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Walking to Magdalena: Personhood and Place in Tohono O'odham Songs, Sticks, and Stories

Walking to Magdalena: Personhood and Place in Tohono O'odham Songs, Sticks, and Stories

by Seth Schermerhorn

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In Walking to Magdalena, Seth Schermerhorn explores a question that is central to the interface of religious studies and Native American and indigenous studies: What have Native peoples made of Christianity? By focusing on the annual pilgrimage of the Tohono O’odham to Magdalena in Sonora, Mexico, Schermerhorn examines how these indigenous people of southern Arizona have made Christianity their own. This walk serves as the entry point for larger questions about what the Tohono O’odham have made of Christianity.

With scholarly rigor and passionate empathy, Schermerhorn offers a deep understanding of Tohono O’odham Christian traditions as practiced in everyday life and in the words of the O’odham themselves. The author’s rich ethnographic description and analyses are also drawn from his experiences accompanying a group of O’odham walkers on their pilgrimage to Saint Francis in Magdalena. For many years scholars have agreed that the journey to Magdalena is the largest and most significant event in the annual cycle of Tohono O’odham Christianity. Never before, however, has it been the subject of sustained scholarly inquiry.

Walking to Magdalena offers insight into religious life and expressive culture, relying on extensive field study, videotaped and transcribed oral histories of the O’odham, and archival research. The book illuminates indigenous theories of personhood and place in the everyday life, narratives, songs, and material culture of the Tohono O’odham.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496213891
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Series: New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Seth Schermerhorn is an assistant professor of religious studies at Hamilton College.

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Personhood and Place

Personhood and Producing "Real People"

Western scholars have never had a firm grasp on indigenous worldviews. This is no less true for O'odham than it is for other Native American and indigenous peoples. However, as guideposts, archaeologist, ethnographer, and religious studies scholar Miguel Angel Astor-Aguilera suggests that indigenous "cosmologies are more about a daily social way of life revolving around conceptions of self, personhood, and sense of place relating to what is both visible and invisible." Although Astor-Aguilera made these comments addressing the Mesoamerican context in which he works, he makes the same argument for "Native American relational worldviews" more generally. Indeed, this is why my focus here is on such a mundane activity as walking, in relation to senses of place and the production of "real people."

According to Astor-Aguilera, "Native American personhood concepts should not simply be an aside to our studies. At this point in time they need to take central importance." However, Astor-Aguilera is neither the only nor the first scholar to insist that Native American concepts of personhood should have a far more significant place than they ordinarily do in studies of Native American peoples. In particular Raymond Fogelson shared Astor-Aguilera's sentiments nearly three decades earlier, when he anticipated that there "will be new field investigations in which systematic study of self and person concepts becomes a central rather than a peripheral concern." Therefore, following Astor-Aguilera's lead, as well as Fogelson's before him, the category of personhood, alongside the category of place, is one of the two central categories of this study. In particular, this study further develops Astor-Aguilera's concept of "tethering," a process through which persons, places, and objects become associated with one another.

However, the burgeoning literature on "personhood" has not gone unchallenged. Several scholars have targeted the category of personhood as necessarily and inevitably ethnocentric. For example, religious studies scholar Tod Swanson contends that "in English the word 'person' carries with it a whole Christian and European philosophical history suggesting an individual of a unique class of beings who descend from a single pair, are equal, and of infinite worth because they and only they are made in the image of God." From this perspective, it is impractical to permit the category of personhood to take central importance without carefully working out the similarities and differences between multiple indigenous and European religious and moral histories. Another critic argues that we may study personhood in non-Western societies, but we should first admit that we are really only interested in our own categories, and that we are not truly interested in these other societies.

The focus of Walking to Magdalena is almost entirely on anthropocentric models of O'odham personhood, or more specifically maturity and maturation, without going into significant detail regarding O'odham conceptions of personhood that extend to a variety of other species and objects, like anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell's classic conception of "other-than-human-persons." The major exception to this rule is the chapter on staffs (see chapter 3), though the analysis of these and other sticks demonstrates that these staffs also directly relate to anthropocentric models of O'odham maturation. Another minor exception to this rule is a brief discussion of coyote in chapter 5. To use the concepts developed by anthropologists Beth A. Conklin and Lynn M. Morgan, instead of focusing on "structural-relational" models of personhood that might include other species and entities, in this particular study I am more interested in anthropocentric "processual-relational" models of personhood, which anthropologist Sarah Lamb has called "the making and unmaking of persons," and which anthropologist Maureen Trudelle Schwarz has employed in her exemplary studies of Diné (Navajo) personhood.

The most thorough academic model of O'odham life stages comes from David Kozak's unpublished MA thesis. Kozak's model of O'odham life stages directly relates to O'odham models of personhood because distinction between life stages suggests that persons are gradually made, or produced, rather than merely born. His model is reproduced below.

ali pre-toddler infant (from birth to approximately two years of age; prior to learning how to walk and talk)

* Literal translation: baby boy (Noun)

ceoj child (from two to approximately nine years of age)

* Literal translation: boy (Noun)

cehia/wiappoi youth (pubescent child, teen years; cehia = female; wiappoi = male)

* Literal translation: cehia = young female, virgin; wiappoi = a young man, boy (Nouns)

ke:li/oks adult (a person with/without children and/or has achieved a special feat; ke:li = male, oks = female)

* Literal translation: ke:li = an adult male; the male of any animal; oks = an adult female; a lady or a woman (Nouns)

wi:kol an elder or older person (someone with great-grandchildren)

* Literal translation: one's relative of the great grand-parent generation (Noun)

In addition to these four life stages outlined by Kozak, anthropologist Ruth Underhill discusses siakam, an O'odham notion of maturity pertaining to "ripening" or "ripeness," which might be considered a subset of ke:li, oks, and wi:kol. Underhill translates siakam as "ripe man," and missionary-linguists Dean Saxton, Lucille Saxton, and Susie Enos translate the term as "hero," or "one who has endured." Linguistic anthropologist Donald Bahr translates síakam as "brave men" or "war hero." Saxton, Saxton, and Enos translate si as "real, genuine; ultimate; of good character; precise, very," so if O'odham means something like "people," then siakam means something like "real people," those ripened individuals who are the physical embodiment of O'odhamness. For example, Maria Chona, the subject of Underhill's Papago Woman, is one such portrait of a "ripe" woman, whose life story tells of her maturation and movements within the O'odham desert landscape. Like Chona, Frances Manuel, a well-known Tohono O'odham basket weaver, singer, and elder, was known as "a person who has traveled all over." Alternatively, rather than using the language of "ripening" or "ripeness," Joseph Giff — an O'odham singer from St. John's Village — used the language of "flowering" found in Blue Swallow songs. Giff explains: "Here [in the Blue Swallow song] where it says 'my body flowers' ['ñ-cu:kug hiosim'] what it means is when one really sings with his heart [si e-i:bdagkaj ñei] then his body becomes beautiful similar to flowering all over. If something looks very nice, if it looks very desirable, we say it flowers [s-hiosig]."

Underhill describes four procedures through which males might progress from one stage to another: killing an eagle, going on the salt pilgrimage, encountering a powerful spirit in a dream, thereby acquiring songs and perhaps healing power, as well as the act of killing an enemy. Saxton, Saxton, and Enos suggest a similar model in which four degrees of manhood were attained through "killing a small animal" (often called ban, literally meaning "coyote," though not necessarily referring to an actual coyote), going on the salt pilgrimage (onamed), "meeting an animal or bird with power in a dream or vision," and "killing an enemy tribesman" (o:b). Walking to Magdalena contributes to the literature on O'odham processes of "ripening," "flowering," or maturation, insofar as the very act of walking to Magdalena is a part of the process through which O'odham make mature persons, thereby also contributing to the emerging literature in the academic study of religion on elders, aging, and authority in Native American and indigenous communities.

Making Place

In academic literature "place" is often defined in opposition to "space." Whereas space is abstract and homogeneous, place is concrete and particular. The difference between place and space might be sketched most simplistically in the following constructivist formula:

Place = Space + Meaning

If place is space transformed by human acts of meaning making — as constructivist dogma would have it — then one can begin to conceive of place as simultaneously encompassing both concrete and particular places, as well as in a variety of more expansive notions of place, such as landscape and cosmos. Building on the elasticity of place, religious studies scholar Anne Feldhaus suggests that a region — such as Maharashtra, the focus of her study on pilgrimage, "connected places," and geographical imagination — may be considered a kind of place. "In such a usage," Feldhaus contends, "a region is simply a large place." Feldhaus acknowledges that other scholars might resist the notion of conceiving of a region as merely a large place, specifically noting that the philosopher Edward Casey prefers to think of a region as a set of places connected to one another rather than a large place. Following Feldhaus's lead in extending the notion of place to include a region as "simply a large place," as well as a set, or series of sets, of smaller, discrete yet "connected places," I maximally expand the notion of place to include cosmology, which is used here more or less synonymously with sense of place. Such an expansion of the category of place is not unprecedented. For example, Feldhaus argues "a sense of place is formative of one's cosmology and basic orientation in the world." Moreover, to speak of the cosmos, a region, or even a landscape as a place is not merely an academic abstraction. Addressing the relation between pilgrimage and the production of regional consciousness in Maharashtra, Feldhaus argues:

In most pilgrimages in South Asia, the pilgrims enact their conviction that they can move through a region by in fact doing so. At the same time, they reinforce the same conviction for those who, though they remain at home, are aware of the pilgrims' journeys. Movement through an area with one's own body, or a clear realization of the possibility of such movement, is a condition for being able to imagine the area as a region in any coherent sense.

The same thing could very well be said for O'odham who journey to Magdalena: that they enact their conviction that they can move through their indigenous territory by in fact doing so. It is no surprise, then, that on the road to Magdalena, I often heard O'odham walkers declare, "this is our jewed"— that is, our "earth," or our "land." O'odham continue to be able to think of Magdalena as existing within O'odham territory, both by actually walking to Magdalena themselves and by praying in their own homes for their loved ones who are making the journey for the people. Although Magdalena now lies outside of any territory recognized as being within the jurisdiction of contemporary O'odham people, the notion that Magdalena continues to exist as O'odham territory in any coherent sense is made possible through the actual physical movement of walking to Magdalena (see chapter 4), imagining journeys to Magdalena through song (see chapter 2), and staffs, ribbons, and saints that evoke the power and presence of Magdalena in the everyday lives of O'odham (see chapter 3).

Most of my O'odham consultants and acquaintances never explicitly invoked or discussed the category of place. However, Verlon "Carlos" Jose, vice-chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, takes an explicitly pluralist and relativist stance on place. Even while walking on the road to Magdalena, he often encourages O'odham to make pilgrimages to destinations other than Magdalena. He has also made many of these other journeys as well, and yet, year after year, he finds himself on the road to Magdalena. During one conversation he mentioned that there are multiple groups and individuals who walk to a variety of locations across the Tohono O'odham Nation in honor of Saint Francis. "That's what I've always said: 'We don't necessarily have to go to Mali:na. We can go here. We can walk to any church here to make our manda, to make our commitment, for our prayers, to humble ourselves, to do that.'" At the moment I was a little perplexed by Verlon's comments, since the pilgrimage to Magdalena is clearly very important to him. When I asked what he thought about "place" and whether particular places are special and distinct from other places, or if all places were more or less interchangeable, his reply was simple: "When it comes to place, place is what you make it and how you make it. ... You talk about 'place': places are important, but a place is what you make of it." As Verlon's comments about place demonstrate, place and place making is not merely an academic interest.

The municipality of Magdalena in Sonora, Mexico, provides a good example for considering the difference between place as unique and place as interchangeable in some way. Many O'odham travel to Magdalena to visit with their Saint Francis, particularly around the saint's day on October 4. However, there are also several rival destinations for O'odham with their own Saint Francis. Both Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson and San Francisquito — meaning "Little Saint Francis," the Spanish name for Cu:wi Gesk, or "Rabbit Falls Down," an O'odham village in Sonora near the international border — have their own rival fiestas for Saint Francis. Moreover, the Tohono O'odham Nation also has a movable feast of Saint Francis that rotates each year across the eleven districts of the nation. This means that each year there are no fewer than three rival destinations for O'odham to travel to in addition to, or in lieu of, traveling to Magdalena. On top of all of this, there is a village named Ali Mali:na, or "Little Magdalena," in the Baboquivari District of the Tohono O'odham Nation. All of these places effectively aspire to be replicas of Magdalena, vying for its prestige, power, authority, and authenticity. As folklorist James Griffith and other scholars have previously shown, some O'odham claim that these rivals of Magdalena are superior to Magdalena because they have the "real" Saint Francis. However, these other journeys and pilgrimage destinations are not the focus of this study. Although each of these might warrant an independent or comparative study at a later date, these other places seem to derive their authority from Magdalena in one way or another. As Feldhaus argues in the Maharashtrian context in India, where the replication of so-called holy places is quite common,

Even when the ostensible claim is that the nearby place being praised is equal or superior to the distant place in terms of which it is praised, the person making the claim implicitly admits that the distant place is in fact superior. For that place is the one in terms of which the praise is formulated. The distant place is the measure against which the nearer place is to be tested, the truly famous place whose fame the other seeks to borrow.

In the O'odham context, these other places invoke Magdalena as the standard against which they should be measured when some O'odham claim that one or more of these other places are equal or superior to Magdalena in some way, though of course some O'odham explicitly disagree with this.

Place and Person

The conjunction of the categories of place and person as the central categories of this study is not without precedent. Keith Basso, the renowned cultural and linguistic anthropologist of the Western Apaches, contends that "what people make of their places is closely connected to what they make of themselves as members of society and inhabitants of the earth, and while the two activities may be separable in principle, they are deeply joined in practice. ... We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine." Or, as put more briefly by ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, and linguist Steven Feld in his coauthored work with Basso, "as people fashion places, so, too, do they fashion themselves." The production, manufacture, or making of personhood and place, then, are coterminous projects pursued in tandem. Moreover, Feld and Basso's quotation above can and should be inverted to state that as people fashion themselves, they also fashion places (for more on this see chapter 4 on walking). Similarly, Feldhaus notes that "awareness of where one is (or where one comes from) can become an important element in understanding who one is: it can become a vital aspect of a person's identity." Likewise, in the context of the pilgrimage to Magdalena, where one has been (or not), and how one gets there (or not), are significant in the ongoing process of producing O'odham persons.


Excerpted from "Walking to Magdalena"
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Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Tohono O’odham Pronunciation Guide
1. Personhood and Place
2. O’odham Songscapes
3. Walkers and Their Staffs
4. Walking to Magdalena
5. Writing O’odham History
Appendix 1: O’odham Religious History and the Magdalena Pilgrimage
Appendix 2: O’odham Speech Genres

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