Papago Woman

Papago Woman, written by Ruth M. Underhill, is an ethnography of the life of a native american woman named Maria Chona, a member of the Southern Arizona Papago people located right outside of Tucson, Arizona on a reservation. Ruth lived among the Papago from 1931 till 1933. She studied the life of the Papago with her main subject an older Papago woman named Chona. She says at one point how she learned amongst these people and Chona, “I feel, nevertheless, that out of all this flurry there came the story as it had appeared in Chona’s mind,” (27). By hearing the life of this Papago woman she learned about life as a Papago.
To collect data about the Papago way of life and Chona, Ruth Underhill asked many questions. She was very forward with her questions at first because she had not yet known the Papago way of life, such as asking the name of Chona’s dead son and not knowing that the name of the dead are not said out loud. Underhill integrated her life into that of the tribe. In the 3 years she stayed there she learned much through this method. She studied the language and Papago method of breathing by listening to the way they say their words and learned how they pronounce r’s as l’s and f’s as p’s.
She also used translators along the way. Part one of the Papago woman describes Ruth Underhill’s first encounter with the Papago people. Ruth goes to Tuscon, Arizona on a grant from Colombia University, the college she was attending, to live amongst this native american tribe in the southwest. Underhill drives to Arizona and meets a few friends living in Tuscon who tell her about the tribes people . They tell her how a few Papago come to their homes looking for work. They describe them as soft-spoken, brown people. Underhill inquired about any of the english speaking Papago she could meet.

She is then introduced to a yardman, Rafeal, or Lapai in the language of his people. Lapai in turn takes her to meet a woman named Chona who lives on a reservation in an unfurnished dwelling, similar to that of a cellar. Ruth listens with intent as Chona talks. Lapai translates the conversation for her. Throughout her stories, Ruth notices that Chona talks about how it used to be when she was a child. Ruth asks Chona about her family. She learns that Chona had two sons and a daughter but one son who was a medicine man died, the other is in Mexico, and the daughter got married and moved away.
Ruth asks the name of Chona’s dead soon and is met with an uncomfortable silence. Lapai tells Ruth that Chona had a sister who married a man named Lillat, whom she calls “husband-of-my-sister,” but died and Lillat was remarried with children (Underhill 5). They decided to go on a trip to visit Lillat and his family who lived far out on the reservation away from government headquarters. Soon they set out but not before the rest of the people living around Chona tried to all hitch a ride with Ruth to see Lillat. On the way, Ruth learned much about the land as the Papago know it.
She learns about eating cholla during the dry season, or “hungry time,” (Underhill 8). Chona points to a white rock and tells Ruth about the kidnapping of the Papago woman by the Apache during the fall when the corn was ripe. Chona also mentions Coyote and I’itoi who are very important people in Papago stories of history. “Coyote,” she said, “helped put the world in order. Only he made mistakes,” (Underhill 9). She would not talk further about Coyote because, “These things about the Beginning are holy. They should not be told in the hot time when the snakes are out. The snakes guard our secrets.
If we tell what is forbidden, they bite,” (Underhill 9). A few hours later they arrived at Lilliat’s adobe home. In true Papago fashion, they waited to be welcomed. They all stood across from each other smiling. Lapai and Ruth were never introduced but instead were greeted with kind smiles of gratitude. She learned that the Papago do not believe in sayings superficial things such as thank you but instead being welcomed through hospitality. With news of the guest arrival, the whole village came to eat at Lilliat’s house. Before dinner began, the ways of child-rearing were viewed.
The youngest son of Lilliat was told to “Shut the door,” and was not praised but instead allowed to sit on the men’s side of the table. As dinner went on Ruth observed more and more of the Papago customs. Strangers were studied very carefully to see their true selves. Bedtime was early and the bed was on the ground. Early rising is custom of Papago because, “Papagos had learned how to deal with the sun and did not hate or fear it. Those who slept past the dawn light were set down as hopeless drones,” (Underhill 14). The day begin when men went to fill the water tanks.
The water was shared and not thrown out with the guest being the first to use it. Women set to work with the meals for the day and basket-making. Later that day, a girl named Vela who could speak a little bit of english visited. She promised to help Ruth with translations. Ruth realized that her persistent questioning had been seen as ignorant and embarrassing to Chona. The women told Ruth about their job to bring the clouds to make rain. She soon discovered they would be taking a trip to gather cactus fruit to prepare wine for the rain festival.
They rode to the sahuaro cactus to gather the pear-ish fruit. Ruth again learned about Coyote and I’itoi. “When I’itoi was furnishing the earth, he thought he would put sahuaro all over. Then everyone could have fruit without too much walking. But Coyote, he doesn’t like work,” (Underhill 19). Coyote had not fully planted the seeds given to him by I’itoi to distribute the cacti and instead dropped them on the south hill. Then the cactus only grew on the south hill and not the north. The women gathered the cactus fruit and boiled it for the wine. Then it soon began to rain.
Next, the people ventured to Lillat’s parent village, Burnt Seeds, to gather for the rain festival. On their third night there the men dressed up for the dancing that would take place that night. They all gathered around a fire and danced and chanted in circles. The women picked the men they wanted and held hands to join in the dancing. They sang the same song continuously, “On the edge of the mountain, A cloud hangs. And there my heart, my heart, my heart, Hangs with it,” (Underhill 24). The next night when the wine had fermented the village gathered again to drink.
This night was when they would drink until the wine was all gone which led to everyone getting drunk. The medicine man prophesied the rains would come after four days. A week from the night, the rains came and raged for a week. Once that ended the villagers once again gathered to sing and do work such a basket weaving. This chapter helps the ethnography by giving an example of Ruth’s immersion into the tribe by experiencing their traditions. In part two, Underhill begins by telling a little background on the Papago people and Chona. The origins of the Papago people are mentioned.
They are closely related to the Pima people who live in lush lands near the border of Mexico. It is this reason that the Papago know them as the “River People” whilst the the Papago call themselves the “Desert People,” (Underhill 31). The Pima and the Papago were once one group split by the migration of the pish missionaries. Since the desert had not attracted the church, the Pima, living in greater lands “adopted American names and American clothing, and by 1871 had an American school,” while the Papago people cherished their ancient way of life (Underhill 32).
Ruth witnessed and documented the life of the Papago whilst studying the life of a 90 year old woman named Maria Chona, “She was the daughter of a prominent leader, Jose Maria, nicknamed Con Quien. ” (Underhill 32). She loved her father and therefore “accepted her culture completely,” (Underhill 33). Ruth was able to write the biography with little fluency in the Papago language and with Chona knowing a small bit of Spanish. What Ruth noticed about the stories of the Papago was there repetitive nature. Small details that are not important to non-Papago natives are confusing.
Things such as emotion were summed up in ways such as “I liked it,” or “I did not like it,” (Underhill 33). Chona wanted Ruth to write everything exactly as she told it but due to the emphasis on details and repetition, the non-native readers of the story would not be satisfied. Chona, we learn, “As a woman, she could not take part the ceremonial life,” but, “Chona accepted her status without stress or rancor,” (Underhill 34). She possessed an interesting background, one where she had two husbands. Her first husband was a shaman. Chona also had a co-wife, since polygamy was a norm amongst her people, whom she resented.
She describes her home growing up. She lived at Mesquite Root in a grass house. Her father was the chief there. As a child the girls did not wear tops. Water was scarce and what was there was red in color, “Oh yes, our water was always red. It made the corn gruel red. I liked that earth taste in my food,” (Underhill 36). The men of the village would go to hunt without water because it was considered womanly to bring water along. Chona’s mother would ground seeds to make flour while her father would listen to people problems. Her father also liked to gamble, gaining himself the nickname The Gambler.
The men would smoke tobacco often during gambling. When it was time to eat, the dishes were not washed, “When we had finished we did not wash the dishes. How could we, with no water,” (Underhill 38). Due to water scarcity they were not able to bathe either. When the children would play the boys would catch rats and roast them for all to eat. They would also go to the racetrack to run. When they were hungry they would gather food planted by Elder Brother, “Elder Brother planted those things for us,” (Underhill 39). When it was time for rainy season, Chona would experience the same ritual that Ruth would years later picking the cactus fruit.
During the time of menstruation, Chona’s mother would enter into the Little House so as not to bring bad luck and death to her father during war. For the men if they were “Killers” then they would have to be purified (Underhill 41). This meant they were separated from their family for days. Everyone in the family would be cleansed and gain power from the dead enemy. In her family, Chona’s grandfather had been a medicine man. Due to this association and her brother behavior it was known that he would be a medicine man. Chona’s family was always sick.
The medicine man would come to their house constantly to heal them. He sang songs to cure what ailed them. Singing seemed to be a big part of Chona’s life. It was natural to her family and soothing to her. People would dream of owls and then sing in front everyone so that the owls would go away, “People had to be sent for who had dreamed of owls, because that is how all songs come, by dreaming,” (Underhill 48). At one time an evil medicine man sent a a sickness that covered the whole village. So medicine men begin to walk into each hut waving branches to gather the sickness.
Chona did not get as sick as everyone else did. She did begin to have visions. She saw things that no one else did but it was natural to her because of her family background. During summers the corn was planted. It was said that, “The corn was once a man and he lured a woman away to sleep with him,” (Underhill 52) They would sing about that encounter and plant the corn so that it would grow strong. Summers also made the people happy because it was when the rain would come. Ruth also gathered that from what she heard form Chona was that their was a story for every occurrence.
So just like the corn, there was a story for the rain. The story was turned into singing that would help bring the rain along with the cactus festival. Like her father, Chona was hardworking, passionate, and a gambler. She was so good at gambling that she even beat a grown woman. As she got older she went through menses, “Girls are very dangerous at that time,” (Underhill 57). When girls go through menses they would bring lightning into the village and go to the Little House behind their families homes to prevent these occurrences that happen during menstruation.
When her dangerous time came to an end after a month , she was bathed to prevent death to her family and her hair was washed with soapweed fibers, “That is the way women should always wash their hair and it will never grow gray,” (Underhill 59). During this period the girl would also grow very thin, “We girls are like strips of yucca fiber after our coming of age is over,” (Underhill 61). At cleansing she was named Cha-veela as is customary during this time. When it was time to marry, Chona did not know her husband. He was a medicine man’s son.
Her breast had grown large so it was her time marry. Her father told the boy’s parents about the marriage and they agreed to it. The boy was told last about the marriage. Her father gave her advice on how to be a good wife, “That husband of yours, listen to him,” (Underhill 62). For the marriage they had to lie together in her hut with her mother beside her for four nights. This is how Papago are married and she moves in with him after. Her husband has three brothers but one is a man-woman, “The third brother was called Shining Evening and he was a man-woman,” (Underhill 64).
After a while she became dangerous again and goes through menstruation. When she is integrated into the family, the mother tattoos her chin with four black marks. At one point Chona goes with her husband to se a race against the River People. Her people won and received many items from the betting. Chona has her first child and becomes very superstitious as not to harm the child, “I was kind to the people in our village who looked sick or ugly, and I never laughed at them, so that my baby should have a good body,” (Underhill 66).
Soon after, two of her husband’s brothers marry. The wives always stayed with Shining Evening when the men were out, “We girls used to spend all day with that man-woman, Shining Evening,” (Underhill 67). Chona had six children with her husband, five of which were boys and one a girl. The boys all died. She would leave her babies at home sometimes to go help the Mexicans with their harvest. They were always on the lookout for Apaches, the enemy, and were almost killed. They vowed never to go to the Mexicans alone again. Her husband started having visions.
He was a Coyote-Meeter, “When he had his medicine man’s dreams, it was our comrade, Coyote, who came to him and sang him songs,” (Underhill 71). soon after her husband became a medicine man. After this occurrence her father died and the medicine men could not save him. They buried him with his blanket, pillows, and a few valuables. White men soon came and brought with them whisky. The men of the village would drink this and have visions like a medicine man would, “Men grew crazy when they drank that whiskey and they had visions,” (Underhill 74).
For some time Chona would leave to visit other villages. One time when she was returning, she heard news that her husbands had married again. Chona was heartbroken and left him. She took her child and went to her brother. Her uncle who resided there married her to an old rich man despite her disagreement because women had no say in matters such as these. Her new husband brought her many things. She learned that her first husband had grown sick and died upon hearing the news. He did not want his second wife and cried when he heard of Chona’s marriage, “I never saw my first husband again.
They told me when he heard of my new marriage he cried,” (Underhill 78). Soon after his death Chona caught falling hair sickness, a disease from the white people. A medicine man cured her and taught her how to cure. Chona has two sons from her second husband. One, a medicine man, died young because a wild woman was with him, “She lay with my son in the house when she should have been at the Little House,” (Underhill 85). Ruth learns that seven years prior to her arrival, Chona’s second husband had died. After she was alone in her home she would go to visit her daughters home at Burnt Seeds village.
This chapter helps the ethnography by having Ruth hear exactly what she came there to learn. It tells the life of an actual Papago women. Part three briefly talks about child-rearing amongst the Papago. Children are always surrounded, “The Papago child was born not into a single family but into a group,” (Underhill 89). The child is taught to be apart of the group and never seen as an annoyance. They learn action through observation. One of the most important was not to speak the name of the dead, “Because if the dead hear they may think you are calling them.
And they will come and take you because they are so lonely,” (Underhill 90). Ruth also learns that a woman’s place is not with the men. She had realized how separated things were between the sexes. The woman told her they do not fret because, “Why should we envy men? We made the men,” (Underhill 92). Another thing she noticed was the lack of love stories among the Papago. The woman told her that there were love songs and stories but not many. Woman would also become enamored with the men bringing back scalps and chase after them, “Some women went crazy and ran after men-but it was the ‘scalps,’” (93).
The Papago in the present are also talked about. Ruth says, “By the time of my visit, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had moved in,” (94) and they were soon introduced to more modern ways. Men joined the army learning english and schools were built. The Papago today vote and have dictionaries in their own language. This chapter helps the ethnography by giving a short insight on the child-rearing, love amongst the Papago, and present day Papago. The most important issues of the ethnographer seemed to be retelling the story in a way that readers could understand.
Ruth mentions this in the beginning of chapter two about the way the story was told in traditional indian style which is confusing to outsiders. The most important aspect of interpreting things like this seems to be that the observer must live amongst the people to fully understand their ways and interpret them for others. This is the same for the film “ A Man Called Bee” and the Yanomamo text. The perspective of the ethnographer is that the Papago people are so different from the outside world; soft-spoken and tribal in their ways.
This colored her analysis through her main focus on an older resident of the tribe who had grown up the Papago way. The ethnographers methods are convincing because she relays a story just like it was told to her and includes her experience amongst the people making the report all the more convincing. Ruth does not necessarily generalize her findings because she tells of the present Papago, interviews, and has older tribe member giving a story on that side of life, and includes the writer’s own experience at the rain festival.
This ethnography helped me to see how an older people lived. The Papago are ancient in their ways and I see that when I compare their way of life to my own. Ruth reinforced my assumptions about human behavior mostly when she described the ways men and women were separated and seen in different lights, much like today. Works Cited Underhill, R. M. U. (1979). Papago Woman. (Reprint ed. , Vol. 1, p. 98). Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

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