When it was first published in 1982, When It Rains was one of the earliest published literary works in the O’odham language. Speakers from across generations shared poems that showcased the aesthetic of the written word and aimed to spread interest in reading and writing in O’odham. In a new forward to the volume, Sun Tracks editor Ofelia Zepeda reflects on how meaningful this volume was when it was first published and its continued importance. Below, read Ofelia’s thoughtful new forward to When It Rains.
Nat hab e-ju: g t-taccui?
Has our dream come true? It has been some thirty-six years since this little book, When It Rains / Mat Hekid O Ju, was published. Our dream at the time was to envision a flourishing contemporary literary body for the O’odham language. At that time in history, we had speakers from all generations, and it would have been tremendous to create a contemporary literary base for those speakers. Certainly, the goal for me was to be part of a group that created literature for the sole purposes of sharing the aesthetic of the written word and perpetuating interest in reading and writing O’odham. This is what I was working toward at the time–practicing writing, practicing reading, and, when I could or was asked, teaching other O’odham speakers to do the same. Since that time, we’ve come a long way with regard to printed matter for Indigenous languages; some languages certainly have been more successful than others, though few have expanded into the realm of contemporary literature. Just as it was thirty-six years ago, most printed works in Native languages are still for teaching or other academic purposes, relegating printed Native language to these settings.
But there is something uniquely different about it now. In 1982, when this volume was originally published, the first language of the teachers whose writing appears in this collection was O’odham–and it was the same for many of their students. Though these language teachers were bilingual in O’odham and English, most were not certified teachers but aides for their classrooms. During the 1980s federal law required many reservation schools to provide funding to support students’ efforts to transition from their Native languages to English. They used a bilingual approach, using both the target language (English) and the Native language to support the students’ transition to English fluency.
Today the language landscape for O’odham is very different; there is no longer a need for O’odham bilingual classrooms or the bilingual method of English education. Instead, teachers move from grade to grade and room to room, bringing O’odham language and culture to the O’odham students in the schools. Some of these teachers are fluent speakers of O’odham, some are limited in their ability to speak it, and still others are second-language learners of their language. Over the last thirty-six years–the span of a generation–O’odham has suffered extreme language loss. The 1990s experienced the greatest language shift to English for many Indigenous peoples such as the O’odham. This extreme shift to English and the loss of Native language has created an urgency to write the language down, to document it in all forms of media, to use it daily.
Currently, many Native American languages, like Tohono O’odham and Pima, are fading out of use. There are myriad explanations for this extreme language loss, including contact by dominant groups and other similar historical events, institutionalized religions, and educational systems generally but particularly boarding schools; the total causes are too many and complex to address here in detail. It must be noted, though, that due to both language shift and language loss, the teaching of both the oral and written forms of the O’odham language can be found largely outside the classroom.
Today, many tribes must necessarily move the teaching of their languages outside the schools and into the community. These community-based teaching settings invite multiple generations to come together to learn, maintain, and revive their language. In some of these settings, the language immersion method is used; this method relies on the oral form as the primary method for language transmission, though there are a number of opportunities to create written literature in the immersion setting. But even though it is not in the school, this literature’s primary purpose is to support language learning. Perhaps the best example is the case of Hawaiian language revitalization in which both oral and written language use have been promoted. Hawaiian is an exceptional case because, prior to colonization, the Hawaiian language had a rich history of writing and publication. The contemporary language revitalization movements have reached back to these early documents and have continued to add to all genres of printed literary production. Aside from this unique case, other U.S. Indigenous language revitalization movements have not been as successful in actively producing much new literary material in their languages.
Despite the tremendous changes that have occurred within the O’odham languages represented in this collection, it should be noted that one thing has not changed: that is that native speakers of O’odham, those who are learning it as a second language, and all those in between are all still struck with the beauty of the language and all that it is capable of rendering. As a speaker, poet, linguist, and teacher of the Tohono O’odham language, I am still amazed by the new words and usages that I come across. The language is still so new and beautiful with each discovery we make about it, and that discovery is in how people choose to use the language as it moves and changes through time. A mere thirty-six years has allowed us to witness changes in certain elements of the language–some of it good, and some not as positive. A language is allowed this flexibility to change and move according to modernity and the creativity of the people. It has always been that way.
But the changes of the language–whether good or bad–become irrelevant when O’odham gather and share the spoken words. Today, both in the Tohono O’odham Nation and in the Gila River Indian (Pima) Community, the people come together during the winter season to continue telling the story of the creation of the people that is all around them. These gatherings are typically hosted by museums and cultural centers or other formal organizations. As always, these events are communal, and people gravitate toward them. I believe the people understand the importance of these events, even though they have changed in appearance from the events of our parents’ and grandparents’ times. These storytelling gatherings remind people that the real purpose of language is to perpetuate our oral history, to remind us of our origins–of who we are. Stories are capable of this. This is what I understand to be the power of words, of language. This power that I wrote of thirty-six years ago is still there for the people, and I believe those who are now working at reclaiming spoken O’odham know this power is there in the words and that they are gaining more than just words when they learn to speak O ‘odham–whether it be Tohono O’odham or Pima.
Finally, I must comment on the content of the writing in this collection. The themes and experiences expressed in the writing of these people are still relevant today. While both the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Gila River Indian Community have grown and developed over time, they are still very rural communities with small villages dotting parts of the reservation; children still get bussed for miles to go to school, and their parents spend a couple of hours commuting to work each day. The rural desert environment also is still an important part of both children’s and adults’ lives; therefore, the themes written about thirty-six years ago are still applicable. There are words about the cycle of the seasons, about rain in the desert; there are words about the sacred mountains, and, of course, there are words of grief and loss and happiness. There are words about certain animals and about how to behave around them; many children still know of these rules. Things have changed, but many things remain the same. The pieces in this collection will be meaningful to many still.
It is important that I document here that when this collection was first released, we organized a poetry reading by the contributors of the collection. The reading was held in Sells, Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation’s seat of government. As we made preparations for this reading, it was hard to predict what would actually happen. This was the first poetry reading ever held on the reservation. We called on many of the contributors to read their piece, and many obliged. We had an emcee for the program, and the venue was the Tohono O’odham Nation’s tribal council building– the largest meeting place in Sells. It was one of the few places that had auditorium-style seating. We mailed invitations to dignitaries of the nation, school officials, and friends. We were not sure who or if anyone would come. I remember working on this with my friend and professor at the time, Larry Evers, who was then the series editor of Sun Tracks. On the day of the event, we made our way to Sells and set up for the reading. Slowly, people trickled in– adults, young people, elders, children. The auditorium was full. We shared our work, reading to a quiet and respectful audience, and afterward, as is typical with such events in the city, we served refreshments. Visiting with members from the audience and friends, I found out to my amazement that many of the tribe’s businesses had closed for the afternoon so that employees could attend the event and that schools had brought busloads of students. We were overwhelmed by their support– or maybe it was their curiosity about the event. Over time, whenever I speak of this experience, I like to think of this event as one that the people knew was going to be about words, making it so important that they all should be there. Though our reading of contemporary poetry was not a telling of the origins, it was perhaps in some way just as powerful.
This collection captured the voices of a small number of language educators, representing both the Tohono O’odham Nation (at the time known as Papago) and the Pima Indians. These educators all were attending a language institute where I was their instructor. I might mention that the language institute, now known as the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), is still very much active at the University of Arizona; it continues to offer courses and training to meet the needs of Native American language teachers, researchers, resource people, and activists. I have been a teacher at AILDI for a long time, and the director for a number of years; during my work at AILDI, I have had the opportunity and honor to work with hundreds of language teachers from across the United States. All of them are special people– but none as special as the group whose writing is in this collection, and by my recollection, this is the first generation of literate O’odham. These educators’ first language was O’odham, and they were trained to read and write in that language. They were our pioneers.
It is poignant to note that some of these educators are no longer with us. I will be saddened to know that the reissuing of this collection will bring the memory of their loved ones to their respective families. I want them to understand that I help bring the memory of their family members with respect and honor. I also want them to understand that their contribution of their ha’icu cegitodag to this collection was truly special. They and their words are remembered here in this work.
University of Arizona
July 24, 2018
Ofelia Zepeda is a poet, regents’ professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for her work in American Indian language education. She is the current editor of Sun Tracks, which was launched in 1971 and is one of the first publishing programs to focus exclusively on the creative works of Native Americans.