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By the Prophet of the Earth

By L.S.M. Curtin


Because he knew of my love for primitive people and of the great joy I had found working with them in New Mexico and Morocco, Mr. Odd S. Halseth, Director of Pueblo Grande Laboratory of Phoenix, urged me to record the ethnobotany of the Pima Indians while there was still the opportunity. Other researchers maintained that the ancient culture of the Pima had been absorbed in the process of modernization of the Indian, but Mr. Halseth insisted that there still lived on the reservation enough old people with a knowledge of the past to make such a record possible.

The rough going of the first of my four seasons in the Pima field was made smoother through the kindly and capable offices of Miss Elizabeth Hart, for seven years engaged in home extension work on the reservations. I accompanied Miss Hart on her daily visits to the Indian women's clubs, and while she was occupied in teaching domestic science, I wandered about the countryside collecting plants on which the women gave me information after the teaching session. Always it was the older women who had the greatest knowledge of the native uses of plants. Those of middle age would occasionally supply a recipe, but girls of high-school age would have no answer when questioned. Some medicinal plants are recognized by all the Pima, while others are known only to certain individuals. It was also found that, in many instances, Papago, Apache, Yaqui, and Maricopa also used or knew of certain Pima plants.

Miss Hart was particularly interested in my work because she had herself collected data on the plants formerly used for food by the Pima. She constantly urged the Indians to grind their home-grown grain instead of buying at the store white flour lacking in both vitamins and bulk. In several instances I have quoted from her various booklets, now out of print. Stephen Jones explained to me that in the seventies, when the water situation became acute, the Pima were starving because they could no longer grow wheat, hence they were forced to return to their wild foods for sustenance. This is the reason why the old people still remembered the original food that nature gave them. They constantly complained that most of their edible greens have disappeared, and no wonder, for, owing to the white man's draining of the water supply for his own irrigation, the shallow wells of the Pima became exhausted, necessitating the hauling of water in barrels for household use either from trading posts or from the schools.

During the succeeding three seasons when I went out alone, I invariably received the friendliest cooperation, one informant or interpreter introducing me to another, but carefully warning me against those who might not be persuaded to talk or who might invent tales in order to evade the truth.

I was astonished when a white woman, who had spent many years of her life in Phoenix, told me that she feared even to speak to a Pima, as "they are so black and look so surly." On the contrary, I have found them good-natured and kind. When among friends they display an attitude like that of happy, normal children. Their sense of humor is so delightful that I have endeavored in this work to present a slight taste of it. Witness, for example, Lewis Manuel's explanation of why his ancestors were thin, and old Mary Manuel's continuous flow of witty conversation. Here and there, in the hope of giving a bit of characteristic flavor, I have set down the exact words as they came from my informants' lips.

The following citations from earlier choniclers show that the character of the Pima has not changed for generations:

According to Bartlett (vol. II, p. 267) Father Kino, in 1698, comments on the "peacefulness and gentleness" of these Indians and remarks on their irrigated lands and cultivated fields of wheat.

Emory often mentions the merry jokes of the "Pimos," and praises them for their agriculture and useful arts, describing them as peace-loving and industrious.

Bartlett, (vol. II, p. 264) wrote: "There are no tribes of Indians on the continent of North America more deserving of the attention of philanthropists than those of which I am speaking. None have ever been found further advanced in the arts and habits of civilized life. None exhibit a more peaceful disposition, or greater simplicity of character; and certainly none excel them in virtue and honesty. They are quite as industrious as their necessities require them to be."

Owing to faulty modern diet, the Pima tend to obesity at middle age, so that their exceedingly small feet seem inadequate to support their rotund bodies. The intense desert sun burns them almost black, hence they are much darker than, for example, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. In fact, the appellation "red-skin" is hardly appropriate, although there is no suggestion of the negroid about them.

Thanks to an excellent hospital at Phoenix, Pima medicine-men have largely passed out of fashion. A generation ago, the lives of the native healers were in great danger because tribal laws prescribed that if a patient were allowed to die, they were killed. (See Russell, pp. 42, 48.)

As with most primitive people, weights and measures are almost unknown. Time is not an important factor in their lives. Science may demand more specific prescriptions or recipes, but the Pima give only these indefinite directions: "A pinch or a handful in a little or a lot of water and allowed to steep or boil until the liquid is light- or dark-brown." From their point of view there is nothing more to be said; and perhaps, after all, it matters little, for in most cases such prescriptions do not involve powerful drugs.

Spring was a favorable season for field research, as the countryside was carpeted with flowers. Even if the Indians were engaged in planting, with a little patience, extended inquiry, and an hour or so of search, an informant would be found and at least an appointment could be made. But during the autumn, when all vegetation had become shriveled, every Pima under ninety years became busy in picking cotton for the whites. Although my speedometer might register two hundred miles a day, my notebook often remained blank. Human contacts, warm, friendly, amusing, and touching experiences were mine. Above all, the desert in its varying moods ever brought delight, so that each day was crowned by a glorious sunset. Even the plants along the roadside repeated their own stories, and I never felt lonely driving through the Indian country. Moreover, the roadrunner kept me company, always scurrying along beside the car and welcoming as lucky the days of our meeting.

Had the advent of war not terminated my field research, doubtless more legends and beliefs would have been entrusted to my ear. It was only during my fourth and last season that sufficient friendliness and confidence were established for such intimate, well-guarded secrets to be shared.


Copyright © 1884. The Arizona Board of Regents

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