The Arapaho Sun Dance is a ceremony held every summer in a meadow near Ethete, where dozens of young men enter a lodge of leafy cottonwood limbs and go without water and food for four days, singing and dancing and praying in an ordeal that sometimes results in visions.
I have often been an observer, especially in the early mornings, when the dancers raise their bird bone whistles and dance the sun up. Never a participant, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t faced daunting ordeals at the Sundance camp; sitting across from Alonzo Moss, Sr., his killer eyes hidden behind dark glasses, in a doomful contest of … Scrabble.
Moss, who was a mentoring grandfather to some of the young men in the Sun Dance lodge, died June 2. He and his late wife Gladys were often our hosts at the sprawling makeshift community of the Sun Dance, and he let you know as you entered the Moss family arbor that you were welcome, there was food to share, and you better have brought your best Scrabble game.
I first got to know the Moss family many years ago, when I was working on a book about the reservation and the struggle between Indians and non-Indians over its resources. Alonzo’s brother, Richard Moss, tutored me in the Arapaho language; Merle Haas told stories and coached me to minimize my gringo faux pas; and Gladys dismissively waved off my façade of journalistic professionalism, scolding me for not showing up when I was invited to visit.
For all of Richard Moss’s efforts, my Arapaho was pretty bad. Andrew Cowell, a linguist from the University of Colorado, let me know that the first time we met. I introduced myself, and a moment later Cowell was telling me which Arapaho words in my book I had misspelled and erroneously defined.
A bit awkward, but not hostile; Cowell’s obsession with the Arapaho language sometimes gets ahead of social niceties. He has played an important role in preserving the tribe’s tongue, compiling dictionaries and collections of traditional stories and songs, at a time when fluent Arapaho speakers are all but extinct. A key collaborator was Alonzo Moss, Sr.
Along with William C’Hair, another Arapaho speaker, Cowell and Moss recently published Arapaho Stories Songs and Prayers: A bilingual Anthology (University of Oklahoma Press). An impressive book, perhaps more important than dictionaries or scholarly papers in keeping the language alive, because the stories should lure readers who are neither linguists nor historians. You don’t have to be a scholar to find them interesting — sometimes ribald, sometimes puzzling, often startling. Each phrase is presented in both English and Arapaho.
Mostly, they are mythological; they explain the origin of the earth, the Milky Way, and the Arapaho; how the animals became what they are (why the horse carries things, for example, while the buffalo is hunted and eaten). The characters are sometimes humorous (one is named “Lime Crazy”) and sometimes scary (watch out for the water monster).
A significant story tells about the Arapaho tribe making a journey that involved crossing a river, possibly the Missouri, and getting separated when the ice breaks up. In the helpful notes, we learn that this could refer to several separations in the tribe’s history — the Northern from Southern Arapaho; or a break with the Gros Ventre, a closely related tribe now in Montana; or even the crossing of the Bering Strait, where it’s believed homo sapiens first made it to North America. As in many of the stories, the characters are particular and distinctive — in this case, a self-centered girl who wants a horn she sees sticking out of the ice, and asks her exasperated grandmother to fetch it for her. Says the grandmother:
Yohohu’hu’-ce’e’iyei! (“I always have to get things for you!”)
But she gets off her horse and hacks off the horn for her granddaughter. When blood spurts from it, the ice breaks apart, and a water monster appears. Those ahead of the two women make it across; the others don’t.
The language is not simple — Arapaho often forms long words equivalent to entire sentences in English. And interpretations vary; an earlier story collector (cited in one of the book’s notes) translated the phrase above as “You have so much to say!” That’s quite a difference, though it still sounds like an exasperated grandmother.
Arapaho Stories does not attempt to transform these tales into the story styles familiar to us from other cultures — these are not Aesop’s fables, though they often have moral content. The messages are hidden in humor and misdirection. As in other Indian cultures, the Trickster is a major character.
The late Pius Moss, Alonzo’s uncle, once appeared on a public television program I hosted, and at one point described eating a chickadee in order to capture its eloquence. In Arapaho, he told a story about the Trickster that involved theft and deception. Arapaho Stories similarly describes this recurring character in unflattering terms, wandering about getting into trouble, greedy, often misunderstanding what he observes. You shake your head, but you kind of like the guy. When Pius Moss finished telling the story, I asked him to translate it into English, and he hesitated at the trickster’s name, Nih’oo3oo. Finally, somewhat sheepishly, but with a smile, he admitted that it meant “white man.” The book confirms this double meaning, which obviously was layered in after Europeans arrived.
The book offers much more than just stories, though the detail is often in the small-font notes: information about the Sun Dance, dollops of history, comparative interpretation of customs, and linguistic debates in scholarly lingo. Perhaps you aren’t ready to delve into proclictic word relations or proximate or obviate third person. But you might be surprised at how fascinating these linguistic puzzles are. When the book discusses “pitch accents” in Arapaho — a way of differentiating word meanings using pitch — you realize you may have heard it in the upswing at the end of sentences when some Arapahos speak English.
Without the lilt of Alonzo Moss, Sr.’s voice, the circle of fluent Arapaho speakers grows smaller, and the debate among them — as when C’Hair and Moss disagree about which stories are “fairy tales” and which are “true” — less lively. Throughout Indian Country, and, really, all over the world, indigenous languages are succumbing to the tidal wave of pervasive media, which insists on the currency of English and other dominant languages.
“The odds are not good for [Arapaho] surviving as an everyday language of use,” Cowell emailed recently, “at least in the near future.” (Hmmm. What’s going to change in the “far” future? Might need to follow up on that….)
Cowell will continue his work at Wind River researching for a lexical database and dictionary, but he may never find another partner with the linguistic instincts of Moss. “As with English, many people can say ‘you say it this way,’ but far fewer can explain why you say it that way,” Cowell elaborated. “He had those kind of insights into Arapaho.”
Alonzo’s death is also a great personal loss, for his extended family, the young Sun Dance men he mentored, even a few Scrabble mates, and certainly Cowell, who spoke (mostly in English) at an Ethete gathering of mourners this month, and noted that if Alonzo were attending his own funeral, he would look around and point out who had come just for the food. Moss was deeply serious about his language and culture, but when he was teasing and putting you on, he could be a trickster himself.
The pictures of Alonzo Moss, Sr., that accompany this article were taken by Sara Wiles, who has been chronicling life among various Arapaho families for many years — no small feat among a camera-shy people (it should be noted that while visitors are welcome at the Sundance, no cameras are allowed).
Wiles is also an adopted member of the Moss family. Her book, Arapaho Journeys (University of Oklahoma Press) provides intimate visits with neighbors who many of us do not know well — which is a shame, given how welcoming and generous and typical of Arapaho hospitality Gladys and Alonzo were.