Unlocking the Past: The O’odham Oral History Project Keeps Language and Culture Alive

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: Online features, Web Exclusive
By Martha S. Lee

Ron Geronimo (left) and student intern Sara Guzman surveyed scores of oral histories.

Place names are a passion for Ron Geronimo, the Tohono O’odham studies director and a language and culture instructor at Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) in southern Arizona. So many communities and geographical features on traditional O’odham lands are now known by their Spanish names, or by names with an archaic spelling derived from what the Spanish explorers thought they heard the Desert People speaking at the time of contact. The way Geronimo sees things, knowing the original place names for O’odham communities and geographic landmarks reinforces his people’s connection to the land. For example, the place that the Spanish called Mission Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi was originally known to the Tohono O’odham as Ge’e Wawhi, or Big Spring. Indeed, the village of Big Spring was located near a cienega (a spring-fed marsh) that was part of a river system.

Hundreds of years ago, Tohono O’odham living along this river, now known as the Santa Cruz River, called it A:negam Ak, or Willowy Wash. The river flowed year round and was lined with trees that provided shade and materials for building and basketry. Knowing the original names can help modern O’odham feel closer to their environs and to the river, which still runs intermittently outside of Tucson. 


From 1968 to 1972, researchers at a handful of universities captured oral histories on reel-to-reel tapes as part of the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project. TOCC has worked to digitize the taped recordings, preserving them for posterity.

For reasons we don’t understand, a group of the Willowy Wash Tohono O’odham moved north and founded a village. The people already in the region called the new village A:negam, or Place of Willows, in recognition of where the newcomers originated. This history was largely shrouded until Geronimo rediscovered these stories from a series of oral histories recorded over 40 years ago.

In the 1960s, the tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke, who was interested in the arts and culture, decided to fund a collection of American Indian oral histories. From 1966 through 1972, the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project funded the collection of recorded interviews at seven universities, including the University of Arizona. The Universities of Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah were also involved. The University of California at Los Angeles participated for one year.

At most of these institutions, a lead faculty member from either the anthropology or history department worked with graduate students to record the oral histories of American Indians in that state. The recordings were then processed and archived following the protocols of the library, museum, or university holding the material. In Arizona, Dr. Bernard (Bunny) Fontana served as the Arizona State Museum ethnologist who led the collection effort. The focus of Dr. Fontana’s work was to “encourage native peoples to record their own culture from their own viewpoint,” as described by the Arizona State Museum website. Later in his life, Dr. Fontana remarked ruefully that he and his team of anthropologists did not collect written permissions statements from the interviewees. This is one of the reasons that access to this set of oral histories in Arizona had been restricted to the interviewees themselves or their direct family members.


John Havier (Tohono O’odham) grew up speaking Tohono O’odham as his first language. As a TOCC student intern, he helped Ron Geronimo explore the content of scores of oral histories.

Then, in 2013, the American Indian College Fund sponsored fellowship grants for tribal college faculty with funding from the Mellon Foundation. Geronimo applied and received $12,000 to work with the Arizona State Museum on accessing and organizing the Tohono O’odham oral histories from the Doris Duke project. The grant supported the digitization of the oral histories, which were transferred to computer hard drive so that they will be available for posterity. There are 239 O’odham-related tapes in the Arizona State Museum’s Doris Duke Collection.

The College Fund grant also supported a TOCC student intern who helped Geronimo explore the contents of the Doris Duke Collection. Those who listened to the recordings were moved by how the elders expressed themselves. For example, to show how one should respect people and the environment, one elder told a story with animals as characters. There was an innate sense of belonging in the narrative, which Geronimo found hard to explain in English.

The newly digitized oral history recordings will be treated carefully and respectfully. In March 2015, Geronimo joined the Southwest Native Nations Advisory Board, which advises the Arizona State Museum on cultural preservation and its relationships with Arizona’s 22 tribal nations. The advisory board is involved in decision-making about usage and access to the oral history recordings. Geronimo joins fellow tribal members Peter Steere (the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer) and Joe Joaquin (an O’odham cultural resource specialist) on the board, ensuring that TOCC is informed and represented.

The oral histories will be available at the TOCC library for students and community members alike, enabling them to learn more about their heritage. The Arizona State Museum archives will provide a manual with an index of the recordings and their content. Geronimo hopes that other tribal colleges who hear about his project will work with their state museums and universities to ensure that oral history recordings are made available to the American Indian communities involved and perhaps to the public at large.

Martha S. Lee is a special projects consultant at Tohono O’odham Community College.


Arizona State Museum. (2015). Archival Collections: Sound Recordings. Retrieved from http://www.statemuseum.arizona.edu/library/archives/archvsnd.shtml

Geronimo, R. (2014). Establishing Connections to Place: Identifying O’odham Place Names in Early Spanish Documents. Journal of the Southwest: O’odham and the Pimería Alta, 56(2), 219–231.

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