The nucleus of this community is centered around the former Dominican mission site of Santa Catarina, with outlying ranches dispersed throughout the 67,828 hectares of high plain, mountain and desert terrain that belong to the Paipai. The community was first formed as a permanent settlement in 1797 when the Dominican order established a mission on a small knoll overlooking a wide valley near a permanent stream. The Dominicans attempted to settle members of the southern Kumiai and Paipai groups into a permanent settlement based on an economy of agriculture and livestock. Although the mission system failed and the Santa Catarina mission itself was destroyed in 1840 by an alliance of Indian groups, agriculture and livestock have remained an important part of the Paipai subsistence strategy along with wage labor and utilization of natural resources.
Following the destruction of the mission, the community moved several kilometers downstream to San Miguel, where a broad, fertile plain would provide excellent farmland until the 1950's. At that time, "floods washed away the topsoil, the plain filled up with sand, and the water went underground" (Benito Peralta).
The community moved back up to the area around the former mission site where it has remained through the present, although a limited amount of crops are still planted in the San Miguel area. Many permanent or seasonal ranches are also found around other permanent streams or springs throughout Paipai territory.
Raising livestock has long been an important economic activity for the Paipai, especially since the large amount of territory and its division into higher and lower altitudes conveniently allows for winter and summer grazing. Agriculture has for the most part been carried out at individual family ranches or parcels, as well as sporadic attempts at larger scale projects at San Miguel and on the wide plain adjacent to the mission site. The clearing of natural vegetation at this latter site has been blamed by residents for the accelerated erosion of the community's main stream, where much vegetation and topsoil has been lost, the stream bed has deepened, and sand has filled the wash.
Residents mentioned other examples of soil erosion. "Nowadays, when it rains hard it opens up great big cracks in the ground. That didn't used to happen". The impact of grazing needs to be carefully studied, since much of the erosion in the community follows the typical pattern of environmental degradation caused by overgrazing.
Elders also commented on long term climate change. "Winter rains used to come in October, now they might not come until December. The summer heat seems to burn more, we have seen plants like Manzanita dried out by the heat. Many of the wild fruits no longer produce like they used to".
A growing number of artisans in the community generate a significant amount of income through the making of traditional paddle and anvil coil pottery. They gather clay from specific deposits, usually locations associated with specific families. Currently clay is gathered in relatively small quantities by hand.
Natural resource management is a critical issue for the Paipai. Access to resources such as palmilla (Yucca Schidigera), juniper, and piñon (pine nuts) depends on the ability of the Paipai to pay for expensive permits, especially when an environmental impact study costing 10 to 20 thousand dollars is required. Traditional management techniques often mitigate the impact on resources, however as utilization shifts from personal consumption to commercialization, studies are needed to determine the expanded impact of larger scale production.
Jamau, a large part of Paipai territory to the east of the present community, has been taken over by neighboring ranches who have managed to acquire a presidential proclamation deeding them the title.