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The Last of the Ofos
The Last of the Ofos by Geary Hobson. University of Arizona Press, 2000
"You are by all accounts, Mr. Darko," he said, "the last speaker of the Ofo language."
"Then I am all alone."
"Yes, it would appear so, sir. You are the last of the Ofos." (88-89)
This small (114 pages) book is categorized as a work of fiction. It is centered on the life of Thomas Darko, the last speaker of Ofo, a Siouan language of an indigenous people of the Mississippi delta region.
Geary Hobson may have written this biography of Thomas Darko as fiction, but there is a solid foundation of information supporting the narrative, collected and published by the Smithsonian Institution--but there is a caveat about that foundation to be aware of. The caveat is meant to remind the readers of Geary Hobson's comments through the fictional voice of Thomas Darko about the respectful good collectors of languages and the arrogant bad collectors. I have no doubt that the respectful Dr. William Allerton Payne and the bad Dr. Mathew B. Smight are modeled on real persons. Their names have been changed to conceal both the good and the bad. This is a situation with the Smithsonian that has been addressed in fictional guise before, in Anna Lee Walters's truly frightening novel, Ghost Singer (Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press, 1988).
Somehow, in 114 pages, Thomas Darko gets around to being everywhere an Indian man in his particular lifetime could have been: farmworker, bootlegger, movie extra, informant for linguists, and, back in Louisiana, subsistence hunter, fisherman, and collector of wild foods.
There is some light humor in an accidental meeting with an Indian poet and writer, "Simon, Pueblo from New Mexico." It doesn't take a full FBI field investigation to know that Geary Hobson is describing Simon Ortiz, regarded by many knowledgeable people as the best Indian poet in North America. The setting in which Simon and Thomas meet is at a conference in a Washington, D.C., hotel. The organization holding the conference is thinly disguised under the name of the "American Association of Indian People." There is an attempt to coerce Simon and Thomas into showing registration cards and paying ten dollars to attend the conference. Since they have been Indians all [End Page 178] their lives, they fail to understand why they need cards to prove it nor why they should pay ten dollars for the privilege of attending the meeting. So they leave for the cleaner air of the street.
The Last of the Ofos isn't about happy times, and I don't guess it was meant to be. It is just too close to the truth to be completely fictional.
Review Essay by William Willard
William Willard is professor emeritus in the Departments of Anthropology and Comparative American Cultures at Washington State University. His interests are American Indian literature, the renaissance of American Indian religion, the evolution of tribal government in the post-Collier period, and the development of inter-American indigenous alliances since Public Law 93-638 was established as U.S. federal policy. Willard is also a founding and continuing editor of Wicazo Sa Review.