Anthropological Study of the Southwestern Papago Society

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The Autobiography of a Papago Woman

In the latter part of the 1930s, PhD. Ruth Underhill headed a college-financed anthropological study of the Southwestern-based Papago society (Lavender). The result from the venture was a self-proclaimed “autobiography” of a Papago woman’s recount of her experiences as a member of the tribe. Though Underhill’s Autobiography ultimately fails to provide a comprehensive historical study of the Papago, it nonetheless provides a rich, fascinating introduction to the world of Native American customs and traditions.

To begin, roughly one-third of the book consists of Underhill’s own experience as an upper-middle class woman attempting to immerse herself in a native, seemingly alien Native culture ("University of South Florida College of Arts and Sciences"). Because of her inability to speak O’odham, much of the Papago woman’s account (Chona) is based on the often inconsistent accuracies of translators who speak only broken-English. In addition, the constraints Chona’s age applied on her memory recall resulted in often repeated stories, which Underhill then cropped and chose based on the premise that the most interesting facts of Chona’s character were her crises rather than the events that were significant to Chona herself. Underhill herself considers the possibility of several biases undermining the validity of the book as a historical resource when she admits this in her preface.

Furthermore, Underhill’s weaknesses in approaching the study qualitatively are only matched by her ability to effectively describe many of the contemporary customs of the Papago tribe, most of which had prevailed over hundreds of years. She relates the tribe’s unwavering piety to relay animal stories only during particular seasons, the social conventions that govern Papago interactions, and even the tribe’s attitude towards child-rearing. She discusses the lack of thanks in Papago communication and that gifts are repaid with other gifts and are...
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