Among the Tohono O’odham

By Monica Orozco

IMG_2580As our name implies, the core of our collections focuses on the California Franciscan Missions. This emphasis is reflected in our major document collections, the collections of personal papers from preeminent scholars in the field of California Mission history, and in our main reference library.

So it might surprise many to find that our collections also include materials outside this scope. For instance, we have an extensive photo image collection which dates from as early as 1870 and that covers much of the Southwestern United States, Mexico, and even Spain. And since the use of native languages was often a key part of the evangelical process, we have materials documenting this as well. But perhaps one of our most significant collections from outside of California are the materials that came to us from the Franciscan Missions among the Tohono O’odham in Arizona.

This material is classified as the Oblasser Collection, named after Fr. Bonaventure Oblasser, OFM (1885-1967) who worked among the Tohono O’odham in the early 20th century. This extraordinary historical resource illuminates the complex relationship between the Tohono O’odham and Franciscan missionaries. We are still working on sorting through it all and creating inventories which we will post on our website for researchers to reference (and update as we make progress). But I thought I could at least give you some idea of what a treasure trove this collection is.

The Oblasser Collection spans the first half of the 20th century. To date we have sorted by year general correspondence from the 1910s through the 1930s. Still to be sorted are approximately twenty banker’s boxes of general correspondence from the 1940s through 1960s, material related to San Xavier Mission, St. John’s Mission and school, and the personal papers of friars and sisters at the missions.

But perhaps most captivating is the collection of loose photos, photo albums, and scrapbooks that chronicled life at the missions over the span of fifty years.

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These arrived at SBMAL in large cardboard boxes. The photo albums and scrapbooks were created by the friars and sisters who were also the primary photographers. These we placed in individual archival boxes and interleaved the pages with acid-free paper. But the boxes also contained hundred, if not thousands, of photos and negatives, some left loose and others gathered in manila envelopes. These all had to be individually sleeved and we tried to keep them in the order in which we found them. This work was accomplished primarily by our wonderful volunteers and interns.

Our ongoing goal is to sort through this material, to store it properly, create an inventory, and ultimately catalogue every piece of the collection. This is a long journey we have begun, but if what we have already found serves as example of what lies ahead, my, what a journey it will be!

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2 Responses to Among the Tohono O’odham

  1. Deborah Hunt says:

    This is wonderful. I bet the Tohono O’odham Culture Center and Tohono O’odham Community College would be very interested in finding out how they could get their history back to their collection. They have a state of the art preservation unit at their culture center. My neice is TO and lives in Los Angeles. I will let her know about this so she can come and view it there.

  2. miorozco says:

    Thanks for spreading the word! We would love to have people use our collection for research! We also have state of the art preservation going on in our Archive even though our financial resources are small and this collection is a priority for us. This is an important shared history between the Franciscan missionaries and the Tohono O’odham people.

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