Sympathy for the Devil: Devil Sickness and Lore among the Tohono O'odham

By Reff, Daniel T. | Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Sympathy for the Devil: Devil Sickness and Lore among the Tohono O'odham


Reff, Daniel T., Journal of the Southwest


It is unlikely that Europeans would have succeeded in the conquest of the New World were it not for the introduction of Old World diseases (e.g., smallpox, influenza, malaria) that undermined the structure and functioning of native societies. In 1492 the vast majority of Amerindians relied on oral rather than written traditions to interpret life and its mysteries. The death of countless elders--the main bearers of Indian culture--created a window of opportunity for the invaders, including Mendicant and Jesuit missionaries, who popularized alternative narratives about the known and invisible worlds (Burkhart 1989; MacCormack 1991; Reff 2005).

Along with the Gospels, the friars and black robes insisted on a myth of a fallen angel who was cast from paradise to earth--there to wage a war against the one true God for the souls of humankind. Paradoxically, Satan was powerful yet powerless: while he had no power of compulsion, he was capable of all manner of deception and was relentless in his pursuit of followers who would worship him as God (J. B. Russell 1984, 1986).

At the time of the invasion of the Americas the Jesuits and other religious orders were convinced that the devil was everywhere, setting snares. This was particularly true in the New World, where it was assumed that in the absence of the Gospels, Satan had ruled unchallenged for millennia (Behar 1987; Cervantes 1991). Indians who were questioned about their knowledge of God were told that they had been deceived by the devil; it was he who had frequently appeared to them in their gentile state (e.g., Benavides [1634] 1945:63; Ruiz de Montoya [1639] 1892; Perez de Ribas [1645] 1999).

This paper is about one group of Indians, the Tohono O'odham of southern Arizona (once known as the Papago) and their apparent embrace of the Christian devil. Today there are approximately 20,000 Tohono O'odham living in three separate but allied reservations in southern Arizona. Still other O'odham (numbering perhaps in the hundreds) live across the border in Sonora, Mexico.

Like most Indians, the Tohono O'odham have endured centuries of colonialism, first at the hands of Spain, then Mexico, and most recently the United States. As early as 1539, Spanish explorers invaded the O'odham homeland looking for riches. The Spaniards found no gold and it was another 150 years before the northward-moving Jesuit mission frontier reached what is today southern Arizona. Beginning in 1687, Jesuit missionaries endeavored to inculcate Catholicism among the Tohono O'odham. In 1767, following the suppression of the Jesuit order, the black robes relinquished their missions to the Franciscans. The friars also enjoyed limited success, and in 1842 they too withdrew, leaving the O'odham to imagine and define Christianity largely on their own (Bahr et al. 1974; Burrus 1971; Dobyns 1972; Fontana 1981; Kessell 1976; Kozak and Lopez 1999; Sheridan 1996; Spicer 1962).

The majority of O'odham today are nominally Christian. Like Christians in other parts of the world, the O'odham's Christianity bespeaks what Mignolo (2002:467) has referred to as a "border epistemology," where non-Indian conceptions are acknowledged yet adapted to an Indian epistemic frame. One of the more interesting aspects of O'odham Christianity is a belief in the devil or demons (jiawul in O'odham, which is a cognate of the Spanish diablo). Whereas "orthodox" Christians have no sympathy for the devil or demons, however, the O'odham understand them to be deceased O'odham cowboys who have returned to the land of the living to continue an idyllic life as cowboys, watching over and protecting livestock (horses and cattle). Importantly, the same devils or demons cause "devil sickness," which is one of several dozen "staying sicknesses" that exclusively afflict the O'odham (and occur only in the O'odham homeland). Devil sickness is today the most commonly diagnosed "staying sickness" among the Tohono O'odham and characteristically strikes O'odham who try to get rich off of cattle. …

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