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  • Self-Fashioning for Survivance:Akimel O'odham Story and History in the Hispanic and Early American Periods*
  • Jennifer Bess (bio)

The earth is spinning aroundThe earth is spinning aroundAnd my people are spinning around with the earth.The earth is spinning fasterThe earth is spinning fasterAnd my people are spinning faster with the earth.At that time when Siuuhu was singing these songs, that is a sign that some day we'll find out that the earth is turning around all the time.

—Julian Hayden, Juan Smith, and William Allison Smith, "Pima Creation Myth"1

The legends I have told were told by the old Pimas many, many years ago to entertain and instruct their children. Today, these old stories are almost forgotten by the younger Pimas.

I don't think they should be forgotten. They are a part of Pima tradition. They show what life was like in those old days and what bothered the people such as floods and drought and old Ho'ok's bad manners. They show what our ancestors thought was important. They help us to understand what is important today.

—George Webb, A Pima Remembers 2 [End Page 725]

At the height of deliberations dividing Akimel O'odham (River People, also called Pima) and Anglo-American farmers over the life-sustaining waters of the Gila River in south-central Arizona in the early twentieth century, 444 "Indians of the Pima Tribe" repeated in their testimony before the U.S. Senate a refrain dating back at least two generations: "We Pimas…have always been the white man's friend."3 Between 1848 and 1854, they had proven their friendship through the respite their grandfathers offered to 60,000 migrants crossing Arizona on their way to California.4 Providing safety from Apache assaults, forage for animals, and food and water for travelers, the eight Akimel O'odham villages stretching along 12 to 15 miles of the middle Gila River marked the junction at which four southern trails to California converged.5 As fortyniner Benjamin Butler Harris remarked in regards to this hub of activity, "So many 'Pilgrims' of different companies accumulating here at one time caused disintegration and new combinations of companies."6 They came to this oasis in the Sonoran Desert trading clothing, whiskey, and weapons for cotton blankets, corn, wheat, tobacco, pumpkins, melons, and other foodstuffs. As Cave Johnson Couts limned, due to the fact that the "Gila bottom…surpasses anything we have ever witnessed for fertility," the Akimel O'odham were able to be generous.7 "The Pima," wrote George Webb a century later in A Pima Remembers, "have always been known for their hospitality. If you came to the home of another Pima, no matter what time of day, the first thing placed before you would be some kind of food…. In those days the Pimas always had plenty."8 This era of prosperity and generosity, witnessed by Anglo-Americans and eulogized by Webb, illustrates one of many chapters in a local history characterized by adaptation, innovation, and co-creation. And as demonstrated below, the "spinning" world of the Akimel O'odham sacred stories provided them with a lens through which to interpret the past, see opportunities in the present, and build the future.

The following study draws from the fields of oral narrative theory, archaeology, history, religion, and anthropology to provide necessary foundations in order to explore the importance of adaptation, innovation, and "world-building" in Akimel O'odham sacred story and history.9 Inspired by the studies of anthropologist William Roseberry and historian Colleen O'Neill, both of whom illustrate the reciprocal nature of culture and history, this essay reveals the mutually reinforcing and dynamic relationship between the philosophies articulated in the sacred stories and the lived history of their guiding messages.10 Along the two axes of [End Page 726] storytelling and history, this study seeks to bring into relief three interrelated points: the importance of sacred story and oral history as complements to written history and archaeology in understanding the past; the value of storytelling as an interpretive lens to that history; and the example that the Akimel O'odham provide of Native adaptability...


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pp. 725-764
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