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

Stella Tucker, Tohono O’odham Keeper of Saguaro Fruit Harvest, Dies at 71
Stella Tucker (Source: Steven Meckler)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A traditional saguaro fruit harvester from the Tohono O’odham, Stella Tucker, has died at the age of 71 on Jan. 9, according to a news release, she was surrounded by family.

Tucker was known for her work making sure that the annual baidaj or saguaro fruit harvest did not disappear. She carried on the tradition from her parents, grandparents and her late aunt Juanita Ahil.

Tucker's aunt harvested fruit from the desert areas west of Tucson, lands that would eventually be designated as Saguaro National Monument by the U.S. Department of the Interior, in 1961. It was a designation that threatened this long standing tradition, as officials prohibited the harvest. According to the news release thanks to letters from friends and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, on behalf of Ahil, then-Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall granted permission for the harvest to continue.

Tucker took over the harvest in 1994 after her aunt's death, she received a special permit from SNP every year to continue the harvest. Saguaro National Monument had been upgraded to a National Park in 1994.

Over the next 25 years Tucker received visitors, students, scientists, artists, and family at her camp, sharing with them the declining tradition of saguaro harvesting and helping 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.

Her main interest was engaging Tohono O’odham youth to help 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."

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

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.

Memorial services will be held Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019 at San Xavier at 9 a.m.

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