Desert Matriarch: Stella Tucker, 1947-2019

| |

by Kimi Eisele

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  In 2018, SFA awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award to Stella Tucker, a Tohono O’odham elder and teacher, in honor of her work upholding the tradition of the baidaj, or annual saguaro fruit harvest. The award provided support for Stella’s work passing along the tradition to her daughter, Tanisha Tucker. Stella’s recognition was meaningful for me, as it connected several threads of my life and work—as a performer, writer, and folklorist.

Two people laughing. Kimi (left) is a woman with light skin, baseball cap, and salmon colored shirt. Stella (right) is an O'odham woman with medium dark skin, salt and pepper hair in a ponytail, and a red U of A shirt.
Kimi and Stella. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

I first met Stella eight years ago when my friend Brad Lancaster invited me to “go help Stella pick fruit.” I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. We woke at dawn and drove to Saguaro National Park, turning down a dirt driveway marked with an orange cone.

“Glad you brought buckets!” Stella said, greeting us with open enthusiasm.

It was late in the season and we spent the morning searching the ground for jun, dried saguaro fruit, which remains after the ripe fruits have been gathered from the crowns by animals or people. We thanked the saguaros for their gifts, ate the sweet fruit along the way, and presented Stella with the contents of our buckets.

I returned to Stella’s camp in 2016, while directing Standing with Saguaros, a year-long dance-theater project I created in collaboration with Borderlands Theater to celebrate the cactus and its role as a keystone species in the Sonoran Desert. I organized several visits for community members to help Stella harvest, and with her permission, incorporated her story into our final public performance in Saguaro National Park.

I wanted everyone I knew to see how dedicated Stella was to the saguaros, how her respect for them was transmitted by her commitment to upholding a cultural tradition that not many were continuing. I felt a kinship with her—and I knew others would too. Indeed, I saw it was possible to befriend and love a species as part of one’s own community, that another species could itself be kin.

When I first saw the portrait Steven Meckler took of Stella, part of our publicity for all Master-Apprentice awardees, I gasped at how he’d captured her. I was awed by the joy in her eyes, the knowledge in her hands, the secret delight of her smile. I don’t know what she was thinking about the moment the shutter release clicked, but I like to imagine she was recalling the miles and miles of desert she’d walked across over the decades, moving from saguaro to saguaro, tending and befriending each one.

Stella Tucker, an older O'odham woman with medium dark skin, salt and pepper hair, and a traditional purple dress. She is holding a saguaro rib in the sape of a cross.
Photo by Steven Meckler

The last time I saw Stella was on the Day of the Dead, last November. She was sitting among the saguaros in the Sus Picnic Area of Saguaro National Park. She and her daughter Tanisha had just shared the magnificence of the cactus and a taste of its sweet syrup with some 40 theatre-makers visiting Tucson for an annual gathering of Network of Ensemble Theaters. As the group interacted with Stella, I thought about how her effusive love for place and tradition would now be carried across the country, in the hearts and minds of all those artists, their reverence for her already as big as the sky.

Stella died on January 9 at age 71, surrounded by her family.

The following story first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Edible Baja Arizona as “Camp Baidaj.”

Desert dwellers know that the first sight of saguaro blooms means a shift is coming. Several, actually. In short order, white floral crowns give way to blood-red fruits. Bees and bats give way to doves and woodpeckers that come to feast. And then, with any luck, the skies release the monsoon rains. All the while, we humans stand below, wide-eyed with craned necks, hoping for either a taste of fruit or that first drop of rain.

An areal photo looking down at a blossoming with fruit saguaro with two people standing under it with a kuipad (harvesting pole) and big, white bucket.
Red, ripe fruits are picked from the cactus using a kuipad, or harvesting pole, made from saguaro ribs. Photo by Steven Meckler

Everyone but Stella Tucker, that is. For Stella, a 70-year-old Tohono O’odham grandmother, this annual ecological unfolding means it’s time to get to work.

Every year, in late May or early June, Stella and her daughter, Tanisha Tucker, 35, pack up the essentials and move their household to a two-acre patch of desert within Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District, where generations have continued a cultural tradition called baidaj, or saguaro fruit harvest.

While Stella harvested saguaro fruit as a young girl with her grandfather near Sells, it wasn’t until she visited the camp of her grandmother, Juanita Ahil, in the park, that her devotion began. “I just fell in love out there,” she says.

She began taking the summers off from work to go help her grandmother pick fruit. “I always loved my grandmother’s place. We slept outside and did things the old way, a whole different way of living.”

Located a mile from the park’s visitor center, the camp has a field kitchen complete with pots, ladles, and screens from Stella’s grandmother’s day. Ramadas made with mesquite posts and saguaro ribs shade picnic tables and sleeping cots. 

People standing near a wato, with Stella holding a long harvesting pole.
Stella has been harvesting saguaro fruit in the Sonoran Desert since she was a young girl. Photo by Kathleen Dreier Photography

“You get to see the sunsets, and the full moon,” says Tanisha. “You can hear the javelinas nearby in the wash. And the cicadas—the indication of summer.”

“Oh, yes, the cicadas,” Stella says. “One time they were at it until 10 o’clock. Then they all went to sleep I guess.”

The camp is unusual because of its location on public lands, where harvesting is otherwise prohibited. When the 25 square miles of desert on the west side of Tucson, which included Stella’s family camp, was added to Saguaro National Monument in 1961 (it was elevated to national park status in 1994), monument officials were concerned about the harvest and initially prohibited it.

But, as Stella recounts, friends from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior on behalf of her grandmother, and then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall granted permission for the harvest to continue. Today, a special permitting process between the Tohono O’odham Nation and Saguaro National Park allows Stella to uphold the tradition.

Stella took over the camp after her grandmother died in 1994. A temporary home during the harvest season, the camp has become something of a mecca for those wanting to understand how ecology, food, culture, ceremony, and stewardship come together. Stella is its benevolent matriarch.

Two O'odham women, Stella and her daughter Tanisha Tucker, posing for a photo.
Stella handed over operation of the camp and primary educational duties to her daughter Tanisha Tucker. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

Of Stella’s two remaining children—one of her daughters died three years ago—Tanisha is the most committed to continuing the harvest. She has helped her mother consistently with the harvest for the past five years and now takes on the lion’s share of teaching, with her cousin, Maria Francisco.

Stella is grateful that her daughter has stepped up to help her. “It’s a dying culture. One day nobody will know how to do it. I want them to learn. It’s really important to me that they learn and keep this culture going,” she says.

The harvest begins in late May or early June, depending on when the saguaros flower. Red, ripe fruits used for syrup and jam are picked from the cactus using a kuipad, or harvesting pole, made from saguaro ribs.

This season, Tanisha remade all the camp’s poles, a skill she learned from her uncle. “You need a strong rib. You don’t want too much sway, especially for the base. You have to connect two together with wire because it’s hard to find one rib that’s long enough. But it can’t be too tall or it’s hard to balance.”

A short creosote branch is fixed to the top and used as a cross bar for leverage when gently knocking the fruit off the saguaro.

Using the hardened calyx of the flower as a knife, Tanisha explains, you open the first fruit you pick and rub some of the pulp or juice on your heart or on your forehead. “That’s to bless you for protection out there when you’re picking and … to say thank you to the saguaro.”

Once you remove the fruit from its skin, you place the pod face up to the sky, “to welcome rain for the next season.”

Hands holding a cracked open saguaro fruit showing the juicy red flesh with tiny black seeds.
The fruit of the saguaro is cooked into jam, syrup, and wine. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

This show of respect is essential, Tanisha says, along with ensuring that enough fruit is left for animals and for beauty. “We’d never want to see the day that the syrup is on a Walmart shelf. That would lead to overharvesting and a corporate takeover,” she says.

Later in June, any remaining fruit on the saguaros dries and falls to the ground. “Those are the best ones to pick, ‘cause they’re clean and you can take them home with you and have fruit anytime you want during the year,” Stella says.

In recent years, bad knees have prevented Stella from harvesting, so she presides over the processing and cooking stage from one of the camp picnic tables. Those who help with the harvest contribute fruit to the processing and cooking, but also get to take some of their harvest home.

“I’ve done it so many times I can’t tell you in measurements, I just see it,” Stella says. “When you’ve doing something for so long you know what you’re doing and you know it’s the right thing.”

A jar of saguaro fruit juice in a large clear jar.
Saguaro fruit “juice” to be made into syrup or jam. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

Once picked, the fruit is soaked in water then transferred to a pot and cooked over a mesquite-wood fire. Debris from the harvest is skimmed off the top, and the fruit is strained through a wire screen to separate the fiber and seed from the juice. The liquid goes through another strainer or cheesecloth and is then cooked for several hours to become syrup or jam.

For Tanisha, the smell of saguaro fruit cooking roots her firmly in the tradition. “It makes you feel like, ‘Yes, this is my accomplishment and I worked hard today and this is my prize.’ It’s beautiful, a liquid gold,” she says.

Stella sells some of the syrup she makes and also donates it to the annual Tohono O’odham Nation wine ceremony, or jujkida, which is said to “sing down the rain” for summer planting.  “You go from house to house, people inviting you over. It lasts the whole weekend and there’s a lot of singing,” she says.

Two people with light skin, each wearing a hat and backpack, are using a pole to reach the saguaro fruit.
Visitors to Stella’s camp learn how to harvest fruit in the traditional method. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

Both Stella and Tanisha understand their role as stewards of a cultural tradition, one grounded in a spirit of reciprocity. Every year dozens of groups visit the camp, many of them O’odham, including groups hosted by the poet Ofelia Zepeda and by the San Xavier Co-op Farm. “A lot of them don’t know anything about saguaros,” Stella says.

Valentina Vavages-Andrew, an ancestral ranger with Saguaro National Park and also a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, coordinates trips for native youth to participate in the harvest. “It’s important for the youth to get their hands dirty and take part in the processing,” she says. Vavages-Andrew says the trips also reveal the deeper meaning of the harvest, which signals the O’odham New Year. The actual date of the New Year comes in the first half of July, depending on the end of the harvest and the coming of the rains.

For many years the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum brought classes and workshops to Stella’s camp. One year Gary Owens signed up for one. An Akimel O’odham from Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Owens had wanted to learn how to harvest for years, but couldn’t find elders in his district to teach him.

“I was so embarrassed that I had to take a class. There I was with a bunch of tourists and white people,” he said. “But I am forever grateful to the Museum because I had no idea where [Stella] was. I’d been looking for her for a long time.”

Owens returned to Stella’s camp every summer for 11 years. “She was so giving. But she made it clear, ‘I’m gonna teach you, you’re gonna learn. There’s no halfway. You need to embrace all of it.’ It’s true. Whatever ritual you do, you become a part of it.”

Stelling addressing a circle of people with some watos/ramadas behind them.
Stella has taught and trained hundreds of visitors about the harvest at her camp in Saguaro National Park. Photo by Kathleen Dreier

Barbara Rose who runs Bean Tree Farm—a desert farm offering hands-on workshops about desert foods, herbs, and earth-building—started helping Stella harvest in the mid-1990s. “There was always just a real love and attention and welcome and graciousness,” Rose said of the camp. From Stella, Rose learned a stalwart dedication to water conservation. “Stella doesn’t waste a drop of water. Never is anything rinsed and thrown on the ground. You rinse your hands into the water cooking the saguaro syrup,” Rose said.

Rose said Stella’s devotion has inspired her own resilience at Bean Tree Farm. “She’s a really good model for me when I think about how many years I’ll be fighting for the watershed in my backyard. She’s had multiple tragedies, personal tragedies, and physical ailments and pains and she just keeps on keeping on.”

Not unlike a saguaro.

In her 30 years of returning to the camp, Stella has indeed seen her share of new growth and death. “In our stories that we tell, we look at the saguaros as people,” Stella said. “I have my favorite saguaros that I go and talk to and see how they’re doing, see what kind of damage they’ve had. Some of the saguaros are no longer there. They just died and fell to the ground. They gave me so much fruit, you know? I always thank them for that.”

Learn more

Support Stella’s camp and continuing efforts to educate young O’odham about the tradition here.

Arizona Illustrated featured a special segment about Stella produced 25 years ago for “The Desert Speaks” (starts at 17:15).

Listen to an interview with Stella Tucker hosted by Kimi Eisele on The Saguaro Minute, KXCI, 91.3 Community Radio.

1 thought on “Desert Matriarch: Stella Tucker, 1947-2019”

  1. Beautiful story! Beautiful Stella!!
    I remember Saguaro National Park back in 1956-57. So happy to read this. Many thanks!


Leave a Comment

Skip to content