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Ofelia Zepeda

Distinguished Visiting Writer 2019

About Ofelia Zepeda

A member of the Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) Nation, Ofelia Zepeda grew up in Stanfield, Arizona. She earned a BA, an MA, and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Arizona. She is the author of a grammar of the Tohono O'odham language, A Papago Grammar (1983). Zepeda’s poetry collections include Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (1995) and Jewed’l-hoi/Earth Movements, O’Odham Poems (1996). 

Zepeda’s poetry touches on linguistics, O’odham traditions, the natural world, and the experience of contemporary O’odham life. Her work is influenced by traditional Papago themes and songs. Dennis Holt, reviewing Zepeda’s work for Drunken Boat, identified the “cultural mélange” of her work, commenting that “a number of Zepeda’s poems display varying patterns of bilingualism, including code-switching and immediate interlinear translation.”

Zepeda was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship (1999) for her contributions as a poet, linguist, and cultural preservationist. She received a grant from the Endangered Language Fund for her work on the Tohono O’odham Dictionary Project. Zepeda has been a professor of linguistics and director of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona, as well as director of the American Indian Language Development Institute. She edits Sun Tracks, a book series devoted to publishing work by Native American artists and writers, at the University of Arizona Press.

More About Ofelia Zepeda

Haworth, John. "Ofelia Zepeda: A Language For Praying." American Indian Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 2017.

From her birth in Stanfield, Ariz., in 1952 to her current stature as an academic, linguist and a leading poet of the Tohono O’odham of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and northern Mexico, Zepeda is a master of language, both English and O’odham (the language spoken by the Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham and Hia C-ed O’odham). Likewise, she is a fierce advocate for the reclamation and preservation of indigenous tongues. She has been honored as a MacArthur Fellow and, earlier this year, with a Distinguished Service award from the Modern Language Association. 

Holt, Douglas. "Review of books and CD by Ofelia Zepeda." Drunken Boat.

In her classic ethnographic study, Papago Woman, Ruth Underhill reports that among the Papago of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, the most valued accomplishment of adulthood is the ability to create songs. "Making songs is the Papago achievement par excellence, all outward acts being considered merely as preparation for it. ... It is a sine qua non for success in life" (34) [ . . . ] Here, eloquently stated, is one of the principles that underlie poetry's ability to do so much while saying so little. In other words, the fuller and richer our background-knowledge, the less need be said to bring new conceptual relationships into our consciousness. Happily, this age-old tradition of song is still alive, and now, in these two publications by linguist and poet Ofelia Zepeda, it is being shared more directly with the world outside the world of the Papago, or, as we now should call them, the "Tohono O'odham." 

Zepeda, Ofelia. "O'Odham Dances." Open Lens Productions, 2017.

O’odham Dances is a lyrical film adaptation of Ofelia Zepeda’s poem portraying a Tohono O’odham ritual in which people join with not only the animals of the desert but all the important elements necessary for rain, including winds, clouds, and the heat off the desert. The film shows the dramatic transformation of the Sonoran Desert as night falls—the sun sets, the moon rises, and animals that have quieted their movements through the day’s intense heat come out in search of food and water. Desert images and sounds convey the powerful sense of place and sacred space that Zepeda’s poem evokes.

---. "Proclamation." Poetry Foundation. See also "The Place Where Clouds Are Formed".

Cuk Son is a story.
Tucson is a linguistic alternative.
The story is in the many languages
still heard in this place of
Black Mountains.
They are in the echo of lost, forgotten languages
heard here even before the people arrived.

"Ofelia Zepeda: Renowned Poet and Linguistics Expert." The University of Arizona, Feb 13, 2008.

Ofelia Zepeda's work to inspire appreciation of the Tohono O'odham language is among her many efforts to preserve and revitalize the world's many endangered languages. She is considered one of the most prominent voices in the field.