The University of Arizona

UA Linguistics Prof Named MacArthur Fellow

By Jeff Harrison, June 22, 1999

Ofelia Zepeda, a linguist, poet, community leader, teacher and a member of the sprawling Tohono O'odham nation in southern Arizona, is among 32 new MacArthur fellows that were recently announced by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Zepeda, who is a UA professor of linguistics and American Indian studies, will receive $320,000 to use over the next five years as she sees fit. Other fellows in this group received grants ranging form $200,000 to $375,000.

The MacArthur Foundation noted in its announcement that Zepeda is "a community leader devoted to maintaining and preserving Native American languages and to revitalizing tribal communities and cultures. Her singular work in advancing the field of Native language scholarship positions Zepeda as a unique force on behalf of the continued life of endangered languages."

She is, in fact, the author of the only pedagogical text of Tohono O'odham ("A Papago Grammar"), and is actively involved in preserving other native languages, many of which are under threat of extinction. Zepeda also teaches Tohono O'odham and other classes in the American Indian studies program, the English department and the department of language, reading and culture at the UA.

These departments also support the 14-year-old American Indian Language Development Institute, which Zepeda co-founded and is a faculty member. AILDI offers courses to educators working with American Indian communities and multi-cultural populations around the country.

Zepeda is also a poet who writes in her native language. She has written two books of poetry, "Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert" and "Jewed 'I-Hoi/Earth Movements," and edited others. She was a section editor for a collection of Arizona tribal literature, "The South Corner of Time," and for 10 years served as a member of the literary advisory committee for Sun Tracks, a Native American literary publication.

Born in the central Arizona town of Stanfield, Zepeda graduated with a bachelor's (1980), master's (1981), and doctoral degrees (1984) from the UA. In 1979, she began teaching linguistics and O'odham when it was still called Papago. In its announcement materials, the MacArthur Foundation noted that "Zepeda is dedicated to melding the scholarly role of linguist with a concern for the community outside the university.

"She has helped to bring about an important transformation in the relationship between the professional linguistic study of local languages and the communities where they are spoken. She is also deeply committed to the development of a literary tradition in Native American languages and has been instrumental in fostering the careers of Native American writers and language teachers."

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellows program identifies, celebrates and nurtures creativity, casting its net as broadly as possible in search of the most creative individuals. The foundation itself has assets over $4 billion and is a private, independent grantmaking institution "dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition."

Recent winners with current or former ties to the UA include ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, poet and author Leslie Marmon Silko, and neurobiologist Nicholas Strausfeld.