Dorothy Lewis sits on top of the drum used in the O’odham songs.

Dorothy Lewis: Through Her Daughters’ Eyes

By Michelle Washington
Au-Authm Action News

Recently, Au-Authm Action News sat down with Dorothy Lewis’ daughters Geraldine Carlos and Glenda Lopez to talk about their mother. Here her story is told through her daughters’ eyes.

Our culture and values live on thanks to those who came before us who saw the importance of sharing the traditions. For Dorothy Lewis, her life was committed to keeping the Pima culture and traditions alive, but what many people do not know is that she was influential to her Maricopa tribe as well. Lewis knew the importance to share information passed down from many generations.

Early Life
Dorothy Lewis was born in Lehi, Arizona, on April 4, 1928. Her parents were George and Lilly Morgan of Lehi. She lost her mother at a young age, and her father was seldom around; as a result, Lewis was raised by her grandparents.

Her paternal grandparents were Tomingo and Mary Morgan of Salt River, and her maternal grandparents were Santiago “Vavas” and Mary Baptisto of Lehi. Lewis was born a few feet away from where her grandfather Baptisto farmed wheat and other crops.

Although Lewis had other relatives strong in both the O’odham and Piipaash traditions on both sides of the family, she told her children that she was closest to Santiago Baptisto.

“[When] she lived in an Olas ki with her maternal parents, [this] family talked the old O’odham and the other talked modern O’odham,” said Carlos.

Baptisto was born in 1853, a chosen Montezuma, and one of the last chiefs that had an everlasting impact on Lewis for upholding the strong beliefs of the O’odham culture. He was particularly interested in restoring the traditional system of self-government. Lewis’ children believe that was why she was close to him.

“He was always helping people, and he was a part of the O’odham and Piipaash who would help the Mormons and other settlers in Mesa,” said Carlos. She learned a lot from her grandfather Santiago. “He believed in progress; he would plant; they would help the other O’odhams here in the Community. They would go to everybody’s house to harvest and help lead the wagons to the old Hayden Flour Mill to trade and sell their products. They would [travel] all the way in their wagons,” said Carlos.

In Lehi, where the Baptisto’s lived and farmed, the family walked around and reminisced about where Lewis was born and how the washes used to run in Lehi. Over the years, the land accumulated many pieces of clay pots and Huhugam artifacts.

“Mom was born on top of an old Huhugam mound,” Carlos said. “The little house that was on top of there is gone now. My aunt Delores was so mad [because] they cut it down. Every time they would dig pits to cook in [or] dig holes for toilets, they would come upon artifacts, but they [would] put them back because they strongly believed that was their resting place.”

Listening To and Observing Grandparents
Lewis’ paternal grandparents, Tomingo and Mary Morgan, also were traditionalists. They lived in an Olas ki in Salt River and she lived with them when she was four years old. “That’s where she remembered the grandfather’s prayers and a lot of the songs, how he would get her up early in the morning and they would pray. She said she would get tired, [but] they did this every morning,” said Carlos.

Lopez agreed that Lewis must have learned a lot of traditions from both grandparents by listening and observing.

“This is where the tradition would come from both sides. [She told us that] when she was a little girl the men would wrap their hair around little sticks, using mesquite sap to hold it in place. It was a form of keeping their hairstyle. These people are called the lightning people [because] they would sing for the rain,” said Carlos.

She added, “The songs you sing, they all have a different way of being sung. The women’s voices would be loudest. They wouldn’t sing in tune, they would sing with a different sound. It spreads from the Tohono O’odham to here. You were meant to sing them right and know the stories and locations of where places were at.” Carlos said her mother would always tell them.

Marriage and Children
“My mother met my father, Leroy Lewis, when she was 14 years old and he was 16 years old. They met in school as children, and mom did not like him at first. But soon after they started going together, they loved each other so much,” said Carlos.

Soon after falling in love they began the life of marriage and children. The couple had 12 children and two adopted children. Their children included Lopez and Carlos, as well as the late Charlene Lewis, the late Roy Lewis, the late Lawrence Lewis, Glenda Lewis, Geraldine Lewis, Bruce Lewis, the late Lois Lewis, the late Michael Lewis, Annette Lewis-Ramirez, the late April Lewis, Marc Lewis, Anthony Lewis, Lillian Lewis and Isabella Zazueta.

“She was a young mother, so when we were growing up she was still growing up too. We could always go to her when we wanted something, but we didn’t go to our father,” said Lopez.

As her children grew older and started getting married, Lewis would always tell them about the importance of family.

“The thing about my mother that anybody will tell you in the Community (especially the elders), the thing that connected her to her family was knowing who her relatives were,” said Carlos.

Lewis knew culture and traditions were important, but knowing your family and bloodline were also important. It is part of your Himdak and who you are.

Sharing Culture With Others
Lewis had it in her mind from the start. It was because she had been a part of both the Pima and Maricopa cultures that she would start on a journey to share the O’odham songs and dance. She began by teaching O’odham culture at the Salt River Day School, making dresses and teaching the kids how to dance. In 1970 she began singing and dancing with the late Leonard Carlos, the late Hilda Manuel, the late Leo Schurz, the late Peter Shelby and the late Felix Richards, who were all committed to bringing back the swallow song series.

In 1972 Lewis would become her-own group leader. The dance group was called the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Basket Dancers, which traveled to many different places near and far raising their own money through food sales.

“We danced and sang at many different places, including schools, high schools and museums as we got designated as tribal dancers. [When] other groups started [forming] in the Community, [then] the support became harder. When times got harder to raise funds, we started asking Council and David Montiel. Today, we go to the donation committee and of course the many supportive Community members,” said Carlos.

In 1982 the group was asked to go to the Assembly of First Nations in Alberta, Canada, at the Gathering of Indigenous People. “[Community member] Whitney Grey was the director at the Gathering of Indigenous People back then,” said Carlos. The group traveled to Alberta, Canada and danced for the First Nations people.

The dance group which consisted of many different people, the family remained strong in moving forward with the dance group. “It was always Dorothy and the Lewis kids and relatives, because every time a dancer or singer joined the group, they would just stay for about a year or two. Regardless, we still dance and go to places. For me it’s hard because of my health; I don’t get to go as much,” said Carlos.

When Lewis met the late Louisa Harvier from the Tohono O’odham Nation, Harvier and Lewis became good friends. Lewis began helping Harvier with the reburials and coming-out ceremonies. “They were good friends,” said Lopez. For a short time Lewis worked at the Desert Botanical gardens in Tempe. She shared her knowledge of certain traditional plants and techniques of the Native people of the deserts. While demonstrating these techniques Arizona Highway took a snapshot of Lewis making ash bread. A few years after she lost her husband, Lewis passed away on February 17, 1992.

The Dorothy Lewis Traditional Talent Award
This award named for Lewis has been presented in the Miss Salt River pageant every year since the early 1990s. It is presented to a young woman who demonstrates the best traditional talent and who advocates keeping the traditional ways alive in song, dance, legends and storytelling. Many people today remember Lewis was always willing to help any young person interested in learning the songs, dances, legends and culture.

“Every time they give out the Dorothy Lewis Traditional Talent Award every year it brings tears to our eyes,” said Lopez.

“Last year when Martha Ludlow performed the story about the ‘The Little Frog and the Spirit of the Storm,’ I cried because that is how exactly my mother told it,” said Carlos.

The Dorothy Lewis Traditional Talent Award was initiated by a former Miss Salt River Pageant Committee. Lopez said that former SRPMIC President Ivan Makil was a big advocate in getting the award associated with the pageant.
Lopez said, “Our mother was such a humble person that she would say she didn’t deserve it, being the person that she was in her tradition, and being the person she was as a mother and friend. If she was a friend or a mentor, she would always be that special person in your life, no matter who you were.”
Today, Lewis’ family carries on the long tradition of song and dance handed down to them from their mother and their ancestors who have come before, linking the past and present. Her spirit lives on in every song her family sings and dances to and in the young women who never met her but have received the traditional talent award in her name.

“She would be proud of the ladies that are teaching the kids today, the dance groups and the women involved in the coming-out ceremonies,” said Carlos.

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Dorothy Lewis: Through Her Daughters’ Eyes