On Monday nights from 6 to 8 p.m., a group of Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members comes together to learn traditional O’odham social songs and dances. The classes, held weekly for five weeks, take place at the new Cultural Resources Department building, along Osborn Road next to the SRPMIC Housing Division, and are hosted by the O’odham Piipaash Language Program with help from singer Ricardo Leonard and others.
In only the second year of providing this class, the response from the Community has been very positive, with more than 60 persons in attendance, doubling from last year. Over the course of five weeks, Community members learn the origins and meanings of traditional O’odham songs and social dancing .
O’odham social dances are led by a man. Women, men and children line up to his left and join hands. The dancers step to the right in cadence with the beat of the song counterclockwise. Any variation of the dance is in the song with slight pauses.
Community members learn the songs in the most traditional way, listening and memorizing the words while shaking their gourds simultaneously, creating a synchronized harmony. Variations in the gourd shaking are minimal, and keeping a keen eye on the leader of the singers is crucial. It can be essential to learn from one lead singer, because each lead singer may have a different style to the songs, depending on their teachings or geographic location. This creates some variety in the traditional songs.
Learning the traditional songs as a family can be most beneficial. “It’s a family thing for us,” explains singer Pacer Reina. “It makes it easier for us to participate because we all want to. I can schedule it because we all want to participate.
The interest is not only with singing and dancing, but has extended into different areas to learn more about the culture. It has ignited a curiosity among the kids, wanting to know differences between California tribes [and their] bird singing vs. our and Tohono O’odham songs and singings.
They also want to learn other tribes’ songs. For the older kids, it has caused them to find interest in other things … [such as the] Youth Council and [SRPMIC] pageants. The younger ones [who] don’t attend Early Childhood Education Center miss the cultural side of learning. Participating in dancing and singing classes doesn’t allow them to lose sight of who they are; it allows them to grow in the culture.”
Helema Andrews, multimedia specialist for the O’odham Piipaash Language Program and class facilitator, says that recently more groups and families have been taking the classes, rather than individuals alone.
“It’s always a blessing and good feeling to see people and families eager to learn songs and dances, as well as language.
Since I’ve been here, cultural class participation was more individual participation, rather than groups or families. Within the past few years, that seems to have shifted and there are more groups [now], be it from Youth Services, the Boys and Girls Club, Community dance groups, Miss/Jr. Miss Salt River Royalty, and families as a whole that participate in our classes. I can’t speak for them, but I imagine it makes the process easier.”
To learn more about the singing and dancing classes, contact the O’odham Piipaash Language Program at (480) 362-6325.