From The Arizona Daily Star (6/23/99, p. A1)

O'odham poet strives to preserve languages

By Pila Mart’nez
The Arizona Daily Star

A Tohono O'odham linguist and poet who has helped native communities preserve their languages was named today as one of the nation's new MacArthur fellows.

Ofelia Zepeda, 45, joins a prestigious group of scientists, scholars and artists selected annually to receive the so-called "genius grants" - five-year, no-strings-attached awards worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and given to people judged to be among the most creative in their fields.

In awarding Zepeda $320,000, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation stated that "her singular work in advancing the field of native language scholarship positions Zepeda as a unique force on behalf of the continued life of endangered languages."

Zepeda, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona, spoke nothing but O'odham until she entered grade school in Stanfield, the town near Casa Grande where she grew up. When she enrolled at the UA as a young woman, she declared sociology as her major but continued studying her native language on the side.

Desiring to become become literate in O'odham, she bought a collection of stories written in native languages, assuming she would be able to read them.

She couldn't.

At the same time, the UA's burgeoning linguistics department was recruiting students who were native speakers, and one of the people Zepeda had enlisted as a language tutor suggested she meet with one of the department's organizers.

Until then, she had never considered making a career out of her first language.

"I spoke the language and that was about it. I never thought about any of the possibilities . . . the fact that it could be studied," she said.

But she ended up changing her major the next semester and went on to earn bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in linguistics.

As a graduate student, she wrote the first O'odham grammar book, "A Papago Grammar." She also has published two books of poems written in O'odham and contributed to several collections of American Indian literature.

Many native languages are disappearing. Fewer than 1 percent of the Tohono O'odham people can read and write their language, according to Zepeda.

Zepeda has worked to reverse that trend from several angles. She helps put together an annual conference focused on preserving and teaching American Indian languages; conducts training seminars for American Indians interested in teaching; and has helped tribes develop native language programs for their schools.

Some don't see a connection between the linguistic study of native languages and their usage in literary works.

Zepeda does.

"If you look at the study of linguistics, where it is somewhat of a small field and in many cases it's still considered sort of an esoteric field anyway, it's not that common for linguists to really stray too far from pure linguistic study and research and teaching and so forth," she said.

But for American Indian linguists, "there's more to language than that. There's more that you can do with language than just study it."

Her own studies led her to American Indian writers, and the idea that providing native people with literature written in their own tongue could encourage them to learn to read it and write it.

She incorporated the concept into her O'odham language classes, which she began teaching as a graduate student.

Zepeda had her students write poetry and songs, and then she edited them, photocopied them, stapled them together and passed them out again. "And that was our reading material," she said.

She hasn't decided how she'll use her fellowship, but it likely will include some of the community work for which the foundation praised her.

For now, she knows she'd like to focus her attention - usually divided among several native languages - on just the O'odham language.

Among the projects already on her mind are a comprehensive dictionary of the language and a communitywide effort to promote use of the language.

She'd also like to tackle a pile of O'odham collections she wants to translate into English. And a few years from now, "I'll have a little more time to devote to my own writing, particularly the poetry."

The MacArthur Foundation awarded 31 fellowships this year, with stipends ranging from $200,000 to $375,000. Fellows can use the money however they want and are not required to produce or report anything by the end of their fellowships.

A total of 563 fellows have been named since the program began in 1981, including seven Tucsonans and four people from other Arizona cities.

Zepeda said she hopes her selection illuminates the need to preserve native languages.

"I certainly think that this award and the type of work that I've been involved with will bring . . . attention to our situation," she said.