Three Degrees of Separation in Tucson


Tucsonans often remark how small it is, even after growing from 250,000 in 1970 to a metro million today.  We also find we have ongoing connections with certain cities — like Denver and Durango in Colorado, Eugene in Oregon, and, traditionally, as a summer getaway, San Diego.  Last year I met a dancer standing on his head in the square in Old Town Albuquerque (teaching his sons) and when I discovered he was from Tucson it didn’t surprise me.

I just found out that someone I have known (not well, but we share colleagues) is the brother of a man I have admired and felt grateful to for 35 years.  David Tedlock, a communications specialist, said he was actually rooming with Dennis when the latter created a unique way of transcribing the voices as well as the stories of Zuni Indians, who live in northern New Mexico.

At the time, I was interested personally in recording the stories of women who had lived in one place 50 years or more.  This was due to the fact that I felt buffeted and dragged around the country, no decisions of my own, and I wanted to find out if it is better for a woman to stay put.  In 1975,  when I visited my home town in Wisconsin, I enlisted Alice Heil, a “landswoman” still living on her parents’ farm, and Olive Braun, a family friend in Wausau whose summers were spent near  Star Lake, a logging town, by the way, that no longer existed.  She introduced me to the Frederickson  sisters who still sold bait at Star Lake, and they related tales of the wealthy Chicago family that came up on a private rail car to a ramshackle hotel there — I suspect because they owned the woods that was being cut down.

In Tucson I was privileged to interview a Papago (Tohono O’Odham) basket weaver, from the last of the saguaro fruit harvesting families, for Arizona Highways.  I went back and listened to more of her stories.   When I taught memoir-writing to senior citizens, I arranged to record a retired teacher who had grown up on an Oklahoma Indian reservation and stayed in the area as an adult.  There was a Benedictine nun in that class, and she was permitted to talk to me, but she didn’t remember much beyond her regulated cloistered life.  (The gem I got from her was her heartfelt desire to arrive as a novice and be presented with a rock for her pillow.)

Each of these women had a unique manner of speaking.  I can’t remember exactly when I ran across  FINDING THE CENTER: Narrative Poems of the Zuni Indians, translated by Dennis Tedlock, but it was gold for me.  I won’t go into the scholarly defense of his most fascinating visual interpretation of their speech, but to quote this:

“Beyond interjections, proper names, songs, and the likes, there is something else in Zuni narratives which cannot be ‘translated’ in the ordinary sense, and that is the kind of thing that is not said but which takes place in the minds of the narrators and his listeners. . . .”

I believe this to be true of everyone.  The pauses are as important as the words.  This short pauses cause the translator to drop down to the next line, a long pause deserves a new paragraph, and a rising voice can be shown as superscript, a loud voice as ALLCAPS — and so on.  Thus, poetry.

Perhaps tomorrow or the next day or the next, you will find on the Moxie Cosmos  website some of the stories I heard.  I will simply call this page ORAL HISTORIES, and it will be a “how-to” as well as demonstration of how putting the emphasis on listening, as opposed to questioning, captures personality and emotional information, much more valuable than just the facts.

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