Devil Sickness and Devil Songs: Tohono O'odham Poetics

By Schwarz, Maureen | Anthropological Quarterly, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Devil Sickness and Devil Songs: Tohono O'odham Poetics


Schwarz, Maureen, Anthropological Quarterly


David Sickness and Devil Songs: Tohono O odham Poetics. DAVID L. KOZAK and DAVID I. Lopez. Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1999; 190 pp.

Reviewed by MAUREEN SCHWARZ Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Syracuse University

This is a very ambitious small book. Using research they conducted amongst members of the Tohono O'odham community (formerly known as the Papago) of Sells, Arizona, the authors describe and analyze devil way-devil lore and jiawul mumkidag, or "devil sickness"-in an effort to demonstrate how the cattle industry, shamanism, and Christianity have fused in the O'odham historical imagination. The structure and sequence of thirty-nine devil songs and numerous accounts of devil-lore are the core data for the study which was completed by David Kozak an anthropologist, and David Lopez, a native intellectual who was a member of the O'odham community.

Devils, the spirits of deceased O'odham cowboys, are prominent residents of the "staying earth," the O'odham homeland, who dwell in caves or hollow mountains. Although humans and devils live apart, devils are part of the human community. Devils spend their days riding horses and chasing and roping cattle. Due to these activities, they frequently come into contact with humans.

As in the Christian tradition in which the Devil is a personage with the ability to act, O'odham devils have volition; it is they who select the people with whom they will communicate. Unlike in the Christian tradition where the Devil is unequivocally evil, devils in the O'odham world are potentially good or bad. Contact with devil spirits can be positive-as when a devil gives the power to cure or to become expert with horses or cattle-or negative. Devils inflict sickness on people who mistreat or show disrespect for livestock.

Focussing on devil sickness in the O'odham shamanic healing system, the authors seek a fresh approach to co-authorship. Their aims are to bridge the cultural and linguistic gap between native and non-native audiences; to describe and analyze the associations which exist amongst devil way, the shamanic tradition, Christianity, and cattle capitalism; and to analyze the curing efficaciousness of O'odham song-poetics (p. 5). Since devil lore and beliefs about devil sickness blend indigenous and Christian concepts and understandings, this subject holds the promise of insight into how the O'odham conceive of life changes since the late nineteenth century.

The authors attempt to capture part of the "experimental moment" in ethnography through multiple levels of collaboration. Included in the layers of collaboration is the fact that a set of four devil songs sung by the Pima singer Hawk Flying in 1902 for Frank Russell and the O'odham interpreter Jose Lewis were retranslated by Kozak and Lopez. Additionally, thirty-five devil curing songs sung by Jose Manol, a O'odham curer, recorded by Donald Bahr in July 1977, which had not been previously translated or analyzed, were translated and transcribed by Lopez and Kozak for use in the work.

Collaboration is also foregrounded by the manner in which the text is constructed to differentiate between the individual opinions and views of Kozak, those of Lopez, and their shared views, represented by use of the first person "I" or "we" respectively. While they must be applauded for attempting to present a "multicultural conversation" (p. 4), the work has limited overall success.

In Chapter One the authors provide background information on O'odham devil way, review the pertinent literature, and outline their methodological approach and procedures in painstaking detail.

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