Wa:k; Where Water Rises


An old postcard shows the San Javier Mission, and the focus of my piece, Grotto Hill, to the East.

This project comprises a painting, on paper, of a sacred landscape on the sovereign Tohono O’odham Nation in the San Xavier District of Southern Arizona. The painting is of the agricultural fields belonging to an Indigenous-led Cooperative whose relationship to the river and land predates occupation by the US, Mexico, and New Spain, and of the surrounding hills, sometimes known as the West Tucson Mountains. The northerly-flowing Santa Cruz River was the life source for North America’s most ancient agricultural civilization – that of the Hohokam and their descendants, the Tohono O’odham.

Agriculture has been practiced along the Santa Cruz River since at least 1200 B.C., and the Hohokam, ancestors of the O’odham, used the Santa Cruz River for drinking water, irrigation of crops, and fishing. In 1691, Spaniards arrived and brought new crops and livestock that degraded the riparian (riverside) habitat. By the 1890s, just a few hundred years after Europeans first arrived to impose new forms of agricultural development, the river had started to disappear as groundwater tables dropped under settler’s thirsty pumps. In the late 1800s, the Santa Cruz was even further diminished by dams built to create Warner and Silver Lakes. Indeed, it was not until the early 1980s that the O’odham secured the water rights needed to continue farming the banks of the Santa Cruz at San Javier, as their predecessors had done for ages.

This piece celebrates ten thousand years of Indigenous agriculture and resilience on the banks of the Santa Cruz and across its greater watershed. My painting will be composed of four pieces, representing ecological balance across four seasons – a concept that is central to the Tohono O’odham Him:Dag, or way of life and that is embedded within the vision statement of the San Xavier Co-Op Farm Association.

By recognizing the pre-colonial significance of a flood plain that has provided for, and been cared for by countless generations of Indigenous residents, and with the blessing and permission of the San Xavier Co-Op, I hope to bring awareness to the human ecologies that allow this special place to continue supporting the Tohono O’odham community’s harmonious way of life. 

A portion of proceeds from the commission of this artwork will go towards making prints that can be sold at the Co-op to raise funds for their work.

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The idea for this project came about in 2020, when I was living along the US-MX border wall in Nogales, AZ, as a resident artist at the home of Mary Darling, a political activist, and long-time borderlands resident. On my frequent trips to Tucson, I would often stop at San Javier del Bac, the site of the ancestral village of Wa:k (where water rises) on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

On these sacred Indigenous lands, I was deeply moved by the vibrant energy of the landscape and by the beautiful sense of tranquility, a feeling I have experienced in other sacred Indigenous places, such as the Comcaac Nation in Sonora, Mexico. I was also inspired by the diverse bird life and the friendly interactions I had with local people, including San Xavier Co-Op Farm Association members.

This locally managed coop and (501c3) nonprofit organization observes agricultural practices that have continued unabated for thousands of years, and though their crops have changed from native food plants to feed for livestock, the Co-Op demonstrates that a reciprocal and harmonious relationship with the Earth is still possible, namely by continuing an ancient legacy of traditional stewardship.

I envision an artwork that instead of centering on the Spanish Jesuit Mission, a common theme of local art, focuses instead on the fields themselves and also on ‘Grotto Hill,’ a rocky outcropping that was no doubt sacred to local people before missionaries arrived and placed a cross atop it. The project also aims to raise awareness about water and conservation issues in the Santa Cruz Watershed, which encompasses 8,200 square miles in Southern Arizona.

The aim of posting current projects is to encourage donations, moral support, and collaboration, and to find potential buyers for my works of art.


If you are interested in any or all of the above, please contact me at alanruizberman@gmail.com with inquiries or call me at 520-858-5617.