The saguaro cactus is important to the Tohono O’Odham Nation’s culture and people. (Submitted)

Visit Saguaro National Park and, besides taking in the stunning beauty of the Sonoran Desert, partake in many of its programs.

Learn about tarantulas from Ranger Jordan Camp or the petroglyphs of the people who once walked this way from Raeshaun Ramon. It’s a true diamond in the town.

Not everyone feels that way, however. The relationship the park has with the Tohono O’Odham nation is complicated. The land the west side park encompasses was once theirs and was appropriated by the federal government. This is the same land where members of that nation and their ancestors once lived and hunted, once gathered the fruit of the saguaro cactus, once cared for the land and its occupants — all the occupants, including the four-legged, feathered and rooted varieties. Members of the Tohono O’Odham Nation still have a shaky relationship with the National Park Service.

“For me, growing up I’ve always heard how the National Park Service and Indigenous nations, there was a very complicated history because the National Park Service claimed these spots,” Raeshaun Ramon said about Saguaro National Park.

He is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’Odham Nation.

“They kind of kicked us out of these areas. A lot of the national park places in the country are within Indigenous lands and where people harvested, gathered, hunted, even had sacred sites within national parks. Over the years, my community tends to stay away from it.”

For the Tohono O’Odham Nation, it’s about the importance of the saguaro cactus to their culture and people, and the West District of Saguaro National Park has the most saguaros in the world, according to Ramon.

“The (saguaro) provides us food with the fruit and it provides us shelter, but also medicine,” Ramon said. “It’s in our songs, in our stories, and we basically say it’s in our blood. We come from the saguaro; we are the saguaro. We see them as our relatives.”

For years, national parks staff considered themselves the storytellers of the land,

but these staffers were all too often American men of European descent. Nothing wrong with that, but as a nation we are more than that.

As the community engagement and outreach coordinator, Cam Juarez handles all the special events at the park.

“My primary reason for being hired was essentially to create a pathway for underrepresented audiences to become more aware and potentially more involved with Saguaro National Park,” he said. “That is the beauty of what we do. We are constantly trying to find the connections.”

To that end, Juarez has found numerous opportunities to expand the park’s outreach. Every year staffers make more than 40 visits to area activities such as the Tucson Book Festival, where he emphasizes engagement with the community. It only counts as engagement if a staffer speaks with a member of the public for more than 5 minutes, he said. Juarez plans events for underrepresented communities. That includes a recent naturalization ceremony; Saguaro National Park was one of only five national parks to host the ceremony, according to Juarez.

He has erected ofrendas for Día de los Muertos at the west and east sites. Along with the Friends of Saguaro National Park, he set up and hired the members of the Next Generation Ranger Corps, which is how Ramon came to the park.

With the help of the Friends, the Next Generation Ranger Corps came to life in 2015. Students from UA and Pima Community College come to the park to work for a half or full year to learn about the jobs at the National Park Service. For people like Ramon, who strives to become a park ranger, it allowed him to come to terms with his sense of injustice and distrust and to see things in a new way.

“A lot of families (from my culture) like to come here to either harvest (saguaro fruit), hike or whatever, and over the years there is always conflict, whether it’s being watched by the park rangers or law enforcement, (or) the permit process: How much can you collect? Where can you collect?”

That permit process, which allows Indigenous populations to harvest the fruit that comes from the saguaro, discourages many from the Tohono O’Odham nation from visiting the park. Community members say, ‘‘Oh, I don’t want to come here because I don’t want to be watched all the time. I don’t want to go through this specific permit process in order just to get the fruit or gather any materials,” Ramon said.

Once he took the job with the next gen corps, though, he started to expand his vision of what the national parks, particularly Saguaro National Park, could be.

“I learned those stories, too, and I was afraid, but at the same time I love the land and the culture,” Ramon said. “Coming here, I just told myself, ‘Well, I have to test the waters and see how it is.’ The first few weeks, the first month, I realized that there needs to be a bridge between my community and the Park Service. If I am that bridge, I open the doors for my community and hopefully they can step into a position like mine and then into the green and gray uniform.”

A UA senior majoring in archaeology, Ramon works in community engagement and outreach. He gives programs on saguaro fruit harvest, Signal Hill and the petroglyphs.

“I tend to use what I learned (in school), and I realized that archaeology and anthropology and the Park Service, they go hand in hand, so I think it’s the perfect place for me to be,” he added.

Another next gen ranger is Lizbeth Perez, a student in the bio/diversity program at UA who reignited her love of the outdoors. She graduated last May with a degree in natural resources and never expected to stay here.

“Just seeing that the desert could be so full of life over here really reinvigorated that (interest),” Perez said. “I love the desert, and I’ve been studying it for years at the university. Afterwards, with Cam’s help and inspiration, I’m here now and it’s really incredible. Everything I’ve learned the past five years at the college has been really, really helpful here.”

As a young Latina, Perez, whose specialty is bugs, feels at home right where she is at the park.

“I’m very thankful to be on the west side where we do see more people of color here,” she said. “Otherwise, it has been pretty isolating. It’s kind of eye opening to be in certain spaces, which is still the national parks, but maybe not Tucson.”

Feeling like an outsider sometimes has helped Perez know how to help others.

“It lets me know, for sure keep this in mind for anyone else coming in,” she said. “I am a little bit thankful for that, that I can take my experiences of panic and feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing and keep it in mind for the future for anyone else who comes through, to ensure that they don’t have those experiences.”

Perez sees the next gen corps as an opportunity to open the doors to others who may have not considered that the park is for them as well.

“I really do appreciate this program,” she added. “A lot of time it’s just (inviting) different identities and different ages of people to come in here and find out what National Park Service is about,” she said. “I think it’s really valuable in that way; we don’t have old heads who are keeping everything as it is. It’s really injecting youth and new ideas and diversity. It’s building up a new generation.”

Finally, Camp came into the next gen program also from the bio/diversity program at UA. He calls himself the “white male elephant in the room.” He is a now veteran of the next gen program and then the Pathways Program, which is a steppingstone to becoming a federal employee. He proudly wears his ranger uniform, though his flat hat has seen better days.

Though Camp gives tarantula programs and is working on a game to be played at dusk in the park, he is also a man of his generation — digitally savvy. He prefers to be behind the camera and mic and helps with the park’s Instagram Freddie Friday series, among other digital tasks. It’s a new way to work as a ranger.

“You think about a park ranger, you think about a scientist,” Camp said. “The idea is to be able to take my skill set of digital knowledge and digital interpretation and promote other faces, other people that don’t look like me. That’s the goal.”

Juarez added, “These guys are just coming in with all this ingenuity in all these different ways. They’re changing the park service. We’re breaking the mold with having that perspective that young people bring.” 

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