• kjoannerixon

The Autobiography of a Papago Woman


I LOVE an obscure non-Western autobiography, and AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PAPAGO WOMAN did not disappoint. The memoirist has a strong, assertive voice, and unapologetically describes the rhythms of her childhood and adulthood, the special events she witnessed and the progression of her personal life. She challenges Western norms at every turn, from her willful abandonment of her husband for taking a second wife at a time when divorce was illegal in the US, to her disdain for Western clothing, houses and food, to her joyful acceptance of her sibling-in-law's gender variance.


That sibling-in-law is described in the text as a man-woman, i.e. a woman who was at first mistakenly thought to be a boy because of her body morphology. The memoirist mentions her trans* sister-in-law many times throughout the narrative, always approvingly, with deliberate descriptions of how the whole family accepted her as a woman and how helpful and kind she was. One can almost see the anthropologist frowning and the memoirist rolling her eyes at the ignorance of white people and insisting, again, that trans women are women and are permitted to do the women's work that men are forbidden from touching.


Another very interesting tidbit was the description of the taking of trophies from fallen enemies in battle. The previous book I read about the Papago, THE PAPAGAO AND PIMA INDIANS OF ARIZONA, by the same author, claimed that the Papago routinely scalped their enemies and kept the scalps as totems of power in special niches in their homes. However, in this narrative, the memoirist describes not scalping but rather simple hair cutting to remove a fallen enemy's long braids. Her traditions and beliefs do include the careful stewardship of the enemy's hair and the power it brought to a warrior and his family, but nowhere in this book does anyone scalp anyone else.


I found this quite interesting because my understanding of scalping is that it was introduced to the American West by Europeans, who were also prone to do things like amputate the hands and feet of the children of men who didn't bring them a weekly quota of gold. This narrative seems to confirm that--as does the white anthropologist's assumption in the absence of evidence that of course any hair cutting would actually involve skinning off the scalp.


Historical disputes aside, this book is a fantastic portrait of a culture and a person, and I'm so glad I was able to find a copy of it (it's out of print, and the copy I found was literally photocopied and re-bound, and had to be read inside the library!).

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