Preferred Citation: Bahr, Donald, Juan Smith, William Smith Allison, and Julian Hayden. The Short, Swift Time of Gods on Earth: The Hohokam Chronicles. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.


Oral History

Unable to affirm or deny the text from the evidence of the excavations and uncertain of what to expect of a text spoken five hundred years after the events in question (it was estimated that the last Hohokam period ended in the 1400s), Hayden filed it away, awaiting the guidance of a specialist in distinguishing between history and myth. I would like to pass that cup to another, and I will do so by presenting and then applying another's ideas. The most stimulating thinker known to me on these matters is Jan Vansina, author of Oral Tradition as History (1985). He takes a strict, straightforward position on the history in oral texts: that which is historical is that which has been preserved intact from an original eyewitness account. Thus, the Smith-Allison text is historical if after five hundred years it preserves the content of a "report" (Vansina 1985: 29–32) uttered soon after the event.

His position is empiricist as it appeals to an original sensory observation, and it is literalist in supposing that words refer straightforwardly to things. He argues, and I agree, that tribal narrators use these standards, which amount to a kind of perfectionism. But neither the narrators nor we can be sure if the standards are met, especially relative to a text that is as long and that reaches as far back as this one and most especially when we know that contradictory versions of these events exist. Thus, the standards imply a perfectionism that is unverifiable in reality, and therefore they imply that most or all oral traditions fall short of their goals. I agree.

I think that this is the position of the Pimas. To continue with Vansina, the typical total system of a tribal people's narratives is divided into three temporal zones, or tiers,


from the most recent to the most ancient: personal accounts, group accounts, and accounts of origin (23). The personal accounts differ from those of the group because they trace to known reporters. The materials of the second sort have diffused generally through the group (a group of villages, a geographic section of a tribe); and while they are considered to be historical in the empirical, literal sense, the wide dissemination of these narratives robs them of an indubitable original observational source. Years are not necessarily counted in either zone, but genealogies and natural events may time them objectively. Both zones' stories may run concurrently, and taken together the two zones commonly go back no farther than seventy-five to one hundred fifty years when they are correlated with European calendars and records.

Then, according to Vansina, comes a "floating gap" that, as he describes it, does not float as a space between discernible points of past time but is floated toward, as one travels back through the relatively confidently held zones of personal and group history. Simply, the past dwindles. "One finds either a hiatus or just a few names, given with some hesitation" (23). Beyond the gap, which is crossed instantaneously, one finds a final zone rich in tales about how the world was created and how the tribe's constituent social groups came into existence. These are what Vansina calls "tales of origin" and many others call "myth."[1]

He avoids the word "myth" for such tales because it implies deliberate invention, intentional fiction, and the making up of new pieces of the past. He believes that myths are rarely created in tribal society. All such peoples at all times have a body of ancient origin accounts that they accept as unverifiable, imperfect, but possibly true. The people are loath to stray from them. Improbable as they are and detached from the present, these stories have a kind of inertia. Thus, people are the most reluctant to change their least verifiable stories. For all that we know, their origin stories may stay constant for centuries. Now, from the archaeological perspective, the Hohokam would have had such stories, because archaeologists believe that the Hohokam civilization lasted a thousand years. However, to the Pimas, at least to Smith and Allison, the Hohokam came to an end


as a people with no ancient memories: they were a young tribe at the time of their destruction. I agree with the archaeologists that the Hohokam must have had their own origin accounts, but as is explained in the next chapter, I do not think we can know them.

I neither relish nor object to using the word "myth" in reference to these good faith, fallible, histories. Now, there are four additional points to be made relative to Vansina's ideas and the Smith-Allison account. First, the conquest comes at the end of the long, multitale text, which is appropriate as this event gives the origin of the present Pima and Papago, or Tohono O'odham,[2] territorial groups. Immediately after the conquest the groups fanned out to their present locations. Thus, the conquest falls near Vansina's floating gap. He would place it on the "origins" side, and I agree. Neither Smith-Allison nor any other known narrator is clear on exactly what became of all of the Hohokam. If they were mostly exterminated, how was this done, and where are the signs

If they were mostly absorbed, which of today's groups accepted them
As I understand Vansina's idea of the second zone, matters as important as these would surely be told if people had confident knowledge of them. Therefore, I conclude that the conquest, while vividly told, is not confidently known in the sense of lending itself to probing questioning.

Second, I am content to say without reviewing the evidence here that the two zones of the Pima and Papago recent past reach back only about one hundred years. In other words, that past stops four hundred years short of the time when, according to the archaeologists, the conquest would have occurred. Thus, the gap is an ocean from our perspective, and the ocean includes the entire long period in which Europe worked its early effects on this people. Because of their remoteness from the centers of Spanish and Mexican power, the period of early effects, that is, the period in which Europe failed to reduce the Pima-Papago to its rule, lasted from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. (The Pima-Papago had an exceptionally long period of weak European influence.)

Third and related to the first point, the stories of the con-


quest and all the myths that lead up to it are about individual heroes. Although Vansina does not stress this point, I note that such stories are not what most historians and pre-historians seek. Those scholars accept individuals, but they want generalizations. Thus, archaeologists are not satisfied with one Hohokam pot, they want a representative sample. Furthermore, and again something that Vansina does not stress, I suspect that the "group accounts" zone of oral traditions contains more generalizations than the zone of origins. The far side of Vansina's gap has unique individuals and unprecedented events. The near side has regularized, much more typified and quantified life. This is why I have said that the conquest account falls on the far rather than the near side of the gap. If the account were on the near side, those generalizing questions on the fate of the Hohokam would have been addressed. For their part, the individual characters on the far side are brilliantly, if not fully, drawn, sometimes down to the words they spoke. As is explained later, these words are given in song, that being the form that in Pima opinion is the most resistant to errors in reproduction. It is as if the heroes rose into song when they wanted their words to endure. Now, what Vansina desires of history is observations of events, situations, and tendencies. I take it that the last two pertain to generalization, and I conclude that the zone of myth gives primarily the first, in a highly individualizing and exquisitely limited selectivity: libretti.

A final comment on the floating gap. Because we believe that the Hohokam lived very long ago, we are surprised that the Smith-Allison text ends with their conquest. Actually, the text has a brief section on the immediate aftermath of the conquest, and then it hastens to the present. I believe this is a phenomenon of the gap. A Pima could do as Smith-Allison and start with the beginning, then proceed up to the gap, and then make a final dash to the present. Or one could start from the present and work back to the gap. The two accounts would have almost no events in common. Presumably, the second narrator would say on reaching the end of zone two that sometime before that, he or she does not know how long, there was the Hohokam


conquest. Neither narrator would be disturbed, because neither is aware of anything that happened in four hundred unnarrated years.

That remarkable unawareness serves as the background for the remainder of this introduction. Immediately below I consider in somewhat greater detail how well archaeology and the Pimas agree on the Hohokam era. Following that is a discussion of the particulars of the telling and recording of the text in 1935 and a discussion of overt and possible covert Christian influence on the text and the possibility that a text such as this one could stand as the scriptural base of a Bible-acknowledging native Pima church. Finally, there are discussions of the text as literature in the Vansinian sense of remembered narrative and of technical matters of editing.


Preferred Citation: Bahr, Donald, Juan Smith, William Smith Allison, and Julian Hayden. The Short, Swift Time of Gods on Earth: The Hohokam Chronicles. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.