Michael Chiago

O'odham Lifeways Through Art

Michael Chiago Sr. (Author), Amadeo M. Rea (Author)
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This book offers an artistic depiction of O’odham lifeways through the paintings of internationally acclaimed O’odham artist Michael Chiago Sr. Ethnobiologist Amadeo M. Rea collaborated with the artist to describe the paintings in accompanying text, making this unique book a vital resource for cultural understanding and preservation. A joint effort in seeing, this work explores how the artist sees and interprets his culture through his art.

A wide array of Chiago’s paintings are represented in this book, illustrating past and present Akimel O’odham and Tohono O’odham culture. The paintings show the lives and traditions of O’odham people from both the artist’s parents’ and grandparents’ generations and today. The paintings demonstrate the colonial Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American influences on O’odham culture throughout the decades, and the text explains how wells and windmills, schools, border walls, and nonnative crops have brought about significant change in O’odham life. The paintings and text in this book beautifully depict a variety of O’odham lifeways, including the striking Sonoran Desert environment of O’odham country, gathering local foods and cooking meals, shrines, ceremonies, dances, and more.

By combining Chiago’s paintings of his lived experiences with Rea’s ethnographic work, this book offers a full, colorful, and powerful picture of O’odham heritage, culture, and language, creating a teaching reference for future generations.

Watch “Master watercolor artist and muralist Michael Chiago on his native Tohono O’odham Reservation in Southern Arizona” by Stefan Falk.


"Mike Chiago's work to me is as richly relevant and emotionally meaningful as the oral histories of the O'odham. It is a visual record the O'odham himdag—the Piman way of being-in-place that shimmers before our eyes. Mike's work is as significant to Southwestern American cultural history as the works of Yaqui Mario Martinez, Zuni Alex Seowtewa, Chicana Judy Baca, Chicano Leo Tanguma. Mike has transcended the stifling moniker of 'folk artist' to graphically celebrate the grace and spirit embedded in the daily lives of these desert people.  Combined with Amadeo Rea's wise and seasoned commentaries from a half century of collaboration with O'odham storytellers, farmers, artisans, and spiritual practitioners, Mike's paintings in this book will be treasured for generations to come."—Gary Paul Nabhan, The Nature of Desert Nature and Arab/American

"Michael Chiago’s paintings bring us home to the desert. His vibrant paintings depict traditional and contemporary O’odham life. Subjects include saguaro fruit harvesters to traditional dancers, dancers real and imagined. The landscape is living, and the clouds seem to move. The ethnobiological writing by Amadeo M. Rea is a wonderful addition."—Ofelia Zepeda, Where Clouds Are Formed

“This book is a remarkable collaboration between a painter and an ethnographer. Michael Chiago Sr., well-known Southwest artist, uses his bright pallet to enliven and at the same time document the daily lives of his O’odham people. Under Chiago’s skilled brush, the rich heritage of the O’odham and their beautiful Sonoran Desert homeland become real to us in this delightful collection. Co-author Amadeo M. Rea’s text explains the cultural content of the paintings in a highly readable style, thus enhancing our enjoyment and deepening our understanding of O’odham lifeways seen in these valuable works.”—Catherine S. Fowler, University of Nevada, Reno

“Michael Chiago Sr.’s paintings provide a window into the lifeways of the O’odham based on his recollections of growing up on the reservation and the stories told by the tribal elders. At a time when reservation life is rapidly changing, this book visually preserves some of the O’odham past and present for future generations."—Shelby J. Tisdale, editor of Federico: One Man’s Remarkable Journey from Tututepec to L.A.

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