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Desert Indian Woman: Stories and Dreams, by Frances Manuel and Deborah Neff. Specifically, it will discuss and include Frances Manuel's tribal origins, traditions, and culture of this American Indian woman in the past, present, and future, along with contemporary issues as she functions in Tribal and non-Indian societies. Frances Manuel is a woman caught between the culture of the past and the society of the future. As she struggles to keep her native traditions alive, she watches her people change, and must change with them in order to survive.
DESERT INDIAN WOMAN
Frances Manuel is a Papago Indian (they call themselves Tohono O'odham, or Desert Indians), from southern Arizona, who was born in the Indian village of Ko:m Wawhai in 1912. She is a storyteller, a basket maker, and a woman vitally concerned with making sure the legends and stories of her people are recorded for posterity. She says," I am very proud of being a Papago / and I know where I came from and I know who I am. / That's what I want my children to be / to know who they are and where they came from (Manuel and Neff xv). Anthropologist Deborah Neff wrote the book from Manuel's spoken words, and so sometimes these words appear as poetry, trying to capture the way Manuel actually spoke them. The book gives the reader insight into the tribal customs and rituals of her people. However, more than that, it allows the reader to "become" a Papago for a while, and understand what it is like to live on the edge of two civilizations, through a time of great change and upheaval in the United States, and in the lives of all native cultures.
Manuel's tribal origins go back in history quite a way. They have lived in the same area of southern Arizona and northern Mexico for hundreds of years. Today they primarily live on three reservations, but they have spread out into the cities and towns of Arizona, too. Most of the people now speak English. Their native language is closely related to the Pima language. These people rely on agriculture for their sustenance, along with hunting and gathering. They grew corn, beans, and squash, and hunted deer and rabbit. They also gathered native plants. Their lives were bound by the seasons, and they lived in villages that would often change locations from summer to winter. Manual often notes that most of her traditional storytelling was done during the winter; they did not speak of these things in the summer (Manuel and Neff xxxv).
Frances Manuel grew up in rural Arizona during a crossroads in the history of her people. As a child, she played in the desert, and learned about the plants and animals from her grandmother. She remembers, "I learned to grind the wheat on the metate. I learned to make tortillas. I learned to cook everything. I learned what there is to eat from the desert. I learned a lot of things" (Manuel and Neff 6). What Manuel learned would serve her well in the native world, but she had to learn many other things to survive in the white man's world when she was forced to move to Tucson after her marriage. Therefore, her life became a blending of old world and new, tradition and change.
Manuel's people depended on the seasons for their sustenance, and the rain for their crops. They were much more in tune with the natural world, and even Manuel's house on the reservation brought back the feelings of the natural desert, rather than the artificial buildings of Tucson. These people love the land, and know how to take what they need and leave the rest for another day. They have rituals to bring on the live-giving rains and rituals when they enjoy certain foods, because these are extremely important events in their lives. It is easy to see how Frances was torn between her life as a native, and her life in the city. One allowed her to raise her family, and the other allowed her to be in touch with all the things that really mattered to her, and had been traditions for so long. It is also easy to see why so many Native Americans do not fit into modern society. It is because their traditions are far different from our modern and hectic lives. The lives of the natives before the white man came seem much more peaceful and happy, and the relating of their traditions makes the reader understand just how much they have lost.
Manuel's culture was also based on a great understanding of the plants and animals in the desert. She learned this early in her life from her grandmother. She also learned from others in her tribe about the medicinal values of plants, and what to use for what illness. The Native Americans practiced early pharmacology, and Manuel often relates to Neff what plants are good for what ailment, and how some do not work at all (Manuel and Neff 24). She also relates their food customs, and their superstitions about food. "One thing we never ate is snake, frog, and turtle. [...] I never did eat fish or something else, we're superstitious about it" (Manuel and Neff 25).
Manuel's life has never been easy, and one thing that is striking is how she often speaks of being lonely. She was never lonely in the desert, she often played with the cactus and the animals, but she is lonely in the city. Her husband is killed in a hit and run accident, and she is left with young children and a small income as a maid. She remembers how she managed, "I sold tortillas because in the evenings I was, ya know, ironing - people used to bring their ironing. I worked all day and ironed at night, or I'd make tortillas and sell just to make [softly] extra money" (Manuel and Neff 67). Manuel worked hard all her life; perhaps even harder than she would have had she stayed on the reservation. She is the meaning of perseverance and determination. She really did not begin to enjoy her life in Tucson until she began to weave baskets, and then teach others how to weave them, which is how she met Deborah Neff, and began to forge a friendship. In fact, she never feels comfortable in town, and rejoices when she finally returns to the desert and her new home in 1981. "And now I'm back to earth. I think I can start doing things. I went back to teaching and I'm glad. 42 years is a long time. It was like starting a new life" (Manuel and Neff 75). It is quite interesting that in all her years in Tucson, she did not forget her native stories and her native culture, so when she returns to her people, she feels more at home than she ever did in Tucson. She did not take on the ways of the city all the time she was there, but held on to the ways she had learned as a child. All her life she seemed to be searching for something that she could not find, which may have been one of the reasons she always felt alone and lonely. When she returns to the desert, she seems to finally find peace, and to really discover herself. It took her two years to get used to it, but after that, her life really seemed to be her own, rather than a life created for her by her husband, or her family, or the white people she worked for.
She thinks about hard times, and shows the vast difference between our cultures.
Oh, yeah, I had hard times. I had hard times but I don't really call that hard times. A lot of Indians have had hard times, especially with babies. They [inhaling the whole sentence] died from smallpox. Also died from whooping cough. But what a lot of people might think is hard times that we had isn't hard times at all. Like when you carry water on your heat in a bucket, put it in a tub for potty water and another for drinking water" (Manuel and Neff 84).
Basket weaving is probably the most important thing in Manuel's life, and yet she does not really discuss it until at least half way through the book. As Neff notes, "For Frances, basket weaving is a metaphor for life" (Manuel and Neff 98). She relates her experiences making baskets more distinctly than just about any other topic in the book, and she also bemoans the fact that young basket makers do not understand how to take time with their creations. "That's why the baskets aren't the same as they were before. Because at that time, there was nothing. Ladies took their time, do their work, what was given to them. They work with their eyes, their hands, their mind, their thoughts"…[continue]
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