A’AGA: Something to be told

April 1, 2016


By Billy Allen


April – Kwi Hiosik Masad or Mesquite Flower Blooming Month. March is Kwi I’ivakidak or Mesquite Leaves Emerge. Both names show Kwi as a “tree of life” in southern Arizona. Our forefathers looked forward to once again seeing our desert blooming with different foods.


Lenora Curtin was an ethnobotanist who spent four spring seasons between 1939 and 1942 documenting Salt and Gila River members’ plant knowledge. Over 75 wild plant foods were identified and two plants that required human hands, the bottle gourd and wheat. Even back then, many felt a lot of our knowledge was lost, but Curtin felt there were elders who remembered foods from the land. She was right and a keli or old man told her why. When the river or akimel stopped running in the 1870s, O’otham and Piipaash resorted to gathering wild foods. In the early 1940s Curtin could already see the unhealthy changes the “tin can” diet was having on us.


Among her botanical notes, she also commented on our delightful sense of humor, witty conversation, and dark skin. World War II interrupted her study, but she had enough notes to publish “By the Prophet of the Earth” in 1949. The last sentence in the book’s introduction reads, “It was only during my fourth and last season that sufficient friendliness and confidence were established for such intimate, well-guarded secrets to be shared.”


Sections of the book are The Plants and their Uses, Arts and Industries, Games, Legends, Miscellaneous Beliefs, and Informants. In the Informant section, forty O’otham or Piipaash people are mentioned. Even though they have long walked to the other side, they are still sharing their wisdom. Very O’otham, very Piipaash, very Native.


Biographical snippets about the informants brought a lot of smiles and chuckles to me. This Sun Devil has to give the University of Arizona due credit. The book, “By the Prophet of the Earth,” is available for free viewing online. Here are just a few excerpts.


Domingo Blackwater told of how his grandfather had his name Americanized. When his grandfather was asked his name, he replied “Wihom.” (In O’otham, it meant lightning.) The non-Indian heard William and asked “William” where he was from. Wihom replied Blackwater and thus William Blackwater he became.


When Co-op calendar stick keeper Paul Head died, his oos:hikbina or calendar stick was buried with him. Charles Allison had listened to the stories so much that he made a copy and could recite the same stories.


As a boy, José Henry was sent to Carlisle Indian School, did not like it and walked all the way home from Pennsylvania. He never married and cared for his mother for the rest of her life. He was one of last to live in an olas ki or round house at Salt River. He kept a koi or rattlesnake in his olas ki as a pet. When José was away, a neighbor killed the snake.


Mrs. Emma Howard claimed she had the best keli or old man/husband in the world: he did not gamble or drink. She had a two-room adobe home with a piano, radio and sewing machine. Her stepfather, Mason McAfee was also known as José Juan and lived in an olas ki at Kuiva or the West End. Mr. McAfee was born at Sacate, and remembers when he was 12 or 13, the flour mill at Vah Ki or Casa Blanca washed away in a flood. Stephen Jones said he was twenty when the flood took away the Vah Ki mill. Mr. Jones was born at Wetcamp or Rso’tuk, and claimed to be 103! (Since the settlement was close to the akimel, when one camped overnight, their bedding would be damp the next morning.) A wood chip blinded him in one eye and the people gave him a new nickname, “one who makes faces at someone.” Space does not allow including more anecdotes of Jumbi Juan, Tashquinth, Lewis Nelson, Josie Taylor, Mrs. Adolph or George Webb. It’s time to sit outside, let the tash or sun warm me up and share a moment with my ancestors.