Tohono O'odham expert to speak at prestigious lecture series

Ofelia Zepeda, Regents’ Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona

Ofelia Zepeda, renowned Native American poet and linguist, will speak at 7 p.m., Oct. 11, at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix as part of the prestigious Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture Series on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community sponsored by Arizona State University in partnership with the Heard Museum.

Zepeda is a Regents’ Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona and recipient of a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her work in American Indian language education, maintenance and recovery. She is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and is credited with compiling the first book of grammar for the Tohono O’odham language.

Zepeda also has three collections of poetry, “Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert,” “Jewed I-hoi/Earth Movements” and “Where Clouds are Formed.” She is currently the director of the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), the longest-running Indigenous language training institute in the country.

Zepeda first approached the linguistics department at University of Arizona as an undergraduate student on a quest to learn to read and write in Tohono O’odham. Since it was her first spoken language, she was surprised when she was unable to read a book of stories written in O’odham. At the time, there were no written resources on the structure of that language.

She found herself intrigued by idea of studying the parts of language and felt that she “fit in so naturally with the Native women who were pursuing their doctorates in linguistics” that she changed her major and never looked back. Zepeda’s lecture, “Legacies of the Tribal Languages of Arizona: Gifts or Responsibilities,” examines the current state of the tribal languages of Arizona.

In particular, Zepeda describes O’odham as “a relatively healthy language when compared to others in North America. We still have mono-lingual speakers, but probably a higher number of adults whose first language is O’odham and English is the second. Our situation is similar to many others’ though, in that almost no children are learning it as a first language and only a few are learning it as a second language. The O’odham Nation, one of the largest populations in the U.S., is one of the few that does not currently have a comprehensive language program. There have been some discussions but nothing has come to pass.”

When questioned about the biggest obstacles to the survival of Indigenous languages, Zepeda responded, “Power . . . in the form of political and economic influence. Languages can be in a position of little political or economic power, or of insignificant influence in circles that matter. This lack of influence and power is a result of long histories of colonization and oppression by the segments that are in power and have influence.”

Even as Native languages have faced these challenges, legislation such as the Native American Languages Act of 1990 (ensuring the survival and continuing vitality of Native American languages) and the Esther Martinez Language Act (providing over $50 million in grants to support language immersion programs and the preservation of Native American languages since 2000) have, according to Zepeda, “given native languages a foothold in the political arena at the national level.”

Additionally, massive endangered language preservation projects, such as Google’s Endangered Languages Project and Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program offer a plethora of resources for those pursuing the study of Native American languages.

“However,” Zepeda warned, “one of the drawbacks of such a huge resource is ensuring the quality and validity of the documents and collections included on the site, as the information may be outdated or have minimal information on the contemporary activity of the language.”

As for the future of Tohono O’odham and other Native American languages, Zepeda promotes a positive view: “An ideal vision is that the speakers of the languages maintain a level of respect for their languages and the languages of others. Often, certain languages are seen as inferior, based on their structure being seen as ‘unsophisticated,’ ’non-complex,’ or lacking when compared, typically, to European languages. Historically and presently, Native American languages have been categorized as such, resulting in tribal members, young and old, coming to believe this of their language.”

She continues, “Such attitudes provide tremendous challenges for efforts to promote a Native American language. Being able to fully appreciate the richness and uniqueness of languages is a good place to start when considering language efforts for the future.”

Acoma Pueblo poet and ASU Regents’ Professor Simon Ortiz, for whom this speaker series is named, described Ofelia Zepeda as being “the single most important advocate of Indigenous American languages and their revitalization. She greatly encourages young Indigenous peoples, ensuring that the languages will always be a vital part of the land, culture, and community in the Indigenous American world.”

Ortiz added, “I especially love her use of the Tohono O’odham language in her poetry.”

In addition to Zepeda’s lecture at the Heard, a campus meet-and-greet with Zepeda will take place in the Labriola Center (second floor of Hayden Library) on Thursday, October 11, 2012, at 10 a.m. Both the lecture and the campus event are free of charge and open to the public.

The Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community is sponsored by ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute; American Indian Studies Program; Department of English; Faculty of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies; Women and Gender Studies in the School of Social Transformation (all units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences); Indian Legal Program in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; and Labriola National American Indian Data Center; with tremendous support from the Heard Museum.

Written by Megan Davis

Media contact:
Kristen LaRue,
Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences