Huhugam Heritage Center: O’ogham I:mik

December 16, 2016


Huhugam Heritage Center

Gila River Indian Community


As the calendar year comes to a close we note that the days get shorter and night gets longer. This is the time of year where we spend time with our family members preparing for the Winter Holidays of Christmas and the New Year.


Being together as a family and knowing the relationships we have with one another is something that is very important for our Community. Our O’otham ñeo’ok has its own set of words and expressions called i:mik that tell how our family is related to us.


This system is unique to our Community and more precise than the English words that are replacing them. When a speaker hears someone say out loud “eñ ba:ba’a!” or “eñ lu:lu’u!” they automatically know that the person is calling for their grandparents on their mother’s side of the family. This is because each set of grandparents gets their own specific words.


For the father’s side the word for grandfather is “vosk” and for grandmother the word is “ka:k (ga:ga’a).” There are specific words in our system of i:mik that specify aunts and uncles both in terms of which side of the family they come from (mother’s side/father’s side) as well as if they are older or younger than our parents.


There are also words that our grandparents, aunts and uncles call us by that each specifies their relationship to us. Knowing our relationship to one another and using the appropriate kinship term is very important as a sign of respect. It was a given in the past that when greeting or addressing a relative you would always first use the correct i:mik term and personalize it by using “eñ” ‘my.’


Our system of i:mik is pervasive and found throughout our language. Christmas time in O’otham is referred to by the expression “Jiosh alithag ma:sig thash”.


Translated literally, this means God’s son’s birthday and references Christmas as being the date that celebrates Christian tradition of the birth of Jesus. What this phrase also shows is that for O’otham, Jiosh is a male entity.


This is because the phrase “Jiosh alithag ma:sig thash” uses the i:mik term “alithag” which is a specific term only used by a man to refer to his child or by others when referring to a man’s child.


The opposite term in our i:mik is maḍ and is used by women when they refer to their child or by others when referring to a woman’s child.


Within our ñeo’ok there are names for plants and animals that also use kinship terms and show relationships between nature and natural phenomena. A small red insect that would come out in groups after the summer rains is called ju:k maḍ.


It is known in milga:n as a red velvet mite and is rarely seen anymore. Ju:k maḍ translates to Rain’s child and because it uses the i:mik term maḍ it shows that for O’otham the rain is a feminine entity.


Another example are a group of birds, called sandpipers in milga:n, that are commonly seen along the shores of canals or pools of water, scurrying along looking for food in the mud with their short dark bills.


These are known in O’otham as shu:thag ma:maḍ or Water’s children, which uses the plural form ma:maḍ of the i:mik term maḍ. This term also uses the i:mik word that is specific for children from a female and indicates how for water is seen as a mother.


One last example is a small songbird that is known to nest in wells and can be seen catching insects in mid-flight. This bird is known as the Say’s Phoebe in milga:n but is called hevel mo:s in O’otham.


Loosely translated this means Wind’s grandchild but is more specific than this. In our i:mik mo:s is the word used by a grandmother on the mother’s side (hu’ul/lu:lu’u) to call her grandchild. The use of mo:s as part of the name for hevel mo:s how the wind is seen as a grandmother, specifically one on the mother’s side of the family.


Some plant names also show i:mik relationships. One sha’i (bush) with red flowers that is commonly found along Komadk Thoa’ag is called vipismal je:j. This name uses the possessive form of the i:mik term for mother “je’e” and shows how this plant is the mother for hummingbirds (vipismal).


This should be no surprise as the red tubular flowers are perfectly made for vipismal to drink from.


O’otham from long ago must have noticed the hummingbirds that would gather around this plant and gave it such a fitting name.


As our families gather together, we should reflect on how the language we use influences the way we think and act towards one another. How wonderful would it be for us to bring back our i:mik and use the terms of relationship when we address one another.


It would be something that we could hand down to our children as a gift to teach them the proper way of respecting our relatives. On behalf of us at the Huhugam Heritage Center, we wish all of our nanaipoich and hahajuñ a “S-he:kig Jiosh Alithag Ma:sig Thash ch heg Vechij Aithag!”