Billy Allen's A'aga

December 4, 2015


Billy Allen


A few generations ago at this time of the year, elders of the village would begin to refresh their memories of the old stories. Soon people would come to the ge’e ki to listen to our songs and stories of creation. They tell of how O’otham struggled in turning the desert into an oasis. Even with the long winter night, the telling and singing would go on for more than one night. Versions differed according to the village location. Much has changed. We still have individuals who have learned the stories and songs but we now must fit such activities within the 9 to 5 lifestyle.


Obvious questions for today: Are these stories true?  Do they still have a place for our modern Indian/Native/Indigenous/O’otham/Piipaash world? Let us see what others have written about this subject.


In 1998, the Arizona Daily Star published an article, “Indian myths may contain grains of truth.” Ruth Giff, an eighty-eight year old Akimel O’otham, was asked about what she remembered about the stories. She said when she was young, there were still a few elders around who knew the old stories. The ones who remembered best were individuals who had little or no formal education. One section of the stories talks and sings about floods and epic battles. Scientists have been searching for evidence supporting or providing a basis for these stories.


Julian Hayden, an archaeologist working at the Snaketown excavation site, listened to Juan Smith recite the O’otham saga over several nights. Another O’otham, William Smith, provided the English translation, which Julian Hayden wrote down. In 1994, Don Bahr edited 36 of the stories in a book, The Short Swift Time of the Gods on Earth. Several tribal members are listed as helping.


A University of Arizona study confirmed a massive flood in the Salt and Verde River valleys, which damaged Hohokam canals and fields along the Salt River followed by a 20-year flood. The food supply was seriously endangered. Excavations have found evidence of malnutrition and starvation, along with wooden palisades or tall fences around certain Hohokam buildings. Our stories and those of the Tohono O’odham seem to align with the archaeological record. Lynn Teague, then an Arizona State Museum curator, was convinced there is a “strong thread of historical accuracy” in our stories.


Our cultural belief is these stories should be oral and should be told only during the winter. This has caused some concern for not many of the stories are being passed on. The stories served many purposes, they hinted of the negative effects of becoming self-centered and being quarrelsome. There are a couple of easily available books which have some of these stories. Anna Moore Shaw’s Pima Indian Legends, published in 1968, is good for young listeners.  Don Bahr’s O’odham Creation and Related Events: As told to Ruth Benedict in 1927 is more for older readers. The title page lists “Pimas” William Blackwater, Thomas Vanyiko, Clara Ahiel, William Stevens, Oliver Wellington and Kisto. Today’s challenge is to continue oral storytelling and create written documentation to share with future generations.


From Pima Indians by Frank Russell, I add this short entry: Earth Doctor created the stars by spewing water from his mouth into the sky. However there were not enough so he took a crystal and threw it into the sky, it broke and formed the large stars. To form the Milky Way, he took his cane and drew a big circle across the sky. He put a bowl of water and let it set overnight to form into ice. He then threw the ice in the three directions and it fell back each time. When he threw it to the east, it stayed and it became the moon.  He then set out another bowl of water and created a second bigger ice block and threw it to the east also and it became the sun. 


Knowing this and then looking at the winter sky, I can’t help but realize how amazing our natural world continues to be and how we are a part of it.