THE PEOPLE'S POET: There's a poem in Ofelia Zepeda's new bilingual collection, Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, that begins like this:
Wa nt o m-ne'i g ju:ki ne'i.
Wa nt o n-keihi m-we:hejed.
Just say the sounds phonetically, the way they look, and you'll get an inkling of the rhythmic language of the Tohono O'odham. The poem is called "Ju:ki Ne'i" (Rain Songs), and luckily for English speakers Zepeda concludes the four-line piece with a translation:
I would sing for you rain songs.
I would sing for you rain dances.
I caught Zepeda in her book-crammed office in the University of Arizona Linguistics Department last week. It was the day of the chilly April rains and the raindrops were plummeting out of the sky on their own, without benefit of rituals. Or maybe it was just that the women with the harvesting sticks, the women Zepeda writes of in "Pulling Down the Clouds," had already hooked the clouds to bring on the rain.
Zepeda's new book is full of clouds and wind and morning air and irrigation ditches that turn murderous, weather images that she pulls from her upbringing in an off-reservation O'odham family that worked the cotton fields in Stanfield. Nowadays she's a tenured associate professor of linguistics. One of a very few Native American women professors--she's glad to report that the department recently hired a Navajo linguist, Mary Ann Willie--Zepeda still wears her gray and black hair in the traditional style, long enough to graze the back of her knees.
Twelve years ago Zepeda made her scholarly mark by authoring A Papago Grammar, the only textbook in print of the O'odham language. Since then she's been writing and editing O'odham creative literature off and on for books published by Sun Tracks, an American Indian Literary Series that this year is marking its 25th anniversary as an imprint of the University of Arizona Press. But Ocean Power is the first book-length collection of Zepeda's own poems.
"I started the creative writing in graduate school," she said. "I've published poems here and there and I've done readings of my own and traditional texts. Finally, I decided to focus on a body of poems."
Until the 1960s, O'odham was a purely oral language. The first written version was devised by a pair of missionaries who published an O'odham Bible. A separate system, which Zepeda uses, was developed by an O'odham man from Sells named Albert Alvarez ("Albert had no high school diploma but he was a well-trained linguist, a genius") and Kenneth Hale, a white linguist from MIT.
The new book, one of few published O'odham texts, may do its bit to help preserve the language, which like other native tongues around the nation is in danger of dying. Census figures put the Tohono O'odham at 18,000 people, no small number, but children are rarely learning O'odham as a first language.
"It's a problem," said Zepeda in her quiet voice. "Six years ago a colleague and I did a two-year dialect study. We were surprised to find men in their mid-40s who were monolingual (O'odham) speakers. You have adults who are bilingual and monolingual O'odham. Some people in their high teens had O'odham as their first language and now they're bilingual. More often you get young people who say 'I understand it but I don't speak it.' Children now are not learning it (at home)."
Beside the usual culprits--mass media and an employment market that demands English--Zepeda pointed to the tribes themselves, which she said are not doing much to promote their own languages.
"An endangered language is one where children are not learning it," Zepeda said. "Almost every Native American language is at that stage. The funny thing now is that outsiders are telling us that. It's rare to find tribal leaders talking about it. The priorities are not there. For many tribes, it's a kind of denial." Even the Native American school systems, though a far cry from the old federal boarding schools that used to beat native speech out of children, "fall into the belief that English is the language."
O'odham was the language of Zepeda's childhood home. She didn't learn English until she got to school, but she sidled into bilingualism with no trauma. Zepeda was the first in her family to go to high school, and she credits some devoted Anglo teachers and American Indian political activism with helping plant the idea in her to go on to college. Eventually, she got a master's and doctorate at the UA. But it's to the O'odham oral tradition of songs, prayers, stories and orations that she gives credit, along with her family and old home, for inspiring her poems.
"As a young adult I began to pay much closer attention to different types of oral performers. I remember the medicine man coming to our house, and singing all night long when someone was sick."
As the language itself fades away, so does the rich cache of oral performance. But Zepeda, who keeps in close touch with her family in Stanfield, reinvigorates the traditions in her book. Her bilingual poem "Cewagi" is about clouds, but it could also be read as a metaphor for cultural survival:
They sit, quietly gathering strength.
Gathering strength from the good winds...
'ab daha kc 'ab beihim g gewkdag
'ab beihim 'amjed g s'ke:g hewel.
Ofelia Zepeda will give a free reading from Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (University of Arizona Press, 1995) at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 4, at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway. For more information call 881-6350.
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