Regents Professor and poet Ofelia Zepeda named USA Fellow

University of Arizona Regents Professor of Linguistics Ofelia Zepeda

Ofelia Zepeda: "When you learn how to teach your language, you impact a large population. I find that work very rewarding, and I never get tired of it."

Logan Burtch-Buus/University Communications

A native speaker of the O'odham language, Ofelia Zepeda did not learn English until she attended elementary school in Stanfield, Arizona. Now, her writing in both languages is nationally recognized for its cultural impact.

A Regent's Professor of Linguistics and director of the university's American Indian Language Development Institute, Zepeda was named a 2023 USA Fellow by United States Artists. The Chicago-based organization's mission is to "illuminate the value of artists to American society and address their economic challenges." The fellowship is intended to recognize "the most compelling artists" in the country and comes with an unrestricted $50,000 award. In addition to writing, fellows pursue architecture and design, crafting, dance, film, media, music, traditional arts and theater. Nominations are anonymous, and applications are reviewed by discipline-specific panelists.

Zepeda is an academic, author and poet. Her published works include the first-of-its-kind effort to document her native language, "A Tohono O'odham Grammar," and several books of poetry including "Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert," "Where Clouds are Formed" and " Jewed 'i-hoi : O'odham c milga:n s-ke:g ha'icu cegĭtodag = Earth movements : a collection of poems in O'odham & English."

Zepeda said she felt honored to be nominated for the USA Fellowship and was surprised to learn she was one of this year's 45 recipients. Despite her success as a writer and linguist, Zepeda joked that her career trajectory started "as a bit of an accident."

Her academic journey began in a less traditional manner. Zepeda recalled seeing her brothers and sisters reading anything they could get their hands on – mostly donations from churches and nonprofits – and some of those books provided the intellectual jump-start Zepeda never knew she was missing.

"I remember when school ended each year for the summer, the school would give away textbooks if they were going to get new ones," she said. "My sister and I would always take a bunch of them home for the summer. These were textbooks that you would use in the classroom, and we learned a lot from them. Sometimes there wasn't much to do but read, and I think we taught ourselves a lot of subjects."

A graduate of Casa Grande High School, Zepeda said she never planned to attend college, but was directed toward academia by a high school counselor who enrolled the young woman in Upward Bound at Arizona State University. After attending junior college, Zepeda found her way to the University of Arizona to pursue a bachelor's degree.

All she wanted to do as a young, native speaker of the O'odham language was learn how to read and write in her mother tongue.

"My understanding was that if I could speak it, I should be able to read it," Zepeda said. "It does not work that way. Somebody must teach you how to read it. It's a system."

Thanks to then-anthropology professor Dan Matson, Zepeda learned to read O'odham and was introduced to visiting professor Kenneth Hale. The university planned to launch its own linguistics department under Hale's leadership, and Zepeda found her intellectual home.

After becoming literate in O'odham, Zepeda wanted to teach others those same skills. She focused on educating language teachers in reservation schools on Tohono O'odham, Pascua Yaqui, Gila and Salt River lands, and became interested in the structure of the language. Her work became a master's thesis, which eventually became "A Tohono O'odham Grammar."

Through it all, Zepeda learned to appreciate the impact of her work, not only on the Tohono O'odham community, but on Indigenous people across the continent.

"O'odham and other tribal people I know have a sense of sharing or giving back, helping and supporting each other," Zepeda said. "I think the work that I do is always in one way or another giving back to a number of communities over the years. Of course, in the long run it also benefits me, my knowledge and my livelihood, but at the same time I feel good that it benefits other individuals and communities, and not just here in Tucson. I've been very fortunate that the work that I've done can impact the field of linguistics, the field of language revitalization, or tribes in different parts of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico."

Zepeda splits her time between her teaching duties at the Department of Linguistics and her administrative role at the American Indian Language Development Institute, which she has watched grow since its founding in 1978. The institute's mission is to "provide critical training to strengthen efforts to revitalize and promote the use of Indigenous languages across generations."

Zepeda said her work for the institute is a big commitment, but worth the effort.

"When you learn how to teach your language, you impact a large population," she said. "I find that work very rewarding, and I never get tired of it."

With the money awarded by United States Artists, Zepeda intends to focus her energy on finishing some writing projects. She plans to spend more time writing specifically in O'odham.