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Toka, Traditional O’odham Game, Carried On Through Generations Of Women

toka game
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Players from the Gila River Indian Community play toka.

If you’re a big fan of the Summer Olympics, you’ve probably watched a few field hockey games. The game of toka looks pretty similar, on the surface, but it has roots in Tohono O’odham culture.

Toka teams recently played a tournament in Sacaton on the Gila River reservation. A group of toka players each chose a stick, called an “usaga,” from a pile. Someone picked up a puck - the “ola.” You can’t find these items in a store. They’re handmade out of mesquite, just like they have been for generations.

And the matches are intense.

“It’s really aggressive, and we get tired. We have a lot of bumps and bruises, but it’s all worth it,” Summer Narcho said .

Narcho has been playing toka since she was nine years old; she’s 32 now. Her team is from Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham nation, and they were out in Sacaton for the tournament. 

“A lot of peoples' games are basketball or volleyball or softball, but my game is toka,” Narcho said. 

Toka teams exist across the Tohono O’odham nation and also in the Gila River and Salt River communities. They’re all ages. When Angelina Saraficio started playing toka in the 1960s, it looked a little different. 

“The kids weren’t, I guess, allowed to play. They never played at that time,” Saraficio said.

Toka was always a game for the women in the community. Saraficio used to play with staff members at the elementary school where she taught, but the pastime was fading.

“We did need to bring it back at that time because there were only like three teams that we were always playing against, and there weren’t any more teams,” Saraficio said. “ All the ladies that were on those teams were elderly.”

So, Saraficio started a team of girls through a girl scout troop. That was about forty years ago. Now, tournaments like this one fill up with players of all ages.  

Jennifer Allison is the oldest member of a relatively new team from Gila River. She says the wide age range provides balance to the team.

“The younger ones can emulate the older ones, but of course the older ones would also depend on the younger ones, being that they’re probably faster runners,” Allison said.

Today, the girls have other sports to choose from at school or at recreation centers. Saraficio said she still plays softball, but there’s something special about this game. Toka is a part of tribal legend, played by O’odham women for as long as anyone can remember.

“That gives them that identity that ‘I am Tohono O’odham, I am an O’odham, I am of this certain tribe that used to play this game, and I’m carrying it on,’” Saraficio said.

It’s carrying on a cultural tradition, something best described in Narcho’s team motto. “It says pain is temporary and cultural pride is forever,” Narcho said. 

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.