the track of the sun
across the sky
leaves its shining message
us who are here,
showing us we are not alone.
we are yet alive!
and this fire . . .
our fire . . .
shall not die.
The South Corner of Time first appeared as a volume of Sun Tracks, an American Indian literary series published by Indian students and faculty at the University of Arizona. Our purpose in this cooperative project is to help all people recognize and appreciate this country's native literary heritage.
We also want to promote literary expression and appreciation among all Indian people. Our efforts focus on literature at a time when we are everywhere reminded that American Indians are at the bottom of most statistical measures of well being. We believe that no litany of cold statistics can adequately portray the rich, full range of human experience that is contemporary Indian life. On these pages Indian people speak for themselves, and with this special issue we renew the promise Atoni set for us in our first issue nearly ten years ago. We are alive. Our fire shall not die.
Over the last nine years we have published ten issues. Our focus in these issues has been on expressions of the American Indian heritage written in English. We have published poems, stories, interviews, and essays from more than a hundred tribal writers throughout the country. In this issue we narrow our focus to the literature of four tribal peoples. At the same time we broaden our scope to include historic as well as contemporary literature, oral as well as written literature, and literature written in native languages as well as literature written in English. In this collection we offer representative and accurate selections from the whole continuum of imaginative expression that forms the literature of Hopi, Navajo, Papago, and Yaqui communities.
We have organized this collection in four sections, one for each of the tribes. In so doing we wish to emphasize that American Indian literature really consists of many literatures supported by many distinct tribal traditions.
Literature and community
Language as much as anything else defines tribal communities, and the people who contributed most significantly to shaping this collection are linguists. Emory Sekaquaptewa, Ellavina Perkins, Danny Lopez, Ofelia Zepeda, and Felipe Molina are all committed to the description and maintenance of their native languages, and each is actively involved in teaching his language. With their guidance and help we offer you bi-lingual material in four native American languages here. We hope these selections will give those of you who speak one or more of the languages presented here an opportunity to exercise your reading abilities. Those of us who don't speak any of the four should be reminded by these selections that the languages are alive and well and spoken by thousands who call themselves Hopiitu, Diné, 0'odham, and Yoeme.
Speaking the same language means more than being able to recognize and produce the same sound patterns. The oral tradition is a distillation of the shared experience that gives language meaning. Stories, songs, the whole oral tradition of a community, expresses its ideals, wisdom, and humor. In a significant way it is the singers and storytellers who hold tribal communities together, for in their telling and singing they preserve and re-create their community's idea of itself. In this way tribal communities shape, and are shaped by, literature.
We understand literature to consist of oral as well as written forms, and in each of the four tribal sections of this collection you will find both. In fact, oral literature forms the core of the whole collection. In each of the sections you will find songs, tales, autobiographical narratives, and historical narratives. These songs and stories may be very different from other literature you have encountered, and in many cases it will require some extra effort and imagination on your part to appreciate them.
Audience. One thing to keep in mind as you read the songs and stories translated here from oral traditions is their intended audience. The singers and tellers perform for audiences in their own communities. Those audiences are able to understand many references and supply many associations that those of us who live outside their communities cannot. This is probably what Papago singer Maria Chona had in mind when she told Ruth Underhill, "The song is very short because we understand so much." In each section we have included at least one essay addressed especially to those of us who are outsiders. The essays of Emory Sekaquaptewa, Gary Witherspoon, Ruth Underhill, and Felipe Molina should help you understand the long story behind short songs. Careful readers will also note that often the selections in each section build on each other to provide references and supply associations. For example, those who read the whole Navajo section in sequence should have a greater appreciation of Andrew Natonabah's "Song of a Mountain" than those who choose to read the song in isolation. An annotated list of "Other Sources" at the end of each section provides suggestions for those who seek greater understanding through further reading.
Performance. A second factor to remember in reading this collection is that stories and songs are performed by living, breathing, gesturing people, not by faceless typesetting machines. Simon Ortiz reminds us of this when he writes of how his father taught him a song as he was growing up at Acoma Pueblo:
He was singing this song, and I didn't catch the words off hand. I asked him, and he explained, "This song, I really like it for this old man." And he said, "This old man used to like to sing, and he danced like this," motioning like the old man's hands, arms, shoulders, and he repeated, "This song, I really like it for this old man."
The way a song or story is performed contributes as much to its meaning as its words. The pieces we print here from oral traditions are but written approximations of oral performances. As we read these stories and songs each of us needs to try to hear the voices and see the motion behind the print on the page.
Translation. Many different kinds of translations are included in this collection. Some are the efforts of linguists who strive to represent literally every word of the original. Other translators are less interested in the translation of each and every word than they are in presenting what they judge to be the true spirit of the original. Whether they emphasize letter or spirit it is important to remember that every translation is itself a creation, one based on a creation in another language. While it is true that in every translation something of the original is lost, it is equally true that in the best translations so too is something new gained.
Among each of the tribal communities represented here there are now many individuals committed to developing ways of expressing themselves by writing in their native languages. These efforts may find some of their deepest and most nourishing roots in the pictographic writing systems of native America, as Victor Masayesva's photo-narrative "Tsinijinnie's Hardrock Romance" playfully suggests. In historic times, the Cherokee syllabary, developed by Sequoyah in 1821, is a well known antecedent. But writing in native languages is more narrowly a tradition grown out of the work done by linguistic anthropologists and their native American "informants" around the turn of this century. Especially during the last ten years, as Professor Kenneth Hale and other linguists have begun to take native American linguists into their work as full partners, writing in many native languages has begun to appear. The work of Ofelia Zepeda, Felipe Molina, and others included here may be a harbinger of a new kind of native American literature, one written in native American languages.
Indian people have been writing imaginatively in English for well over a century, but it has only been during the last ten years that American readers have paid much attention. As our colleague Vine Deloria, Jr. points out, though, American interest in Indian matters is trendy, surfacing for a year or two once each generation and then ebbing. The problem, of course, goes beyond the interests of the American reading public to the policies of the major commercial presses and their parent media conglomerates. Although the major publishing houses have allowed a few American Indian writers a place on their lists, aggressive promotion of books on Indian topics seems always reserved for those written by non-Indian authors.
That Indian people continue to write at all in the face of this pattern of neglect indicates not only a remarkable patience and perseverance in attempting to reach non-Indian readers with their work, but also a real commitment to writing for their own communities. And it is the tribal relations of the work of Irene Nakai, Agnes Tso, Refugio Savala, and others that we wish to emphasize by presenting their work in this collection. We wish to suggest that an important and sustaining relationship exists between their written work in English and the oral traditions of their native communities.
Place, time, and literature
Finally, a word about out title. Place, time, and literature came together in very particular ways in native American communities, Late in N. Scott Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn a Pueblo grandfather remembers instructing his grandsons:
He made them stand just there above the point of the low white rock, facing east. They could see the black mesa looming on the first light, and he told them there was the house of the sun. They must learn the whole contour of the black mesa. They must know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart. . . . They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were in time.
The track of the sun marks place, time, identity in the four literatures we gather here too. So it is that we choose to locate this collection by the sun's rising, at the time when the winter solstice marks a special storytelling time for native American communities. During that special literary season, they say, the sun is in the south corner of time. We hope this collection will help you experience some of the pleasure of that literary season all through the year.
As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, ©1980, p. 1.