May 9, 2024 | By:

Tohono O’odham Students, Elders Name Arizona’s Newest Wild Jaguar

Photo of O:shad taken April 3, 2023 on Federal remote field camera released to Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act Request. (Image credit: Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.)

Photo of O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam taken April 3, 2023, on Federal remote field camera released to Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act Request. (Image credit: Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.)

SAN XAVIER, Tohono O’odham Nation— Students from schools on the Tohono O’odham Nation, as well as groups of elders and nearly 1,000 Tribal members, have voted to name the newest detected wild jaguar to enter the United States from Mexico. The name chosen is O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam, which means “Jaguar Protector” in the O’odham language.

(O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam is pronounced OH-shahd NOO-KOO-dum.)

“The return of jaguars to our land is a source of immense pride and profound hope. Since time immemorial the Tohono O’odham have shared our homelands with the jaguar,” said Chairman Austin Nunez of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “As O’odham we view jaguars as protectors of our people and the environment. O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam’s presence serves as a powerful testament to the resilience of nature and the importance of ongoing conservation efforts. We are committed to working to ensure a safe and thriving future for O:ṣhad and, one day hope to see the return of a breeding population of jaguars to this region.”

O:ṣhad’s journey began somewhere in northern Mexico after he left his mother’s side and traveled north into Arizona in early 2023. Since then he has been documented in at least two Sky Island mountain ranges across the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham.

“As a Tohono O’odham student I am honored to vote alongside my community for an O’odham name for the newest wild jaguar here in our traditional lands,” said Cedric Lewis, a 12th grade student at Tohono O’odham High School. “It reminds me of the important role jaguars play in our ecosystem and their cultural significance for the Tohono O’odham Nation. Using our language to describe such a special animal shows respect for the traditional knowledge and connection the Tohono O’odham have with the land and animals. It’s important to celebrate this kind of cultural recognition and continue to learn from Tohono O’odham traditions how to protect jaguars and their habitat.”

Remote field cameras set by various groups including researchers, conservationists, hunters, hobbyists, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have detected O:ṣhad over a dozen times beginning in early 2023 and as recently as February 2024. For the cat’s protection, sensitive location data should not be made public.

“The Sonoran Desert is the ancestral homelands of the Tohono O’odham People. They have always been the original Jewed Ka:chim (Mother Earth) protectors,” said Kii’yaa’nii Ross, an 8-year-old member of EcoTruths for Indigenous Youths. “It is also the ancestral home to many animals, including the jaguar. I am happy that we voted for the jaguar’s name to be in O’odham (O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam), which means jaguar protector. The jaguar is a sacred being to many Indigenous people. Jaguars are large predators that are important to the balance of the ecosystem. They are indigenous, they are vital and they belong here. We must all protect and defend the sacred.”

The jaguar is the Western Hemisphere’s largest felid species and the third-largest cat globally after tigers and lions. Jaguars evolved in North America before expanding their range to Central America and South America. Native peoples in the United States since time immemorial depicted jaguars in artifacts and described them in oral accounts and ceremonially. Explorers and colonists encountered jaguars from California to the Carolinas. Unfortunately, jaguars in the United States were killed off one by one, often due to government-sponsored killing, without concern for their ecological importance.

“Apex predators occupy the highest trophic positions in food webs and serve profoundly important roles in ecological and evolutionary processes, shaping the traits of prey and how they interact with one another and the entire ecosystem,” said Aletris Neils, Ph.D., executive director with Conservation CATalyst. “The removal of an apex predator, like jaguars, causes negative chain reactions for the entire landscape, including people.”

Tohono O’odham territory stretches across both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. O:shad is now the fourth jaguar since 2015 to live in and around O’odham lands north of the border. Other recent jaguars include El Jefe, Yo’oko Nahsuareo (Yaqui for Jaguar Warrior), and Sombra. The Sky Island Mountains in and around Tohono O’odham territory in what is now called Arizona and Sonora, Mexico have always been home to wild jaguars.

“Naming O:shad continues the Tohono O’odham’s deep history of regional land stewardship for which we’re deeply grateful,” said Russ McSpadden, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These mighty cats once roamed all the way northward to the Grand Canyon. They’re vital to the web of life in the region and they keep coming back because they belong here. O:shad’s story should inspire us to restore a thriving population of jaguars across their native habitat.”

Phots of EcoTruths for Indigenous Youth students at April 27 Earth Day event at community center at San Xavier District, Tohono O'odham Nation (Credit Aletris Neils / Conservation CATalyst)

Phots of EcoTruths for Indigenous Youth students at April 27 Earth Day event at the community center at San Xavier District, Tohono O’odham Nation (Credit Aletris Neils / Conservation CATalyst)

Names were originally proposed by students from Tohono O’odham High School, other Tribal schools, and from the community. These names were translated into O’odham by students talking with their relatives and from follow-up meetings with Tribal elders. Tribal elders collectively whittled the list of names down to 10 and these names were verified with Tohono O’odham linguistics with support from Tribal council members before voting commenced.

Elizabeth Ortega, culture and language teacher at the San Xavier Education Center provided oversight on the spelling. Participants who voted included students from Tribal schools, elder organizations, Tribal governments, and community members. Nearly 1,000 people voted and over 99% of respondents self-identified as Tohono O’odham or Native American. The process began in summer 2023 and took nearly a year to complete.

“This project evolved from the ground up with time, cooperation, partnership, and respect,” said Neils. “Jaguars and Tribal nations share a similar history, and each jaguar that returns to their native lands is a symbol of hope that past injustices can be overcome.”

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