JUNE IS ALWAYS hectic for Ofelia Zepeda, poet, linguist and professor at the University of Arizona.
Every year during the hottest of Tucson months, she's immersed in the American Indian Language Development Institute, a program she co-founded 20 years ago to teach Native Americans strategies for preserving their vanishing languages. This summer in the institute at the UA, tribes as far-flung as Cape Cod and Washington state sent reps to enroll in Zepeda's Native American linguistics course and to pick up ideas for teaching their assorted tongues to children and adults alike.
"My teaching schedule for June is extremely packed," Zepeda reported last weekend by telephone. "In the middle of that last week I got the phone call. It was an absolute surprise."
The phone call in question was from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the well-heeled group that every year showers riches on academics, artists and social activists around the nation. Only officially are the winners known as MacArthur Fellows; nearly everybody calls them MacArthur geniuses. Zepeda, one of 32 geniuses named this year, will get $320,000, money she can spend however she pleases.
"They said to me, 'This is the first and last time you'll hear from us,' " she explained, a note of wonder creeping into her measured voice. "I haven't had much time to think about it. It's difficult to grasp."
The Foundation praised Zepeda for her unusual cluster of activities on behalf of native languages. She has published several bilingual collections of her own poetry, in English and Tohono O'odham, her first language; she's the author of the first and only O'odham grammar; and she combines her teaching and scholarly research with efforts in the community. Recently, Zepeda and other like-minded Tohono O'odham people in Tucson have been working with tribal leaders to establish language centers on the sprawling reservation west of town.
"One thing we've noticed in the last five to seven years, is that whole tribal communities are saying, 'Our language is in trouble.' That's the first step, to realize your situation."
Contrasted to some native languages -- like the lost idiom of two Wampanoag women from Cape Cod who attended the institute -- O'odham is not faring too badly, Zepeda said.
"Our language is healthy compared to other language communities. The large population is somewhat isolated in the desert.... There are about 19,000 to 20,000 tribal members, and for about 55 percent of them the first language is O'odham. But the youngest fluent speakers are probably those in high school. The situation for those 12 and younger is not good."
Zepeda, 45, spoke O'odham exclusively up to the age of 7. Kids on the reservation today typically start using English much earlier, influenced not only by mass media but by otherwise well-meaning programs such as Head Start. This change among children is of very recent vintage, she noted, shifting just in the last 15 years.
Her first book came partly out of necessity. Zepeda was a grad student in linguistics at the UA, and starting to teach O'odham. There simply were no books to use in her teaching. "Other people had treated the structure of the O'odham in scholarly articles," Zepeda explained. She set out to create a comprehensive teaching grammar, which not only sorted out the bones of the language but also presented it in the form of successive lessons. A Papago Grammar, published by the UA Press, served as her master's thesis. (She got her doctorate at the UA in 1984.)
Her next book, an edited volume of poetry, When It Rains: Papago and Pima Poetry, similarly was born of her teaching, but it also got her started on an unexpected literary career. Again, she could find little for her language students to read.
"I had them write, as activities for class. We also transcribed (O'odham) songs, then translated them. After a while we wrote our own poetry. I wrote with them. Then I xeroxed the writing and stapled them: they became our readers."
Eventually, the students' poems became a bilingual book (now out of print), part of the UA Press Sun Tracks series on Native American literature, for which Zepeda has served as editorial adviser. Zepeda found that she liked writing poetry, and four years ago she published Ocean Power (UA Press), a bilingual collection of her own work, poems that move with the rhythms of traditional desert life. Then she was approached by Lisa Bowden of Tucson's Kore Press, a small press that specializes in fine hand-printed books by women authors.
"Lisa wanted a bilingual collection. We figured if it was going to be in O'odham and in English there should be a recording."
The resulting publication, Jewed `Hoi/Earth Movements, is a tiny poetry chapbook that's accompanied by a CD of Zepeda reading her verse aloud in both languages.
An upcoming book project, also with Kore, takes its inspiration from animal poems in Jewed `Hoi. Aimed partly at children, the book will be illustrated by local artist Paul Mirocha and include a CD of spoken and sung works. So far, though, the book remains partly unwritten. After June's MacArthur hubbub dies down, Zepeda plans to sit down and compose.
"I promised Lisa I would get my part done in July." She added, apologetically, "I don't have time to write much during the school year."
For information on Ofelia Zepeda's books, call the UA Press at 621-1441 and Kore Press at 882-7542.