O'odham teen reflects on her culture
Arizona Daily Star
May 31, 2007

Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/185410

By Ashley Escalante  

Throughout my whole life, I've always been taught to say "goodbye" because it's a polite way to end conversations. But in my culture, the way of the O'odham people, this word doesn't even exist. My great-grandma Rosella Ortiz, who lives in Sells, simply hangs up the phone whenever she's done talking. The reason she doesn't say goodbye is that she believes she'll always see friends and family again.

Even though I'm a city kid who grew up knowing very little about O'odham culture, I've been learning a little more about how my native language is linked to my heritage. Thanks to the first O'odham language class offered at Sunnyside High School, I've started to connect myself to the O'odham himdag (way of life).

I only lived on the reservation for the first four years of my life, but I still have a lot of family who live there. When I'm there, I stand out, like a dark silhouette against a white background. Learning the language is absolutely necessary for me to understand my family's culture because all of the traditions are integrated into the language. When I listen to the songs and prayers, I think, "Wow, that would make a lot more sense if I knew what they were saying."

Clarinda Nuñez and Delphine Saraficio, cultural language teachers from the San Xavier Education Center, came to my O'odham class at Sunnyside once a week to teach traditional basketweaving. The steps to make the baskets, along with the materials, only have names in O'odham; the words for these motions and tools don't exist in English. Every time our instructors said "pass me the…" I always had to ask for a translation. A simple task like weaving a basket turned into something harder than I ever thought it could be.

I want to learn O'odham in order to honor the language my great-grandma Rosella had taken away from her. She grew up speaking O'odham. My mother told me that my great-grandmother was sent to boarding school around the age of 7 and quit school around the age of 16. During that time, she was forced to learn English. Back then, there were the missionaries who moved into not just San Xavier but Sells, too.

When I was little, I heard stories from my mother about abusive nuns at my great-grandmother's school. When my great-grandmother was taken into boarding school, she did not speak English, just O'odham. She didn't know English, and she was punished for speaking O'odham each and every time she did. In the beginning, they cut her hair shorter and shorter until she had none. After that, she was punished by having her head stuck in the toilet. She still has lines on her legs from being slapped with a stick. While raising all her children, my grandmother included, she spoke to them only in English. Although she probably felt more comfortable speaking in O'odham, I doubt she wanted them to go through the pain she did.

Imagine what it would feel like to grow up speaking English, and then were forced to speak another language. Would you be angry? Confused? Would you simply stay silent? Imagine if no one knew the language you grew up speaking. That's most likely how my great-grandmother feels. That's probably how many O'odham elders feel.

The words that are present or absent in a language often represent how that particular culture understands meaning in the world. For example, the fact that people in my culture never say goodbye implies that we believe you never truly leave friends. The word "thank you" doesn't exist in O'odham culture, either; sharing is simply implied, and we believe that all good deeds come back to the giver in some way. When traditional O'odham names change in order to accommodate English speakers, we lose the meaning of the original word. For example, in O'odham each district and village has a name that describes the physical place.

Many of these districts have been renamed in English, and the names lose their significance — they simply become easier to say. The name of the O'odham district of Gu Vo came from the original name Ge'e Wo'o which means "big pond." But Gu Vo, an English translation, has no meaning to the O'odham people.

In order to stop O'odham language loss, we need more youth to learn the language —because one thing that no one can control is time. There is no O'odham word for computer. With no words for new technological advances, how can the language be expected to continue? Just because we have no new words doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn the old ones! If the O'odham language is lost, won't the culture also disappear?

South Side