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By the Prophet of the Earth

By L.S.M. Curtin


L. S. M. Curtin's ethnobotanical studies are like snapshots that record a people's connection to the environment at a particular moment in time. In the foreword of the original edition of By the Prophet of the Earth, anthropologist Odd S. Halseth predicted that Curtin's work would provide a historic reference point by which to evaluate general changes within a culture and specific changes in the Pima (O'odham) diet. He reminded us that "we do not fully understand and appreciate the relationship of diet to health... [or]... the relationship between deculturation and acculturation." Saddened by the "tin-can diet" that had begun to replace that of the ancient Pima culture by the 1940s, both Halseth and Curtin hoped the book would further encourage renewed interest in native plant foods and "their possible virtue over the new diet from the standpoint of vitamins."

A quarter of a century passed before food scientists and their collaborators empirically established the nutritional "virtues" of the ancient Piman foods discussed in this book. By that time, studies had shown that the Gila River Pima population exhibited an unusually high incidence of diabetes mellitus and other nutrition-related diseases. A dietary survey of 277 Piman women, written by National Institutes of Health and Indian Health Service workers in 1971, revealed that traditional foods made up only a small portion of most of these women's diets. The women whose diets had shifted dramatically to "tin-can" and convenience foods were obtaining less iron and magnesium than those who had kept more to the traditional diet. Although in the early l980s researchers still could not completely explain diet change and the increase in nutrition-related disease as a simple cause-effect relationship, the early studies stimulated others which looked at the nutritive content of plant foods prepared in the traditional O'odham way.

Since 1974 there have been several articles in Ecology of Food and Nutrition which demonstrate that foods harvested and prepared in traditional Piman ways are nutritionally comparable or superior to the modern convenience foods that have replaced them in reservation communities. While the analyses published by Doris Calloway, Ruth Greenhouse, Harriet Kuhnlein, Charles Weber, and others emphasize mineral and protein content more than vitamins, Leonora Curtin would nevertheless be gratified to know that her hunches have been somewhat borne out. She would be further gratified to know that such information was being discussed by the Pima themselves: during the 1970s Pima professionals and paraprofessionals with the Gila River Community Division of Human Resources began encouraging the use of native foods and the control of nutrition-related diseases.

But how directly do these food issues relate back to the Piman connection with their desert and riverine environment? The availability of certain plant and animal foods certainly diminished as the Gila River and its floodplain were degraded over the years. As chronicled in Amadeo Rea's thorough treatise, Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila (University of Arizona Press, 1983), the Pima witnessed the decline in abundance of local flora and fauna as streamflows were diverted, groundwater pumped, soils salted up and vegetative cover cleared. Overgrazing, woodcutting, beaver trapping and inappropriate intensities of land use promoted by Spanish and Anglo settlers began to take their toll on the health of the Gila watershed after the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1887 Anglo settlers at Florence had built an irrigation system large enough to take the entire flow out of the Gila before it even reached the Pima.

The Gila River and its tributaries, the Santa Cruz and the Salt, surely did not dry up and die all at once. Neither did Piman knowledge of these once diverse biological communities. There remained among the elderly people who call themselves the Akimel O'odham, "Running Wash People," a vivid sense of farming and gathering along a dynamic river. The Coolidge Dam did not bring "the promised new life to Pima agriculture" as anticipated in Curtin's time, nor did groundwater-based agriculture regenerate the diversity of resources that Pimans once had to draw upon. In the 1980S Piman craftsmen often had to search off the reservation to find raw materials from plants that were abundant there during their childhoods. Some sowed seed or planted cuttings of species that were formerly ubiquitous. In these ways, Piman usage of vegetation was not abandoned; it shifted, as new technologies interacted with the people's needs and skills. For this reason, we still have much to learn from native plant experts in the Gila River Indian community; it is hoped that future ethnobotanical "snapshots" will be taken with the the accuracy and timeliness of Curtin's vignettes.

In 1983 many of Curtin's field notes and manuscripts concerning the Pima, "Purepecha" Tarascans, and other Native American peoples were placed in the Special Collections archives of the University of Arizona Library. In addition, her dried plant specimens, fortunately saved over the decades by the foresight of the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, were transferred to the University of Arizona Herbarium. These primary materials, including those for this book, will thus be available for future researchers who wish to study the contributions of Curtin and her Piman consultants. The value of the research conducted for the writing of By the Prophet of the Earth can only grow richer as time goes on.

A final note: the title By the Prophet of the Earth is a reference to the abundance of nature provided for the people by the O'odham deity Jewed Makai, who is significant in Piman creation stories. The name of this mythic character comes from the O'odham terms jewed (earth, soil, land, territory, world or homeland) and makai (medicine man, shaman, curer, seer or prophet). The name has elsewhere been translated as "Earthmaker," "Earthdoctor," or "Medicine Man of the World." In modern times the phrase has also been used for Anglo doctors and Madeleine Mathiot's A Dictionary of Papago Usage (Indiana University Publications, 1973) lists another meaning for jewed makai, "land surveyor"-a telling reflection of the way some O'odham view the changing of their modern world.


Copyright © 1884. The Arizona Board of Regents

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