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  • O’odham Songscapes: Journeys to Magdalena Remembered in Song
  • Seth Schermerhorn (bio)

It is a language useful for pulling memory from the depths of the earth. It is useful for praying with the earth and sky. It is useful for singing songs that pull down the clouds. It is useful for calling rain. It is useful for speeches and incantations that pull sickness from the minds and bodies of believers.

—Ofelia Zepeda1


This article poses two questions. First, how do O’odham evoke movement across their land through songs? Second, how do these same songs evoke the O’odham past embedded in these places? “Evoke” is used here with the meaning of causing to recall unspoken memories embedded in the land. Moreover, not only words, but also sounds, smells, and movements evoke O’odham pasts embedded in these places. Present-day O’odham “walkers” on their pilgrimage to Saint Francis in Mali:na, or Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico, in late September and early October also participate in past movements, particularly when these past movements across their land are evoked through songs that contain the memories of previous journeys.2 Moving across their ancestral lands, contemporary O’odham walkers often think about their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who have made the journey before them. Indeed, the land itself holds the past of these people, including past movements, which are evoked through retracing the steps of those who have gone before both through walking and through song. [End Page 237]

Although Vine Deloria Jr. established the primacy of place in the study of the indigenous religious traditions of the Americas, and this emphasis has been upheld by other scholars such as James Treat and Greg Johnson, the intention in posing these two questions together is to follow literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in privileging neither time nor space.3 Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope,” or “time space,” expresses “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” in which “[t]ime, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.”4 Following Bakhtin’s synthesis of time and space, O’odham senses of time and space are interdependent, and should be studied as such.5 This analysis follows a line of inquiry established by linguistic anthropologist Keith Basso, who invoked Bakhtin’s notion of “chronotope” in his study of Western Apache senses of place.6

Andrew Darling and Barnaby Lewis have shown that O’odham song series encode geographical knowledge.7 On the other hand, Donald Bahr as well as David Kozak and David Lopez have demonstrated that O’odham songs encode historical knowledge.8 For many O’odham, no journey is too far and the past is never so far away that it cannot be viscerally felt through song. Those who listen closely to O’odham songs are transported not only through space, but also through time. Indeed, the “ancientness” of the past is palpably present (never too distant) for many O’odham in the present, and faraway places are never inaccessible, so long as the audience may be transported to the place, and the place made palpably present, through song. O’odham songs, then, evoke movement across the landscape. As Kozak explains, “[t]he contents of O’odham song lyrics feature two related signature characteristics: nouns that describe the landscape, and verbs that tell of the song subject’s actions.”9

O’odham songs evoke movement across their land through what Bahr has called “filmicness”—or, the “filmic” quality of O’odham songs—in which each sentence (usually three or four in each song) produces a different “word picture.”10 When heard or read together in sequence, these songs evoke movement. Bahr explains, “[s]ince the songs are so short, the shifts of focus across the sentences give an illusion of motion.”11 Moreover, O’odham songs evoke movement through more means than the “illusion” of apparent motion caused by the succession of images or “word pictures,” as Bahr also notes that the verbs in O’odham songs usually describe things in motion, particularly noting the occurrence...


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pp. 237-260
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