Sonoran Desert Natives

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In 1991 Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired at the age of 38. Now, into their 3rd decade of this financially independent lifestyle, they invite you to take advantage of their wisdom and experience.

Sonoran Desert Ancient Peoples

Phoenix, Arizona

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With a unique kind of beauty, and averaging about 10 inches of rainfall a year, the desert offers odd looking trees, craggy bushes and prickly cacti as a landscape. The tranquility and strange beauty of the desert landscape attracted tribes of Native Peoples who thrived here centuries ago.

Those who are unfamiliar with deserts may think of them as barren and hostile wastelands, but deserts can also be lush and beautiful. For thousands of years Native Peoples relied on them for shelter, food and medicine.

To survive, natives had to have an intimate knowledge of their surroundings and take advantage of what the desert had to offer. They knew which plants to gather for food, for fiber and for medicine, and some plants were used for ceremonies. This specialized knowledge of plant use has been handed down for generations and some of this knowledge is still in use today. Growing in the desert are over 400 kinds of edible plants and hundreds of others have medicinal properties.


This is a typical Western Apache Household called a wickiup.

Traditionally, the Apache were a semi-nomadic group with a wide range of territory including this Sonoran Desert in Southwestern Arizona. The nomadic lifestyle of the Apache allowed them to move seasonally through a variety of habitats which provided all the materials they needed for food, shelter, medicine, basket weaving and their religious ceremonies.

These low-domed structures as shown in the photo above are made from willow saplings held together by split yucca leaves and thatched with cottonwood and willow branches.

You can see the stone circle used for a fire pit inside the wickiup.

Here I am standing at the entrance of this wickiup to give you an idea of the size. Entire families lived inside these shelters.

Prickly pear cactus offer beautiful subtle shades of green and lavender, and newer paddles appear bright crimson. They are found in most of the deserts in the American Southwest and both the fruits of the cactus and the paddles themselves are edible.

Native peoples knew this and would harvest both the fruit and the paddles, also known as Nopalitos. Filled with slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable, new studies show they are good for controlling cholesterol levels as well.

Nopales are a staple food used in modern Mexico today.


Here is a close look at another species of Prickly Pear cactus.

Nopales were grown and eaten as a vegetable in Central Mexico since before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish explorers took the plant back to Europe where it spread throughout north Africa with the Moors. Today the plant is grown throughout Mexico, parts of the United States and in many areas of the Mediterranean.

This is a mesquite corral and is typical of those built by Spanish ranchers to contain their livestock. Most livestock fences are built of wire today, but the mesquite corrals were low cost and durable.

Life in the desert changed a great deal after the Spanish introduced farm animals. Hauling heavy loads, growing crops, traveling and trading were all made easier by having livestock to help. Of course owning animals added new responsibilities to the daily routine of the rancher.

Mesquite was also used for wheels, handles on new metal tools, and even for saddles. Its pitch was used to dye fibers in basket making, and the bean pods were pounded into a sweet flour used in many foods. Today in Northern Mexico, a popular refreshing drink is made from this flour.

This is an Akimel O'odham roundhouse. Much lower to the ground than the Western Apache wickiup.

To the left of the roundhouse here in this photo is a kitchen also in the style of the Akimel O'odham native peoples. The Akimel O'odham were another tribe who lived in the Sonoran desert which covers southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. These roundhouses were used for storage, for privacy, shelter and for sleeping.

'Akimel O'odham' means River People. River People in the desert? Yes, there are several rivers in this area of the American Southwest - The Gila, The Salt, The Yaqui, and The Sonora.

A closer look inside this open, roofless structure.

The kitchen was a center of activity during the day. When food was being prepared, the roofless kitchen allowed the heat from cooking to dissipate quickly. The low walls are made of arrow-weed.  Mesquite was the primary fuel source, but other woods like palo verde were used as well.

This is another structure typically built by the Akimel O'odham a century ago.

Families moved into Saguaro forests during the summer time to harvest the fruit of these cacti. Ramadas like this one provided much needed shade and ventilation for outdoor activities, and were furnished with beds, cooking utensils, food and water.

Harvested Saguaro fruit is cooked to form a juicy pulp. After straining out the seeds and pulp, the juice is cooked further to make a tasty syrup. The seeds and pulp are utilized in foods such as porridge, jam and seed meal.


Rare, crested Saguaro

The Saguaro has ribs that allows the cactus to expand and contract in response to the amount of moisture it is storing. This ability to store water is a survival adaptation that allows the Saguaro cactus to live in the desert where there might not be rain for months at a time.

A large Saguaro cactus can hold 6 tons of water (!) and a large cactus can lose 2/3 of its water and still live.

Shallow, very wide-spreading roots quickly gather up rainwater even when the rain is short lived. Additional roots, called 'rain roots' grow after a shower and are able to collect even more moisture for the plant.

Who would have guessed that the desert could provide such sweet shade? Rivers and grass-filled marshes allow for abundant plants to grow giving much desired relief from the relentless desert sun.

On this typically heat-scorched day when we visited this exhibit, the shade here was noticeably cooler and most inviting.

Water is scarce but can be found in streams and occasional seeps and springs. These desert oases support many plants that would not normally be found in an area so dry. Reeds, cattail, cottonwood, willow and the very important mesquite trees can all grow abundantly where there is water.

Many grasses have edible seeds, and materials needed for construction are located in these marshes.

Fibrous plants like yucca and agave can be made into rope and twine. Finer fibers can be woven into nets, baskets, shoes and clothing.

For centuries, many types of agave have been used as sources for food often being roasted in pits. The plant was so important, that some desert peoples grew it as a crop instead of relying on gathering it wild. It takes one to four days to roast agave in a roasting pit. The leaves are removed from the short, thick stem of the plant, exposing the 'heart.' The hearts are then sandwiched in between layers of moist vegetation in a rock-lined fire pit and covered with dirt to bake. Freshly baked agave is extremely sweet and low in calories. 

Here is an example of a 'mini' ramada and a small fire pit. Pits used to roast the agave hearts were much deeper. A fire pit this size was most likely used to steam the leaves which took a shorter time period. Leaf pulp was scraped off leaving the fibers which were then twisted and spliced together to make balls of twine.

It's hard to imagine a life in the intense desert heat without air conditioning, water fountains or a grocery store on the corner. But centuries before effective water transport (allowing for golf courses, tennis courts, and international restaurants) man was living here in a direct encounter with nature.

To see extensive desert gardens, displays by artists like Chihuly, or to learn more of the ancient peoples who lived in these harsh climates centuries ago, visit The Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, Arizona.

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About the Authors

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance, medical tourism and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their award winning website, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the popular books, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible available on their website bookstore or on

Retire Early Lifestyle appeals to a different kind of person – the person who prizes their independence, values their time, and who doesn’t want to mindlessly follow the crowd.

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