A living history book
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 4, 2005

Tribal-language teacher is spreading the word

Judy Nichols
Danny Lopez, 68, worries about dying.

Not because he's ill, but because he's afraid of taking too much of the Tohono O'odham history and language with him.

"Everything that I know I want to leave for my people," Lopez said. "It belongs to them.

"When an elder is gone, what he knows, the songs, the history, whatever he didn't set down, that knowledge is buried underneath the ground."

Lopez, who has worked for decades to preserve his tribe's culture and language, was recently chosen for the first Spirit of the Heard award.

The award, given by the Heard Museum, is to honor a living member of a Southwest tribe who has demonstrated personal excellence or community leadership in a chosen field.

Lopez, who teaches the Tohono O'odham language and culture at Tohono O'odham Community College, also has taught the language and culture to hundreds of children at Topawa Middle School in Topawa and Indian Oasis Primary School in Sells.

He also has taught the language to paramedics so they can speak to Tohono O'odham elders when responding to calls.

A storyteller, singer and cultural expert, Lopez has taught key aspects of the O'odham Himdag - the Desert People's Lifeways - to hundreds of Tohono O'odham youths, adults and elders over the past 30 years.

"Lopez's commitment to his people and community in working tirelessly to teach and preserve the life and culture of the Tohono O'odham Nation makes him the perfect first recipient," said Frank Goodyear, museum director.

Part of tribal identity

Ofelia Zepeda, a Tohono O'odham and a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, said language is a critical part of tribal identity.

"It's one of the main things that makes you a distinct group," Zepeda said.

"The O'odham still having a number of speakers points to the fact that the tribe is still cohesive in that way."

About 15-20 students enroll in Zepeda's Tohono O'odham language class each semester. One of them was Lopez.

But Zepeda said he is both student and teacher.

"He will send me e-mails or call about an O'odham question structure," she said. "I can be his teacher in that way, but he's my teacher in other areas because he knows so much of the language."

Humble beginnings

There is no public record of Lopez's birth. He was born at home in Big Field on the Tohono O'odham Reservation on Dec. 24, 1936.

He attended the two-room Catholic school in Cowlic.

His mother, who spoke only Tohono O'odham, would cook and sew clothes.

His father, who spoke about second-grade English, would earn money chopping wood and helping with the livestock roundups.

"Most of the English we heard was from peddlers who would come selling canned goods," Lopez said.

The family would leave home in May, following the cotton harvest in Coolidge, Eloy, Casa Grande, Picacho and Marana.

"When September came, we would go to whatever school was around," he said.

"In February, the farmers would take us back home in big trucks."

Eventually, Lopez went to St. John's Indian Mission in Komatke. He also attended Pima Community College, the University of Arizona and Prescott College. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education, focusing on the Tohono O'odham language.

More English spoken

And he began to worry about the loss of his native language.

"Everywhere, community members were using more English," Lopez said. "Meetings were conducted in O'odham, but when kids were playing outside, they spoke English.

"I was concerned about the future. The elders are not going to be here forever."

Jon Reyhner, a professor of education at Northern Arizona University, said Lopez's fear is not unfounded.

Research shows fewer and fewer children are speaking the language.

"Within a generation or two if something isn't done the language will be gone," said Reyhner, who has written books on indigenous language and has a book, American Indian Education: A History, that will be published this spring by the University of Oklahoma Press.

"For 100 years there was a concerted effort to wipe out the languages in federal Indian schools and then public schools," Reyhner said.

"It was part of the assimilation effort."

Reyhner said that many tribes in California have lost their language and 50 or so are trying to revive them. Indigenous languages are being preserved in New Zealand and Hawaii, too.

A living museum

"Preservation is important so that when an elder dies all that stuff is not lost," Reyhner said. "Putting it all in a museum or an archive is better than nothing. But these languages need to live and breathe."

Zepeda, who was the first generation in her family to speak English, estimated that about half the tribe, mostly the elders, still speak the language.

"It's wonderful that Danny is getting the recognition for what he does," Zepeda said "He's very good, very conscientious.

"He loves to learn, whether he's being a student or teaching. That's one of the things that keeps him going."

Sharing a song

A video of Lopez receiving his award was played recently for the faculty at Tohono O'odham Community College. Afterward they rose to their feet in a standing ovation.

"When I heard that, I had to go lie down and cry," Lopez said. "I thought of all the people out there, some of them gone, my parents, my sisters, people who were willing to share a song with me. My mother-in-law, I learned a lot from her. All those people.

"I wish they all could have been there. The recognition also goes to them."