Stella Tucker, Tohono O’odham Keeper of Saguaro Fruit Harvest, Dies at 71

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Local author and artist Kimi Eisele remembers Stella Tucker who passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 9. Memorial services will be held on Saturday, Jan. 19 at San Xavier beginning at 9 a.m.

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   Tohono O’odham elder and teacher Stella Tucker passed away on January 9, 2019 at the age of 71, surrounded by family. Stella, a mother of three daughters, was known publicly for her work upholding the tradition of the annual baidaj, or saguaro fruit harvest, a tradition she learned from her parents, grandparents, and her late aunt, Juanita Ahil.

Juanita Ahil harvested from desert lands west of Tucson, lands that in 1961 were designated by U.S. Department of the Interior as Saguaro National Monument. That designation threatened the camp as officials initially prohibited the continued harvest. Friends and educators from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum wrote a letter on behalf of Ahil prompting then-Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall to grant permission for the harvest to continue.

Stella took over the camp in 1994 after Ahil’s death and received a special permit from Saguaro National Park every year to continue the harvest. (Saguaro National Monument was upgraded to a National Park in 1994.)

For 25 years, Stella received visitors, students, scientists, artists, and family at the camp to share with them the declining tradition of saguaro harvesting and promote the interrelationship between the O’odham people, the saguaro cactus, and the Sonoran Desert. She also taught many workshops at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Stella’s primary interest was engaging Tohono O’odham youth in order to keep the tradition alive. She expressed gratitude that her daughter, Tanisha Tucker, had joined her in running the camp and offering workshops. In a 2017 issue of Edible Baja Arizona magazine, Stella said, “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.”

Tina Vavages-Andrew, the Ancestral Ranger at Saguaro National Park, organized educational visits to the camp for nearly 50 schoolchildren and others every year. “Stella was very patient and willing to share the knowledge she possessed. I most enjoyed her personal stories of her harvesting experiences,” said Vavages-Andrew.

Barbara Rose, who runs of Bean Tree Farm and offers workshops about desert foods, met Stella in the mid-1990s when she went to help her harvest saguaro fruit. “Stella shared her homeland so graciously with all who came to Saguaro Camp. We were fortunate to experience her love and care for the desert and its gifts, the sweetness of its fruits. She kept generations of wisdom safe, and now her daughter Tanisha carries that love and wisdom forward. We will miss her,” Rose said.

In 2018 Stella was awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance in honor of her work upholding, preserving, and teaching the tradition. The award supported her work in passing along the tradition to her daughter, Tanisha Tucker.

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