Mohave Remembered

Article excerpt

"Hayko ya amoomk," he said, and I tensed. Without looking up, I asked, "Robert, I know hayko means 'white person,' but what is ya amoomk?" He quietly replied, "It means 'crazy'--you are a crazy white girl!"

For this crazy white girl, the summer of 1969 seems like a very long time ago. Little did I know that what began as a short fieldwork experience would become a life-long adventure. My experience as part of the American Indian Oral History Program, sponsored by Doris Duke, began when I responded to a call for fieldworkers given in my linguistics seminar. It was announced that grants were available through the Doris Duke Foundation to collect oral history with, as my professor stressed, "any tribe in Arizona whose language was dwindling in usage." At least that was the way it was described to me. I have since learned that Doris Duke monies granted to other universities were not designated specifically for the preservation of Native American languages. In point of fact, neither was the entire project at the University of Arizona. (1)

At the time, few really envisioned just how dramatic the loss of these rich languages would be over the next few decades. My work with indigenous languages began that summer and continues to this day. The enormity of language loss looms over the field of study and carries a sense of foreboding with it. In 1992, Krauss estimated that although about 155 indigenous languages are still spoken in the United States, 135 (87%) can be considered moribund--that is, not being learned by children and thus facing certain death. At today's rate of language loss, 105 will be extinct by 2025 and 135 by 2050 (as cited in Crawford 1995:18). Perhaps these numbers will call attention to the intrinsic value these rich languages have to their speakers and the extrinsic value they have to all of us by illustrating the magnitude of what will be lost. Back in 1969, these numbers were hard to imagine.

That year, I submitted a proposal to work on the Mohave language while collecting oral history and proposed a budget for six weeks. In return, when the grants were awarded, I began to proceed with my intended fieldwork, was given a bulky Wollensach reel-to-reel tape recorder, and was wished "good luck." As I recall, that was the extent of the orientation. (2)

With these limited instructions and no prior experience, I headed out in June to work with the Mohave Indians who resided on the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation near Parker, Arizona. Parker was a bit off the beaten path but basically in between Tucson and southern California, where my family was located. I had heavy commitments in both places, and working in Parker just seemed to make sense. Bernard "Bunny" Fontana, a professor in the Arizona State Museum situated on the University of Arizona campus and a lecturer in the Anthropology Department became the administrator for the Doris Duke project. He briefed me on my fieldwork, and I'll never forget Bunny's first words to me, "Hey--those are jet-set Indians out there, but you've got to be nuts to go there in the summer!" It didn't take long to learn that he was right on both counts.

The extensive research I did before I left Tucson did not give me a clear perception of the Mohaves. Forbes's book, Warriors of the Colorado (1965), informs the reader of the historic battles in which the Mohave, described as large and warlike, used clubs to defeat the neighboring tribes in hand-to-hand combat. Another study, Mohave Ethnopsychiatry and Suicide (1961), by French anthropologist George Devereux, described Mohave sexuality and their extensive belief in the power of dreams. A. L. Kroeber's work ([1923] 1967) described aspects of the language and culture that created a picture of a once warlike but now peaceful people who farmed the lower Colorado River basin. His extensive study of the Mohave provided the best overall window into their language and culture. But nothing that I read really prepared me for the experience I was about to have. …