on animal hides or a form of sundial. For the Tohono O’odham and other Native American nations, important events were often inscribed on calendar sticks maintained and prepared, by custom, by a village historian. For the O’odham, the sticks were made of saguaro ribs, measuring a year from one rainy season to the next, with entries carved in notches, colors and symbols serving as memory aids to the calendar stick keeper, who then was able to share the stories with his community. Calendar sticks today are rare, as most were burned or buried with their makers.

Some calendar sticks are noted in various Ruth Underhill writings, and two more are housed at the Arizona State Museum. The collection holds two rare O’odham calendar sticks, and earlier this year the Arizona Daily Star featured these in its “100 Objects” defining Tucson series. One broken calendar stick was found in 1967 in the abandoned Tohono O’odham Ak Chin village and donated to the Arizona State Museum; the other is a two-generation calendar stick, donated in 1939 and interpreted by Jose Maria, whose father had incorporated events from an even older calendar stick.

The Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum (Himdag Ki:, in Topawa) houses another calendar stick (see photo below), this one prepared by the Himdag Ki: staff. It is made from ha:ṣañ (saguaro) rib. According to the Himdag Ki: exhibit notes: The first mark represents the Legislative Council resolution that approved funding for the Himdag: Ki. The second mark represents the decision to build the Himdag Ki: at its present location near Baboquivari Peak. The third mark represents the digging sticks used at the Groundbreaking Ceremony. The fourth mark represents the Himdag Ki:’s first exhibit, “The Art of Leonard Chana,” who created many of his works using small dots, a technique called stippling.

Calendar Stick
Himdag Ki: calendar stick (Himdag Ki: Collection)

The artful language of the calendar stick records the passage of time and tells its rich, detailed stories often known only to the calendar keeper. Visit the Arizona State Museum and the Himdag Ki: to learn more.


  • Brown University’s documentation of the 1871 attack on an Apache Indian reservation located along a creek bank in Arizona Territory’s Aravaipa Canyon, by a group of Anglo Americans, Mexican Americans, and Tohono O’odham Indians from Tucson and San Xavier del Bac, also documents calendar sticks:

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