Huhugam Ki: Museum Hosts Annual Tortilla Festival

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The annual Tortilla Festival held by the Huhugam Ki: Museum featured hands-on demonstrations for tortilla enthusiasts to learn how to create their own tortillas.

By Juan Ysaguirre (O’odham Action News) and Gary Owens (Huhugam Ki: Museum Manager)

On March 23, another annual celebration in the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community brought out the best of the best tortilla makers and celebrated all things cemait (O’odham) and modiily (Piipaash).

Entering its third year, the Tortilla Festival was organized by the Huhugam Ki: Museum under the SRPMIC Cultural Resources Department. The theme for this year’s festival was “Let’s Make Tortillas!”

Back in 2019, the festival began under the direction of Sharilyn Belone, who was renowned for her tortilla-making skills. With over 60 years of experience, she passed down her knowledge through yearly classes so that the Community could continue to make this important staple into the future. Eventually it turned into a full-on celebration!

The tortilla-making experts arrived early in the morning, around 6 a.m., to prepare their ingredients and begin prepping their fires. When the festival officially opened at 8 a.m., everyone was ready to go. For the next six hours, more than 400 people throughout the day made a tortilla, ate a tortilla, learned to make tortillas, tossed tortillas, or even danced with a tortilla during the festival.

As attendees entered the festival grounds, they were greeted by promos, information and staff from the SRPMIC Cultural Resources Department. The department handed out traditional foods with a twist, such as saguaro jam, mesquite pudding with chia seeds, cholla bud salsa, and rabbit mixed with white tepary beans. This booth was extremely popular, as was the game booth under the vato, where guests could toss a tortilla or bounce dough balls onto the komal for prizes.

Other participating vendors were Dank Drink Lemonade and those selling Piipaash pottery and tchotchkes, aprons and pot holders. As a new addition to the festival, Hayden Flour Mills and Oatman Farms from Gila Bend were in attendance selling their flour goods. Hayden Flour Mills is the rebranded farm located in Gilbert that promotes the growth and use of heritage wheat that the O’odham and Piipaash were harvesting when the first settlers arrived in the area. They donated flour to the event and created a healthy dialogue between the different tortilla makers about how to use the flours.

As the morning continued on, the Two Rivers Band performed a medley of cumbias, chotes and two-steps in the museum parking lot, which served as the festival’s dance floor. Miss Salt River Kennise McGertt, Jr. Miss Salt River Jizelle Juan and Jr. Miss Salt River 1st Attendant Patricia Woody put on their dancing shoes and could be seen doing the cumbia with this year’s Dancing Cemait/Modiily.

Later, more games were held, such as the tortilla/burro relay race. For this, contestants teamed up into groups of three to compete in a relay footrace while wearing a massive tortilla blanket which the contestants had to wrap themselves up in. The winners received passes to RoadHouse Cinemas, donated by Discover Salt River.

And in a first for this festival, there were two games specifically for tortilla makers themselves. The first was to see who could flap a dough ball to the largest diameter and who could flap out two dough balls into tortillas in the fastest time while blindfolded. Both games were won by the Tohono O’odham women who came up from the village of San Lucy and who also gave the loudest cheers.

And for the first time in a while, more than 25 tortilla experts from the SRPMIC, Gila River, Tohono O’odham and Ak-Chin all brought their “A” games and happily showcased their traditional techniques for the happy crowd. Salt River had over a dozen tortilla makers giving out samples and teaching people how to flap out a tortilla. Every two hours, a different group in the west uk’sa/’iish (wind-break structure) demonstrated their special techniques for making the dough and flapping out the tortillas. The stars of the event were the Tohono O’odham from down south, who made humongous bread for the enthusiastic spectators. Some of the makers sold their tortillas, and lucky were those who got a half-dozen to take home.

Prior to the event, Josie Enos talked of a time when it was unspeakable to offer to sell tortillas to the people. “Back then everyone made tortillas, and it seemed a little insulting to offer to make them to sell. But that’s all changed now. Now we look for good tortilla makers because some of us don’t have the time or know-how.”

While a large crowd was enjoying the festivities at the front of the museum, the museum’s kitchen patio was the site of four tortilla-making classes. These hour-long classes, taught by four different set of instructors, featured tips, tricks and pointers to help the attendees ensure that their tortillas came out as near to perfection as possible. By the end of the class, attendees walked away with expert advice for making their own batches of delicious homemade tortillas.

While the sun never quite poked its head out of the clouds during the Tortilla Festival, the overcast skies provided wonderful daytime weather for all to enjoy the outdoor celebration. Salt River came out, and so did visitors from all over the Valley. When the festival came to a close at 2 p.m., everyone went home happy with their minds full of new memories and their bellies full of delicious tortillas. All are looking forward to next year’s event, as it will hopefully continue to grow.

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