Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ofelia Zepeda's OCEAN POWER

While I was in Tucson last week for the American Indian Language Development Institute, I listened to Ofelia Zepeda read some of her poems. She was a guest speaker in Angie Hoffman's class on children's literature. Dr. Zepeda read from her book, Ocean Power.

She read "Pulling Down the Clouds" and at this line...

With dreams of distant noise disturbing his sleep,
the smell of dirt, wet, for the first time in what seems like months

... my thoughts turned to being home, at Nambe, smelling the dirt when it rains. It is a bit hard to explain, and no doubt many of you will find it odd, but... The smell and the taste are one and the same. That smell made (and makes) me want to eat that wet dirt. It's a smell like none anywhere else. It's not like a food smell, or a plant smell, or an animal smell. It's unique. Some of our Puebloan homes have mud plaster on interior walls. Splash a little water on that mud plaster, and you get that smell. My mom and dad like to tell of how, when we'd visit my sa?yaa (grandmother in Tewa), after we'd leave, she would find three wet circles in one of her rooms, where me and my two sisters would have had a go at the walls, licking them like lollipops.

Zepeda's book has many poems in it that high school and college teachers can use in the classroom. Here's one of the poems. (Note: The small width on Blogger's program means line breaks don't fall quite right. I know that is a problem. Line breaks matter in poems. To make sure they fall correctly, I'm using a smaller font for the poem. I apologize for its size.)

Deer Dance Exhibition

Question: Can you tell us what he is wearing?
Well the hooves represent the deer's hooves.
the red scarf represents the flowers from which he ate.
the shawl is for the skin.
The cocoons make the sound of the deer walking on leaves and grass.
Question: What is that he is beating on?
It's a gourd drum. The drum represents the heartbeat of the deer.
When the drum beats, it brings the deer to life.
We believe the water the drum sits in is holy. It is life.
Go ahead, touch it.
Bless yourself with it.
It is holy. You are safe now.
Question: How does the boy become a dancer?
He just knows. His mother said he had dreams when he was just a little boy.
You know how that happens. He just had it in him.
Then he started working with older men who taught him how to dance.
He has made many sacrifices for his dancing even for just a young boy.
The people concur, "Yes, you can see it in his face."
Question: What do they do with the money we throw them?
Oh, they just split it among the singers and dancer.
They will probably take the boy to McDonald's for a burger and fries.
Then men will probably have a cold one.
It's hot today, you know.

Ofelia Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O'odham tribe in Arizona. As we sat together, we talked about tribal names. The Tohono O'odham people are among the first, if not the first, to successfully change what they are known as. They were formerly known as Papago.

Zepeda is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. She wrote the first grammar of the Tohono O'odham language, A Papago Grammar. In 1999, she won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. In Ocean Power, many of the poems have both, English and Tohono O'odham in them. Ocean Power is available from Oyate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The description of tasting/smelling the earth reminded me of the beginning of _The Known World_ where the character would taste the soil each season to see what minerals were present. Would many today even think to smell the soil to know??