Ocean Power

Ruth Underhill

No one has written so eloquently of Papago life and literature as Ruth Murray Underhill, and she was honored for her writing by the Papago Tribe recently. The following is a chapter from her well-known work on Papago song, Singing For Power (1938; rpt. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976). We include it not only for the beauty of its translations but also to indicate how much a part Papago literature is of Papago life.

The Gulf of California is four days' journey from the Papago country, and for unknown generations the Indians have been going there to hew out some of the rocky brown substance from the shores where standing water has left it. The almost waterless journey traverses some of the most sinister country on the North American continent and the Papago name for the south is "the direction of suffering." But they have never shrunk from suffering. Instead, they have made it the cornerstone of their philosophy and the passport of dreams. The salt journey has seemed to them difficult enough and the sight of the ocean amazing enough to bring a man into contact with the supernatural.

They regard the whole ordeal as they regard war. It is an arduous duty undertaken for the sake of the kindred, and the reward is rain. The ocean, say the Papagos, their sympathetic magic marching for once with science, is the source of rain, which is brought by the ocean wind. But they go on to say that the wind will only blow if men have been to the ocean and given it gifts. And men must take back with them those white kernels which the "out-spread water" deposits on its shores and which resemble corn. In all the rituals, in fact, the salt is called "corn."

Every village, in the old days, made the journey and each had its ritual. Now there are only a few, but each of these few has an old man who is the hereditary leader. Leader and priest, in the Papago sense, are one, for the old man's chief duty is to recite the rituals and direct the ceremonies which will make the men "safe." He knows a special language which they will use on the journey, a language of roundabout phrases which the Papagos call "soft words." It would be dangerous for them to mention in bald terms the sun, the coyote, the horses, the drinking gourds, even the firewood. They will be too near the heart of power to venture such familiarity, so they learn to speak of the "shining traveler," the "burning-eyed comrade," the "friend," the "round object," and "the things piled up."

Every young man who is old enough volunteers for the journey. Once he has done so, he must go in four successive years - until the magic has been tamed. All his equipment must be new, for he cannot risk the danger that it might have come in contact with a pregnant woman or menstruant. He makes his two pairs of sandals, his net for carrying the salt (in recent days, his net saddlebags), his bridle, and his gourd water bottle.

Thus was my desire [begins a fragment of an old ritual].
Then hastily I ate the food which my wife had cooked.
Hastily I took my child in my arms.
"What is it?"
What has he learned that he is acting thus?"
"The day has dawned when I must go."

The party sets out in single file, formerly on foot and now on horseback. But it has not occurred to anyone to take extra horses for carrying the salt. They load their riding horses and walk home. They ride in single file, with the leader ahead, and they do not step off the trail lest they injure the house of some animal and incur its anger. When they camp, they lie with their heads toward the sea, so that "its power can draw them on."

Camping, like all other steps of the journey, is a ceremonial act. There are three water holes in all that desert waste, where many a Spanish explorer has perished. Two must be reached on the first two nights, but no one drinks from them without permission. First they give the water a gift of eagle down and ask its help. Then they water their horses, fill their gourds, and sit in a circle. Each youth has his little pouch of corn meal, which he does not touch. The leader takes it from him, mixes the meal with a little water in his gourd, and hands it to him. The "brave" man drinks only the thin solution on top and pours the rest away. The man who turns his back so the others cannot see how much he drinks is scorned.

Now the leader takes his place in the center to recite the charm which controls the supernatural force about them and turns their hardship to power. Some phrases of this charm echo those of an ancient Aztec prayer to the rain gods. But the sonorous words of supplication for the dry earth are prefaced by a Papago scene, and from its realism one could almost draw the hut with its thatch, its center post, and the dried ashes outside. In these familiar surroundings a man has worked himself up to the emotional intensity of desiring a vision. Many a youth who knew that on a vision depended his career must have felt this half-sane restlessness that ended in frustration. The cure is tobacco smoke. Four puffs of it bring the smoker into the supernatural world, face to face with the rain god.



Food she cooked for me, 
I did not eat. 
Water she poured for me, 
I did not drink. 
Then thus to me she said: 
"What is it? 
You did not eat the food which I have cooked; 
The water which I fetched you did not drink.
"Then thus I said: 
"It is a thing I feel."

I rose and across the bare spaces did go walking, 
Did peep through the openings in the scrub, 
Looking about me, seeking something. 
Thus I went on and on. 
Where there was a tree that suited me, 
Beneath it prone and solitary I lay, 
My forehead upon my folded arms I lay.

There was an ancient woman.
Some lore she had somehow learned
And quietly she went about telling it.
To me she spoke, telling it.
Then did I raise myself upon my hands;
I put them to my face and wiped away the dust,
I put them to my hair and shook out rubbish.

I rose. I reached the shade before my house.
There did I try to sit: not like itself it seemed.
Then did I make myself small and squeeze through my narrow door.
On my bed I tried to lie: not like itself it seemed.
About me with my hand I felt,
About the withes that bound the walls I felt
Seeking my jointed reed [cigarette].

Then thus I did.
Within my hut I tried to feel about with my fingers.
At the base of my hut, in the dirt,
I tried to feel about with my fingers
Seeking my jointed reed.
I could not find it.

To the center of the house did I go crawling [the roof being low].
And the center post
Seemed a white prayer stick,
So like it was.
At its base did I go feeling in the dirt
Seeking my jointed reed.
I could not find it.

There did I seize my flat stick [for hoeing];
I leaned upon it.
I made myself small and squeezed out the door.
Lo, I saw my ashes in many piles.
Already were they all hardened and all cracked.
I sat down and with the hoe I went to breaking them.
Among them, somehow, did I find my reed joint.

Then did I scratch it.
Lo, there still tobacco lay.
There beside me then I saw
Near me, lying, a shaman ember charred.
Long ago had it grown moldy and full of holes.
I took it up and four times hard did shake it.
Within, a spark burst out and brightly burned.
Then the reed joint did I light and to my lips 
I put it,
And somehow tried to move toward my desire.

[The speaker begins "throwing words."]
In what direction shall I first breathe out?
To eastward did I breathe.
It was my reed smoke in white filaments
I followed it and I went on and on.
Four times I stopped, and then I reached
The rain house standing in the east.
Wonderful things were done there.


All kinds of white clouds thatch it.
All kinds of rainbows form the binding withes.
The winds upon its roof fourfold are tied.
Powerless was I there.
It was my reed smoke.
Therewith did I go untying them.
Quietly I peeped in.
Lo, there I saw
Him [the rain-maker], my guardian.
Yonder, far back in the house, facing away from me he sat.
My reed smoke toward him did circling go.
Toward the door it caused him to turn his eyes,
And set him there.


Then did I say:
"What will you do, my guardian?
Yonder see! The earth which you have spread thus wretched seems.
The mountains which you placed erect now crumbling stand.
The trees you planted have no leaves,
The birds you threw into the air
Wretchedly flit therein and do not sing.

The beasts that run upon the earth
At the tree roots go digging holes
And make no sound.
The wretched people
See nothing fit to eat."
Thus did I say.

Then did the bowels within him crack with pity.
"Verily, nephew, for so I name you,
Do you enter my house and do you tell me something?
The people are afraid, none dares to enter;
But you have entered and have told me,
And something indeed I will cause you to see.

"But let me reach my house, then let it happen."

Then in his breast he put his hand and brought forth seed:
White seed, blue seed, red seed, smooth seed.
Then did I fold it tight and grasp it and rush forth.
I saw the land did sloping lie.
Before I had gone far, the wind did follow and breathe upon me.
Then down at the foot of the east there moved the clouds
And from their breasts the lightning did go roaring.

Though the earth seemed very wide, 
Straight across it fell the rain 
And stabbed the north with its needles. 
Straight across it fell the rain 
And stabbed the south with its needles. 
The flood channels, lying side by side, 
Seemed many, 
But the water from all directions went filling them to the brim. 
The ditches, lying side by side, 
Seemed many, 
But the water along them went bubbling. 
The magicians on the near-by mountains 
Went rushing out, gathering themselves together; 
The storm went on and on. 
It reached the foot of the west, it turned and faced about. 
It saw the earth spongy with moisture.

Thus beautifully did my desire end. 
Thus perchance will you also feel, my 

The Papagos have worked out a peculiar form of delivery for this speech. The peoples who vary their music by the use of different instruments have not explored the possibilities of the human voice alone. But the Papagos, whose instruments are the kitchen basket turned upside down for a drum or the drinking gourd sealed up with its seeds for a rattle, have utilized every change of tempo and of accent. While the speaker is approaching the vision, his sentences must be in a monotone moving toward the verb at the end, which is on a high note, tremendously accented. It is a style, like a tune, which is used for all introductions. But when the magic part of the speech is reached and the man is speaking to the god, he begins "throwing words." It is a panting, on one note, where each syllable stands out separate and accented, like the monotonous chugging of an engine. In all the "wise speeches, made on the salt journey, their magic part is pronounced in this way.

On the afternoon of the third day, they reach the third water hole, the last they will find. It is at the base of Mount Pinacate, famous in legend, from whose top they can see the ocean. The thirsty men do not touch the water until they have raced each other to the top of the mountain. There the desert people stand and look at "the outspread water." They stretch out their hands to gather in some of its power and they rub their bodies. Then they give to the mountain the eagle down they have brought:

Lo, it is my own offering,
Which I have carefully made and finished.
I have come bringing it and thus I do:
I offer it.

See it and do for me increasingly.
Grant powers to me: 
Great speed in running, 
Great industry, 
Great skill in hunting.

Grant powers to me: 
Great lightness in running, 
Great industry.

I will take them,
I will journey back 
And I will attain my desire.
Not hard will it be to turn homeward, 
Not hard to reach my land.

With the power from the ocean already upon them, they go back for their last drink in twenty-four hours. From here on, it is a race of endurance to get the salt and to return. They ride that night as far as human beings may, but they do not sleep until the leader has recited to them the supernatural experience of the morrow. They are to enter the "outspread water," they who perhaps have never seen water more than three feet deep - never except in rain streams which dry in a few hours. They are to step into the appalling element and bring out a blessing.



Thus was fulfilled my desire.
Toward the west a black road did lie.
Then upon it did I tread and follow it.
Four times did I camp and then did reach the wide-spreading water.

Already had arrived the woolly comrade [Coyote];
Around us four times did he go circling;
And lo, already the white clay was mixed for me,
The owl feather for painting laid upon it.

To him did Coyote pull the young man and set him there.
With the clay across the heart he marked him.
Back he turned and on the right shoulder marked him.
In front he crossed and on the left shoulder marked him.
Back he turned and on the back he marked him.
Then well he purified him.

There was corn meal, made from flat-headed corn.
I sprinkled a handful and again a handful,
As I ran into the wide-spreading ocean.
Though dangerously toward me it crashed
I did not fear, But I walked near and cast the sacred meal.

There followed another wave.
I did not fear. 
I walked nearer and cast the sacred meal.
Though dangerously it roared, combing and falling, 
I did not fear.
I cast the sacred meal.

There followed a fourth wave. 
Dangerously it roared; 
It foamed, it rolled over me, it broke behind me, 
But firm I stood and sought what I might see.

Then did I come forth 
And along the beach begin to run 
And somewhere there did come upon 
Coyote, our woolly comrade, Our comrade with burning eyes.

Dangerously he turned upon me, 
But I ran toward him and did not fear.
Nearer I came and cast the sacred meal. 
Then did he run, did run and run 
Till at last he only walked. 
And I did follow. 
And did come upon him. 
In a circle did I run and come behind him. 
I did not fear, but cast the sacred meal.

Again he dashed away. 
I followed and did overtake him. 
Then wild he barked and, crouching, turned to bite.

I did not fear, but cast the sacred meal. 
Then he stood still and said: 
"Verily, nephew, you will take away 
All my powers together, 
And more and more a seer you will be
Of mysteries."

He took me then, he took me. 
He made me stand 
Beside the wide-spreading ocean.
Under the spray that rose like smoke, he took me. 
Across on the other side he brought me out 
To a pool of water, thick as cactus juice; 
He set me before it.

"Ready, nephew! 
Now, if you are brave 
You will drink all and you will take away 
All my powers together.
"Then down I threw myself; 
I drank and drank, 
I drank it empty, then I scraped the dregs,
Folded them up, and carried them away.

Then next he took me 
To a pool of water thick with greenish scum. 
He set me before it. 
"Ready, nephew! 
Now, if you are brave 
You will drink all and you will take away
All my powers together.
"Then down I threw myself;
I drank and drank, 
I drank it empty, then I scraped the dregs, 
Folded them up tight, and carried them away.

Then next he took me 
to a pool of yellow water 
And set me before it. 
"Ready, nephew! 
Now, if you are brave 
You will drink all and you will take away 
My powers with the drink." 
Then down I threw myself; 
I drank and drank, 
I drank it empty, then I scraped the dregs, 
Folded them up tight, and carried them away.

Then next he took me 
To a pool of bloody water. 
And set me before it. 
"Ready, nephew! 
Now, if you are brave 
You will drink all and you will take away 
My powers with the drink.
"Then down I threw myself; 
I drank and drank, 
I drank it empty, then I scraped the dregs, 
Folded them tight, and carried them away.

Then he stood still and said:
"If you shall take away
All my powers together,
Then more and more a seer you shall be 
Of mysteries."

Then he went taking me
And reached a land
Which lies before the sunset. 
There abides the bitter wind;
Not slowly did we go.
About the wind's house, dust lay scattered wildly.
Not slowly did he go and bring me there.
Then leaping up did I stretch out my hand 
I grasped the wind and slowly bent him down,
Till blood drops trickled from him.
Then from that house I seized
A leather shield and a short club,
A well-strung bow and smooth, straight-flying arrow.
These did I bind together, 
And did return whence I had come.

That water did I reach
Which was thick like cactus juice,
And there a magician sat. 
Coyote made me stand before him, saying:
"What will you do for this, my nephew? 
I have brought him here." 
Then forth he brought his white magic power
And placed it in my heart.

Then did I reach
The pool of water thick with greenish scum.
There a magician sat. 
Coyote made me stand before him, saying: 
"What will you do for this, my nephew? 
I have brought him here." 
Then forth he brought his green magic power
And placed it in my heart.

Then did I reach 
The pool of yellow water. 
Therein a magician sat. 
Coyote made me stand before him, saying: 
"What will you do for this, my nephew? 
I have brought him here." 
Then forth he took his yellow magic power 
And placed it in my heart.

Then did I reach the pool of bloody water. 
Therein a magician sat. 
Coyote made me stand before him, saying: 
"What will you do for this, my nephew? 
I have brought him here. 
"Then forth he brought 
His red magic power 
And placed it in my heart.

Then back Coyote took me, whence we came 
And reached the wide-spreading ocean. 
Under the smokelike spray he carried me 
Even to that place where I had run along the beach, 
And there he left me. 
Then down I fell, but rose, and toward the east came running.

There sat our leader, head upon his breast.
He had not slept.
Straight to him walking, into his hands I put
The power I had won, tight pressing it.
Then I saw emerge
The sun, the gift of God.
Then up I looked, I followed the road.
I camped four times and reached my land.

The powers I had won, beneath my bed I placed.
I lay upon them and lay down to sleep.
Then in a little time mysteriously there came to me
Beautiful drunken songs,
Beautiful songs for the circling dance,
Beautiful songs for the maiden's dance,
Wherewith the maiden I might cozen.
My songs the stay-at-home youths did learn and sing,
Scarce permitting me to be heard.

With my songs the evening spread echoing And the early dawn emerged with a good sound. The firm mountains stood echoing therewith And the trees stood deep rooted.

Speeches like these, recited year after year by the old men, are the patterns for dreaming. The young man, exhausted with hunger and effort, awaits his vision with these pictures in his mind. He will see Coyote as surely as the monk of the Middle Ages saw the saint whom he had made his patron.

It is on the morning of the fourth day that the travelers reach the barren sands where the spring tides have left salty ponds. Even these have evaporated, leaving an expanse of saline crystals, "the ocean's corn." No matter how great their thirsty hurry, the men do not gather them immediately. The leader must plant in the salt field a stick topped with eagle down, speaking in friendly fashion: "We do not come to harm you; we come only to gather salt." Then the young men run four times around the salt bed, and at last they all fall to, to load the horses. They explain to the salt, as the Papago always does when helping himself to the fruits of the earth: "We take you because we need you. Be light now, do not weigh heavy, because we must carry you home to the women."

This is the practical part of the labor, but the magic part, which has brought the young men on this long journey, is still to come. When the salt is gathered, they walk into the sea, strewing corn meal as the ritual bade them, on the advancing waves.

To the desert people, this braving of the breakers has an element of horror. Old men, who made no great matter of death and starvation, have told me with pride how they walked in up to their necks. My statement, that I had swum gaily beyond the breakers in two oceans, was the height of unwisdom. They regarded it as a lie.

A man holds corn meal in his left hand and throws it on the waves with his right. If he has done any evil, or if his wife is "dangerous," the sea will not take his offering. But if it is accepted, perhaps then and there he may see a vision. A flight of white gulls may beckon him into the ocean depths, where he will learn wonders, or perhaps a strange sea coyote will come walking on the water and speak to him. But many wait for a further trial, and when they emerge from the water, they run for miles on the beach. Running is the well-known way for a youth to prove his strength and manhood, and running beside the waves is something like the vigil of the oldtime knight beside his armor. This is the most strange and sacred act of a Papago boy's life. Perhaps a cave in the rock opens, and he is asked in to learn the secrets of healing from the sea magician. Perhaps a flock of white cranes overhead calls him into the sky to race with them, or on the shore he sees a set of magic gambling sticks made from shells cast up by the sea.

The oration tells how the leader waits, lonely and tired, beside the campfire, until the last of the runners has come in. Then, long before dawn, the whole party starts back, for it must make each of the water holes for a night's camp. The neophytes are now in a sacred condition. They must not walk with the rest of the party, lest the power with which they have come in contact prove too strong for the others. They walk behind and they practice the ancient ceremonial taboo used by most Southwestern Indians: they do not touch their bodies with their hands. Each has a slender stick given him by the leader with which he may rub his dry, sun-bitten skin. They must never look back toward the ocean, for then it might call them. Some villages forbid them to speak at all. There are tales of men who have fallen into a pit and, because they must not cry out for help, were left behind to die.

But when they reach the home village, they make a triumphant entry. The old women help themselves to salt, and the boys swing slabs of wood on long strings to simulate the sound of rain. That night, everyone gathers in the council house. The neophytes sit to one side with the trophies they have brought from the seashore -- white shells or scraps of seaweed, "ocean clouds," which will act as magic charms for the rest of their lives. In the center is the basket of "sea corn." Each pilgrim has contributed to it some of his precious load, for

"This did I do on your behalf, 
All you my kinsmen."


But no one can receive it until it has been purified and blest, like its bearers. The leader recites again the sacred phrases. They are the old, beloved ones, but their combination seems, on this occasion, to be reduced to its beautiful essentials.

It was mysteriously hidden. 
Wanting it, I could not find it.
Behind my house post did I thrust my hand. 
I could not find it. . . . 
I went out the door. There my ashes were piled high. 
[With a stick] hard I struck them 
And out I took it - my reed cigarette. 
Burned out, it seemed. 
I scratched, and at the end 
Charred blackness lay. 
Four times I struck it, 
And out a great spark shone. 
I lit it in the fire, I put it to my lips, I smoked. 
Then at the east a wind arose, well knowing whither it should blow. 
The standing trees it went shaking, 
The rubbish at the foot of the trees it piled. 
A shining cloud toward the sky upreared 
And touched it with its head. 
All kinds of clouds together rose 
And with it they did go. 
Although the earth seemed very wide, 
To the very edge of it did they go. 
Although the north seemed very far, 
To the very edge of it did they go. 
Although the south seemed more than far, 
To the very edge of it did they go. 
Pulling out their white breast feathers did they go.

Then on it the old men in a circle sat 
And held their meeting. 
Then they scattered seed and it came forth.
A thick root came forth;
A thick stalk then came forth;
A fair tassel came forth 
And well it ripened. 
Therewith were delightful the evenings, 
Delightful the dawns.

Then came the songs describing the thick root, the thick stalk,
and the fair tassel. They are the same as the songs which sing up
the corn, but a few breaths of the ocean wind sound among them:

Now I am ready to go. 
The ocean wind from far off overtakes me. 
It bends down the tassels of the corn. 
The ocean water hurts my heart. 
Beautiful clouds bring rain upon our fields.

The outspread water! 
Running along it, 
I seized the corn.

The outspread water! 
Running along it, 
I seized the squash.

The music is made with the Papagos' most solemn ceremonial instrument. They turn over the willow kitchen basket, so tightly woven that it can hold the liquid porridge. On that, as a sound box, the musician rests a stick of hard wood, cut into notches all along its length. Then he scrapes another stick along the notches. It is a sound which our modern ears associate with the Negro dance orchestra, but the Papago does not use it for dancing. "Scraping" is our only word for translating a term which stands for the music of growth and which comes from the same root as "wind" and "the flapping of wings."

The singing lasts until the morning star appears, and then the old men purify the neophytes and welcome them back into the ranks of ordinary men. This is always done by blowing tobacco smoke over the man whose holiness is to be ended. The old man who blows the smoke says, "Hail, my kinsman," and then wishes for the boy prowess in hunting or running or whatever his ancient mentor has achieved. The boys are now almost men, but they dare not enter into their new state without a period of solitude and fasting. Each goes home to camp outside his own house, like a hermit, to eat sparingly of corn-meal gruel, and for sixteen days to wait for further visions. But he may come forth a man with a destiny; or so it seems to the fathers of eligible girls, and they often wait on his parents during the young man's seclusion. For no matter which vision has been his, he will emerge a "ripe" man to take his place with the warriors and councilors. He has helped to bring rain.


Ruth Murray Underhill. "Ocean Power" from Singing for Power (Berkeley: University of California, 1938). Copyright ©1938 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of the author and the University of California Press.

As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, ©1980, p. 162.