WASHINGTON -- Hearing a phrase of Tohono O'odham in Washington is like
catching sight of a rare and beautiful bird. It's a language of hushed,
lilting sounds, perfect for making songs about rain and corn or writing
poems about desert clouds.
That's how Ofelia Zepeda, linguist and writer, began a public talk at the
National Museum of the American Indian one evening late this fall -- in
O'odham, her native tongue. She was in town to attend meetings on Native
language preservation and to sign copies of "Home: Native People in the
Southwest," a companion book she co-authored for a recent exhibit at the
Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Like many people native to the Southwest, Zepeda's life is a braid of
different languages and lands.
Her parents crossed over from Sonora, Mexico in the 1950s and settled on
the periphery of the O'odham reservation in Arizona. Zepeda was born in a
wooden row house in Stanfield, surrounded by fields of cotton, and didn't
speak any English until she was 7. She told her audience she felt "too
lazy" for the labor of picking cotton and decided to get an education
instead, becoming the first in her family to finish high school. In fact,
she may be the first person in American history to earn a doctorate in
linguistics and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for being too "lazy."
Zepeda is co-founder and director of the American Indian Language
Development Institute in Tucson, Ariz., a summer residential program that
trains teachers how to instruct Native languages and integrate them into
Endangered languages are a global problem, Zepeda urged. "Language shift,"
which began in earnest with European contact in the Americas, has only
lately been perceived as a serious threat to tribes. English speakers don't
think much about language, she said flatly, "the way they don't think about
breathing." Other communities fear their last linguistic gasp is near at
Zepeda's tribe numbers about 22,000, half of whom speak O'odham, a
percentage many tribes would envy. Not all of its speakers are even
bilingual. Zepeda recounted translating in a city court recently for an
O'odham in her 20s who couldn't speak English, a sign the tribal language
is not the sole preserve of elders.
But young people aren't learning the language at home, said Zepeda, and in
school they get stuck in O'odham classes that are isolated from the rest of
the curriculum. Asked about the future of her mother tongue, she gazed
around the auditorium and replied sheepishly, "I can't lie, because my
friends are here." Zepeda went on to explain she is still waiting for
tribal leaders to do something decisive about language loss.
They did do something about the old tribal name, Papago, a word derived
from the O'odham phrase for "bean eaters." "I haven't heard that word in a
long time," Zepeda laughed. She mused that a novice speaker probably
approached a tribal member long ago and mixed up the question "Who are
you?" with "What are you eating?" -- and his answer stuck ever after as
their public name. In 1986 the tribe put forward its own words for "desert
people" -- Tohono O'odham -- and reclaimed its traditional name through an
act of Congress.
A practical writing system for O'odham, devised in the 1960s, has official
status. But aside from Zepeda's books and an occasional article in the
tribal newspaper, the script is confined to scholarly efforts.
"The nice thing about language," Zepeda said, "is that it's something that
can be taught." In fact, Native Hawaiians and the Maori of New Zealand are
pulling languages back from the edge of extinction. But she is wary of what
could happen even to a seemingly strong language like O'odham if nothing is
done to stop the persistent trend of language drift.
A linguist at the University of Arizona, Zepeda sharpens her language
skills as a working poet. Her poems, often about women, range from an elegy
for an aging centenarian with floor-length white hair to a fond
recollection of the poet's mother, whom the family knew as the "best
tortilla maker west of the Mississippi."
Sometimes it's a phrase, sometimes an idea that moves Zepeda; it might be
20 years before it's ready to be written down. She writes in two languages,
as different from one another as a hawk and a thrush. An O'odham poem
rendered in English, she advised, is more a complement than a translation.
For all her learning and education, Zepeda, like many O'odham, lacks
"papers." She was born at home and has no official documentation of her
origins. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she's even had trouble
traveling to Mexico, the land of her ancestors, without an affidavit
testifying to her birth. "Who was there when I breathed a first breath?"
she read to the audience from one of her poems. "Who knew then I would need
Her parents, illiterate in English, "spoke a language much too civil for
writing," Zepeda said. Those words brought tears to the eyes of a woman who
has picked cotton, published a grammar of O'odham, established an
international name and fought the battle to keep a soaring language alive.