Cocopah’s oldest traditional Indian woman, Rose Wilson, walked on Saturday, February 25, 2017 at the age of 104. She was days short of reaching her birthday, and is the last of the truly traditional Indian people.
Born a little over a month after Arizona became a state, she encountered the days of riding horses to cars, then man walking on the moon and so much more. She lived a humble life, living in a mud house roughly until 1977 she then moved into a house that was built for her. Cooking from her wood-burning stove, she ate a well-balanced diet and walked daily on the North Cocopah Indian Reservation near Yuma, Arizona.
She was fluent in a number of Indian languages Cocopah, Quechan, Kumeyaay and other Hulkan tribal languages. Rose lived over a century of visualizing and capturing history in the making.
She spoke of many stories of tribes that are Bird Singers and how they were aligned through the traditional peon games that go back thousands and thousands of years. She even told stories of the ocean when it connected to the Salton Sea. She also talked about when the Colorado River rushed through in the spring causing flooding that helped grow the wild spinach. She related memories of sea turtles laying their eggs along the beaches of the river, and taking some to eat, then caging the remaining for protection from coyotes.
During the Second World War training planes flew over her house, then thinking the planes were Japanese fighters she ran into her the house to get her shotgun. By the time she came out the planes had already passed. When hearing this story, Nellie LeGaspe (Sioux/Apache) said, “She is the epitome of a strong traditional Indian woman. It was a great honor to meet her and listen to her tell stories of her life.”
Rose grew up in an era of harsh conditions of Indian political policies when children were taken from their families. In this case, she’s one of seven orphans that later thrived in larger families. Working in the fields picking cotton as a youngster she talked of her hands being scarred from the work. She also talked about when three of her sisters were thrown off the horse because the horse didn’t like when all three were on him. Although working the fields, riding the horse was a treat for her.
She had a humorous side as well, there was a time when taking her daily walk a person asked her where she lived, she looked with a serious glimmer saying, “By the big tree!” If you ever asked how old she was, Rose distinctly said, “I’m 16!” You never knew what to expect if she was ready to have fun with you.
Many will mourn her death, but know she lived a full circle of life. She carried a deep history and a cultural expertise that expands beyond scholarly research. Her passing is a wake up to carry on true traditions and language. This is not only a loss for the Cocopah tribe but all tribes across the Indian country.
Karris Wilson, Quechan/Cocopah, is director of Native Students at the University of Southern California and one of Rose Wilson’s grandchildren.