Translating Tohono O'odham

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 2 14:11:41 UTC 2004

>>From the Arizona Daily,  Aug. 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Translating Tohono O'odham

Youth are target of native anthem

Joseph Barrios
Arizona Daily

TUCSON - There's no word in Tohono O'odham for "ramparts," one of the
words in The Star-Spangled Banner. Regardless of translation difficulties,
Tohono O'odham Nation members say a translated version of the anthem that
was sung for the Democratic National Convention will encourage young
people to learn the language and recognize their own citizenship in the
United States.

"Our language is a sacred element of who we are as a people," nation
Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders said. "It creates our uniqueness." The
translation of The Star-Spangled Banner also connects tribal members to
the patriotic icons of the United States.  "That's very important, too,"
Juan-Saunders said. "We have our own unique songs that could be considered
our own national anthem.

"But we have members who have volunteered for military service, and we are
very proud of that tradition. It's ingrained in us, as well."  Ofelia
Zepeda, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona and a nation
member, credits Albert Alvarez, a pioneer of Tohono O'odham studies, for
the translation. She described Alvarez as a self-taught linguist who
worked with MIT Professor Kenneth Hale to develop a writing system for the
language. The O'odham nation adopted the writing system as the official

Alvarez, who according to Zepeda is in poor health, could not be reached
for comment. Zepeda said the anthem is sung regularly at the commencement
ceremony for Tohono O'odham Community College. Like countless other
language comparisons, English and O'odham don't literally translate. In
O'odham, "star-spangled" would translate most closely into huhu'u, or

Keeping the traditional language alive should be a goal for all nation
members, said Terrol Dew Johnson, co-director of the non-profit Tohono
O'odham Community Action in Sells. The grant-funded organization is
dedicated to "cultural revitalization, community health and sustainable
development" of the nation. The organization has elder members give
singing lessons to children in Sells.

Johnson hopes that the recitation of the anthem on a national stage will
encourage O'odham youth to learn traditional songs. "I really, really do
hope so. My personal feeling is there's a lot of young people who probably
didn't even see it at all," Johnson said. "We definitely know how
important it is learning and trying to pass it on." Zepeda, a native
O'odham speaker, said that compared with other native languages, O'odham
is "somewhat vibrant."

Although there has never been a full, formal assessment of the language,
Zepeda said anecdotal information shows that O'odham is one of the few
native languages where adults speak it and no other language. There is
also a large bilingual population. Zepeda estimated in 2000 that up to 60
percent of nation members speak the language.

Like many of the U.S. native languages, the danger for its survival is
that many young children don't learn the language at home or in some other
setting. And despite the fanfare at the Democratic National Convention,
Johnson said nobody has asked to learn the translated anthem.

"I don't think anyone would, honestly. That's not our traditional song to
sing. That's for the United States. For an O'odham to want to sing the
anthem at a traditional ceremony is ridiculous," Johnson said.
"On a national basis, it's a great honor. We are Americans as well."

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list