No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II
by Ofelia Zepeda
From Rain: Native expressions from the American Southwest, by Ann Marshall. Phoenix: Heard Museum; Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000. Reprinted by permission of the author.
On long hot summer days, the O'odham women's gaze is directed toward the horizon with anticipation of thunderheads and breezes. By mid-morning, as the heat of the land and air builds, white clouds begin to slowly gather. The women seem to quicken their pace. Laundry is hung quickly, they billow and twist in hard gusts of hot wind. This wind that comes before the cooled wind of a summer storm. There is time yet. By late afternoon, more clouds continue to march up from the horizon. They are darker, blue and black, they rumble as they ascend. The imagery of these movements is what inspires the beauty of songs. The Pima Indians sing of this imagery, likening the black clouds to the image of buzzards, black buzzards circling, circling slowly in the distance, and suddenly they descend.
R a i n
The Sun has moved down that way a bit.
It is the women who in between their work judge the pace of the clouds. They are the ones often to give the first warning. They call children in, they move vulnerable animals inside. With covered heads and faces, protected from biting sand and debris, and with only a small opening for their eyes, they step lively, but with caution under the low hanging clouds, clouds so low, it would appear they could stretch out an arm and pull down a cloud in a single, swift motion.
P u l l i n g D o w n t h e C l o u d s
N-kuibadkaj ant an o ols g cewagi.
In their preparation for the rain, they risked walking under the clouds with wisps of preliminary lightning riding just above their heads. These women gathered us all in, and for an unexplained reason make us sit and remain quiet. Our unusual childlike silence made the anticipated storm that much more exciting, that much more dramatic, and certainly that much more fearsome. And as children between the ages of eight and ten, we were certainly afraid. These women, my mother and grandmother, told us to fear these storms. They set examples of how to fear them. And we all learned well.
Like other children, we were not only told not to stand under a tree during a lightning storm, but were told not to be outside at all during a storm. Like many others, our family had elaborate fears that surely must have extended from more logical explanations since forgotten or ignored. My mother, for instance, during a lightning storm would make sure that all of the mirrors and other reflective surfaces were covered so as not to attract lightning. During these storms, we sat in the house without reflections. And it was from distant lines of stories that other explanations came about, some simply to be fantastic stories and others to teach and warn. For instance, some say that when one has naturally curly hair that it is very likely that something fantastic must have happened to the individual. They say that my grandfather had naturally curly hair as a result of standing beneath a funnel cloud and the cloud touched his head for a split second. "The snake vomited on my head," is what my sister remembers him saying when giving an explanation for why he has curls. Thus, one clearly takes chances when chasing funnel clouds, as surely a funnel cloud can cause death, or curly locks.
Similarly, another admonition concerns rainbows. Rainbows are things of beauty, signs of hope. As children, we were told not to point at a rainbow, amazingly enough, when that is the first impulse for a child or anyone upon seeing a rainbow. We were told if we pointed at it, the consequence was that our mother's breasts would go dry. The interpretation of such a harsh consequence is many-fold, especially for children. Visions of one's mother's breasts shriveled and dry might be the first to occur, when very likely the reference was that her milk would not be suitable for her babies if her child pointed at a rainbow. Such a responsibility held in a child's small hands.
The admonition regarding pointing extends to things beyond rainbows, but what is held in common is beauty and youth. O'odham children are also told, for instance, not to point at newly emerging plants in a garden without risking the young, little plant becoming embarrassed or startled and refusing to grow. Very likely the warning about pointing at rainbows is based on the same premise not to scare them away by literally pointing out their beauty.
However, with the fear there was a balance. These women showed us that balance. The balance came in the form of knowing the beauty of these desert storms. The beauty was in the air. The odor of wet dirt that precedes the rain. People like to breathe deeply of this wet dirt smell, it is the smell not only of dirt but of the dry bark of mesquite and other acacias. It is the smell of the fine dust that must settle on all the needles and spines of saguaro and all manner of cactus, the dust that settles on the fine leaves of ocotillo and other leafed plants. It is all those things that give off an aroma only when mixed by rain.
For many O'odham, the sensory nerves and memory have clinging to them that unique aroma of the creosote bush, the waxy covering when touched with just a small amount of moistness emits a pungent odor that is so strongly identified with the desert. For many, this aroma travels distances from vast desert floors and other small patches of desert, but nonetheless so strong that it is striking when it is inhaled. It is truly like inhaling wetness. It is an aroma so powerful that it does awaken O'odham from deep sleep during midnight summer storms. For many, the scent of the creosote is forever. Some O'odham when buried have stacks of branches from the creosote bush placed in their graves with them. It is medicine, it is a beautiful piece of the desert, it is a part of home.
Rain in any form, with any aroma, is appreciated no matter where an O'odham might reside. O'odham living in the city of Tucson look toward the mountains on those long July days, anticipating afternoon rain clouds. And on winter days when the soft rain of the "gentle rain months," November and December, fall, an O'odham is taken back to the rains of summer.
R e m e m b e r e d S u m m e r
An unusually cold December day right around Christmas.
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Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'odham) is a professor of linguistics and American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. In 1999, she was named a MacArthur fellow in recognition of her work writing and teaching the O'odham language. She has published two books of poems, Ocean power: Poems from the desert and Earth movements. Her work also appears in various anthologies including Reinventing the enemy's language, edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird.
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This is an "official" site in that this page was constructed with the assistance and active collaboration of the poet, Ofelia Zepeda. Contains good background information on the author, including links to excerpts from other of her works.
The South Corner of Time: Hopi, Navajo, Papago, Yaqui Tribal Literature
This website, hosted by the University of Arizona Library, contains a digital version of the 1980 book, The south corner of time: Hopi, Navajo, Papago, Yaqui tribal literature. Originally published as part of Sun tracks, an American Indian literary series, it contains both images and writings from Native Americans of the Southwest.
The Heard Museum
The Heard Museum is a private, non-profit museum founded in 1929. Today, its mission and philosophy is to educate the public about the heritage and the living cultures and arts of Native peoples, with an emphasis on the peoples of the Southwest. The educational section of the site contains a curriculum called "Rain"; although developed primarily for use with children in kindergarten and early primary school, it contains much information of interest to older readers as well, with each section of the curriculum focusing on a different Southwestern tribe.
Museum of New Mexico
Older than the state of New Mexico itself, the Museum of New Mexico houses its collection of art, history and culture in four museums and five monuments statewide.
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