Saturday, April 8, 2017

O’odham Oral Tradition and Language

Bernard Siqueiros mentioned that “our culture is our language. It identifies us as a people. It's who we are. We know about our past and our beliefs because of language…Without the language, we are no longer O’odham.” This seems to be a particularly definitive statement about what it means to be O’odham. However, the sociolinguistic Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would support Siqueiros’ interpretation because it links cognition to the structure of the speaker’s language. Specifically, in relation to the O’odham, linguist William Pilcher “observed that the Papago discuss events in terms of their probability of occurrence, avoiding any assumption that an event will happen for sure… an element of surprise becomes part of almost everything…When rains do come, they’re a gift, a windfall, a lucky break” (The Desert Smells Like Rain by Gary Nabhan, 6-7). Hence, the worldview and values that define O’odham culture might, in fact, be inextricably linked to the language, therefore necessitating its preservation.

Regarding O’odham oral tradition, Siqueiros explained that listener attention was very important. One technique to gauge attention was to ask the listener whether they remembered the last word they had heard in a story. Siqueiros further said that stories about creation were only told during the winter, an admonition also acknowledged by Sterling Johnson, who alluded to a fear of ill consequences if the rule were violated.

Johnson was able to tell us the tepary bean story because it was still cold outside. Then he told us the story about “The Woman Who Loved Field Hockey,” and he asked us whether we wanted to hear the longer version or the Hollywood version. He decided to tell us the shorter one. Similarly, when Bernard was talking to us about how Baboquivari lost its peak, he also shortened the story, only mentioning that an earthquake had caused it. Admittedly, I wonder if these tribal members told us the shortened versions because we were outsiders, who might not have had the attention to listen at length to longer stories or to appreciate certain aspects of those stories and values that could only fully be conveyed in their longer versions. 

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