Prose / Short Story

Rosalida by Glenn Johnson

Rosilda Enos nervously stared out the window of the tribal van.  Coyotes, their gourd yellow eyes reflecting the glare of the van’s headlamps were trotting back to their dens after a night of hunting.  Bats swooped in and out of the beam’s light snatching their last mouthfuls of insects.  Soon the night creatures would all be asleep, their nights hunting completed, their messages delivered.  Rosilda’s ride on the tribal van to the Indian health Service Hospital would be a very long one—she had no choice.  There was no public transportation on the Tohono O’odham reservation which was the size of Connecticut. Very few O’odham, like her family, could afford cars.  If they could afford them they had either Tribal or federal government jobs in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation.  If you were not a family of a car owner, then you would have to pay to be driven where you wanted to go.  Not wholly unreasonable given the high cost of gas on the reservation.  This was an entrepreneurial, unregulated taxi service.  The occasional, but not unusual deadly collision with free ranging cattle or horses, was not litigated just chalked up to bad luck.


Many O’odham stayed away from the Whiteman’s doctors not trusting their strange ways.  The Whiteman had done so much wrong to them many asked why should they now trust them with their health and lives?  Medicine People had healed them as long as even the oldest elder could remember.  Rosilda wished her mother did not believe in the Whiteman’s doctors.  Rosilda was not sure why she herself did not trust doctors; she just knew that she didn’t.  Rosilda knew what her mother wanted from the doctors, and Rosilda did not like it.  Tilly, Matilda by name, wanted the doctors to stop the voices Rosilda was hearing; they had started when she was twelve.  The voices confused Rosilda.  She did not understand the meaning of what they said; she was anxious, but not afraid of them.  Rosilda’s grandfather had spoken of these things when she was a little girl.  But Rosilda could not remember what he had said.  Tilly did not like the voices, and told Rosilda it was certain that they were demons talking to her.


Two months before, in a chilly November night, seventy-five members of her mother’s Pentecostal church had circled a bonfire which the minister called, “The light of Jesus.”  Rosilda was on her knees, in the middle, near the flames.  Rosilda heard the echo of commands yelled out and entreaties’ voiced.  “Be gone Satan.”  “Jesus, drive out this evil, this demon.”  “Lord save her soul from the fallen angel, Lucifer.” “Creator, defeat your enemy and send him back to hell.” The Pentecostal church members were earnest and full of faith, but when all was yelled and the fire done, Rosilda still heard the voices.


Rosilda recalled how on the following day Minister Gundspiel had spoken to her mother in front of Rosilda as if she did not exist, as if she was not 25, but just a child, or as if she was too far gone.  The minister had fervently told her mother,”Our prayers will be answered at the hospital. The Lord will give the doctors the power to forever end her voices. The Lord wants you to take her for special treatment at the hospital.  The doctor’s medicine, our prayers, and Jesus will deliver her from evil.”


That was the beginning of the weekly trips to the Indian Health Service hospital.  The beginning of medicines that made her so sedated she had to lean against a wall just to walk.  Hopelessly, her mother was careful not to let Rosilda miss any of her appointments.  Her mother believed in the Whiteman’s doctors.   She faithfully marked Rosilda’s appointment dates on the calendar nailed to the wood post near the wood burning stove; the sole source of heat for their one room home.  Electricity had not yet reached their village.  Bare 2 by 4s, no dry wall attached, let heat escape through walls.  Indoors, all day, the family wore coats and sweaters.  In spring and summer, inside they would go barefoot, but not when it was cold like now. The hard packed dirt floors were no longer cool but now cold as ice.


In the deepness of early dawn, Tilly would get up to nudge Rosilda awake.  Hickiwan, Rosilda’s village, far in the northwest corner of the Tohono O’odham Reservation, was one of the most distant villages from Sells.  The tribal van arrived in her village at 4:00 a.m. to take her and all of the other passengers to the Indian Health service hospital in Sells—the capital of their Tohono O’odham Nation.  Many early morning stops would be made before they would circle back to arrive at the Indian Health Service hospital.  The van made long drives down saguaro, greasewood, and mesquite lined dirt roads to Pisinemo, to Managers Dam, to Sil Nakya, and on to Go Vo.  There was only one paved road on the reservation which was the size of Connecticut.  State highway 86 cut right through the length of the reservation.  Non-Indians only used the highway to travel to rural towns like Ajo and Gila Bend, or turning south to go on to the nearby border with Mexico, and then three hours further to the popular, tourist ocean port of Puerto Penasco,  known to non-Indians in English as Rocky Point.  No going to the ocean for her.  With a deep sigh, Rosilda resigned herself to the four hour drive to Sells.



Her appointment was at 8:00 a.m.  Rosilda gave a little snort.  Thirty other O’odham would also have appointments at 8:00 a.m., and they would all wait their turn to see one of the handfuls of Indian Health Service doctors who worked at the hospital.  If she was lucky, she would be seen in the late morning, and then have time to go to the Low Store near the old Tribal Council building where she could buy the list of groceries her mother wanted Rosilda to buy before the van took everybody back home.  There was the Chumaith store set high on a hill a mile further away from the hospital, thus the name Low Store.  Truth be told, and the IHS staff  knew it but could do nothing about it, a number of  O’odham who made their appointments, had no intention of seeing a doctor;  they just wanted the free ride to buy groceries.


The sun finally rosy and risen, Rosilda climbed out of the van and walked into the crowded outpatient waiting room, and sat down.  After only ten minutes, to her immense surprise, her name was called.  The nurse led her back to the doctors’ offices, but, surprisingly, did not weigh her, take her temperature, nor her blood pressure.  Rosilda was bewildered.  She was led into Dr. Chapman’s office.  Even more bewildering because she had always seen Dr. Randall.  Dr. Chapman was a very kind man who was known across the reservation for his interest and respect for O’odham traditional ways.  He was affectionately called Chico among the O’odham.  Dr. Chapman was tall with bushy brown hair and soft brown-eyes—very easy on the eyes.  He always wore different silver and turquoise bolo ties; no other doctor did; they wore ties.  In his office, Dr. Chapman was not alone.  An unknown Tohono O’odham woman old enough to be Rosilda’s mother, stood next to Dr. Chapman.


“Skook see ardum.”  Dr. Chapman said.  Rosilda nodded back.  Dr. Chapman had said “good morning” in O’odham which was very respectful.  But historically, there was no O’odham morning greeting, it never existed.  The Franciscan missionaries in their infinite wisdom had patched it together from other O’odham words so the O’odham could exhibit proper morning manners.  Dr. Chapman motioned for Rosilda to sit down and she did.  Dr. Chapman said, “I will be your doctor now.  I see in your records that you have been taking Thorazine three times a day for 6 months now.  How is that working for you?”  “It is making very sleepy all day long,” Rosilda answered.  “Are you hearing the voices?” Dr. Chapman asked.  “Yes, Rosilda answered.”  “Rosilda,” Dr. Chapman said, “I don’t think any of our medicines will stop your voices.”  “I want to introduce you to Mary Jane Paul.  Mary Jane is a Mental Health Technician with the Nation’s Tohono O’odham Psychological Services program.  I think she can be of far more help to you than the hospital.  She knows about psychological ways and also traditional O’odham ways.  Are you willing to see if she can help you?”  Rosilda quickly looked at Mary Jane and then back to Dr. Chapman—it was impolite for O’odham to stare at anyone.  They both looked kind and caring.  “Yes, I want to see if she can help me.”  Mary Jane smiled and nodded.  “Well, you can get started right away so you don’t waste your long trip from Hickiwan,” Dr. Chapman said, motioning with his hand towards Mary Jane.  “I’ll walk you over to TOPS, and we can talk there,” Mary Jane said.  “TOPS is just a little walk away.” Out of nowhere Rosilda remembered the gentle voice of her grandfather: “Whiteman’s medicine is for Whiteman’s illnesses.  O’odham medicine is for O’odham illnesses, O’odham spiritual imbalance.”



So they walked over to the TOPS offices inside the tribally run Tohono O’odham Health Department complex of many different health programs:  mothers and children, the elderly, infectious diseases, Community Health Representatives, and more.  Mary Jane and Rosilda spoke to each other in O’odham about everyday pleasantries. Rosilda and Mary Jane were both from isolated reservation villages where the Tohono O’odham language was still spoken.  Very few non-Indians were able to learn their language because it was an indigenous language with no Latin or Greek derivatives.  How could a non-Indian make any sense out of chumaith the O’odham word for bread?  Mary Jane had asked her if she knew about the history of the change of their name. Rosilda had told her she did not.  Mary Jane then talked about how the name Tohono O’odham had only been approved twenty years ago when Rosilda was fifteen years old.  And the change was made by a vote of all of the people.  She talked about how they had been known as the Papago–the name given them by the Spanish in the 1500s, and was continued by the United States after the Mexican American War.  Many of the elders had spoken out against the name change; primarily, because that was the only name they had ever known.  The younger and traditional O’odham welcomed the change back to their ancestral name: Tohono O’odham which meant Tohono—desert, and O’odham—people:

The Desert People.  For the majority of O’odham, this was a far cry better than Papago which was a Spanish word that meant bean eaters.  As they neared the TOPS building, a Roadrunner casually walked in front of them with no fear.  Both Rosilda and Mary Jane looked at each other, both knowing that Roadrunner was a messenger from the Creator’s spirit world; a messenger of good fortune.  Rosilda was now filled with hope and faith that the Creator was going to heal her.


Mary Jane led Rosilda into her office.  When Rosilda walked in the first things she noticed were several beautiful Tohono O’odham woven baskets.  As Rosilda sat down she asked, “Mary Jane, where did you get the baskets?  They are beautiful.”  Also sitting down, Mary Jane said, “They were made by my Aunt Veronica.  She has been a weaver since she was a little girl.  Her mother taught her.  And Veronica’s grandmother taught her.   They are a family of weavers.”  Rosilda and Mary Jane continued talking about everyday pleasantries because that is the O’odham way.  It is impolite to immediately start talking about important matters.  After the good while, Mary Jane asked, “Would you feel comfortable telling me about your family and growing up?”  Rosilda nodded.  Looked down and started by saying, “I was raised by my mother’s father and his wife, my grandparents.  Before my mother was pregnant with me, she drank all the time.  She stopped drinking when she knew she was pregnant with me because the Community Health Representatives told her and everyone else on the reservation, that alcohol would ruin a baby’s brains, so she stopped.  My grandfather said she asked him and my grandmother to take care of me, and then started drinking and partying again.”  “Do you know who your father is?” Mary Jane asked.  “Yes,” Rosilda replied.  “When I was eight, my grandfather pointed him out at a feast.  I saw him at most of the feasts growing up.”  “Has he ever spoken to you?” Mary Jane asked.  “No,” Rosilda replied.


Rosilda then told Mary Jane about how her grandfather was a Medicine Man.  And her grandfather had said that his father was a Medicine Man too, and had taught her grandfather the ways of the spirit world and the healing that came from that world.  Her grandfather took Rosilda with him when he went to heal the O’odham, or to lead spiritual ceremonies.  He had her carry special feathers and plants.  She was proud to help her grandfather.  And she was also proud to see that her grandfather was greatly respected by the O’odham.  Rosilda then talked about how her mother often said that the Pentecostal church had saved her from a life of alcoholism. And when Rosilda was eleven, and her mother had been sober for a year, she went to her father and told him she was ready to take me back and raise me.  And how her grandfather had told Rosilda it was time for her to live with her mother. “That was all he said.”


Tears flowed down Rosilda’s cheeks.  Mary Jane handed her a Kleenex.  She quietly cried then gathered herself up and spoke of how her mother and grandfather did not get along.  Though they lived in the same tiny village with only one house in between, they were worlds apart.  The church did not approve of his traditional ways.  They called it witchcraft, the work of the devil.  So her mother would have nothing to do with her father’s doing the devils work.  She was a saved woman in a world of evil and hardship.  Minister Gundspiel had saved her and many others in the village, and there was no turning back to the old ways.  “The pagan ways of the lost children of God,” the minister would often preach.  “Jesus came to lead you out of the wilderness, out of paganism, and on to the righteous path of the Lord.”  Minister Gundspiel’s words scared Rosilda.  She did not know what to make of all that the minister had said and on the other hand the loving childhood her traditional grandparents had given her.  Rosilda continued on about how she had always loved her grandfather, but now she wondered if she should be afraid of him.  She knew he had special powers.  Powers of which her mother and her mother’s minister did not approve.


Rosilda spoke of a time when she was twelve and only six months living with her mother, How, in her grandfather’s home, she sat his feet and had told her about Itoy who lived in a cave on top of the sacred O’odham mountain, Baboquivari.  That Itoy was the holy brother of the Creator, and was the protector of the Tohono O’odham.  Her grandfather had then asked Rosilda if she wanted to go with him on a pilgrimage to Itoy’s cave.  She told of how she had run home, and in her excitement had tripped over their dog, Frisco.  She remembered how she had scrambled up and rushed into the kitchen.  Her mother was cleaning freshly butchered cow intestines stretched out on their wood table, and was dicing it to make menudo.  She told of how she had said, “Mother, mother, grandfather said I could go to Itoy’s cave with him.  Can I go? Can I go? I want to go?”  She recalled how her mother had looked at Rosilda with her large pottery brown eyes and slowly shook her head.  “Mother, please. I have to go.  Almost everybody at school has gone.  Please let me go.”  Still her mother shook her head. “Rosie,” that is no place for Christians to go.  It is the place of pagans, the place of the evil ways of the past.”  “But mother, everyone has gone.”  “Rosie, it’s an evil place. You will not go.”  Her head down and a tear trickling down her cheek, Rosilda said she had turned to walk away, but turned back and said, “But mother, grandfather and grandmother took me to Saint Mary’s church every Sunday.  And grandfather always said the spirit world was where the Holy Spirit was.”  Her mother had looked at her harshly and raised her voice saying, “You will not go!  Catholics are not Christians.  They worship graven images, statues.  Tonight we will pray that your grandfather receives the word of the Lord and is saved from his evil ways.  You will never again be with your grandfather.  He is trying to lead you down the path of evil.”  Rosilda then spoke of how she had been hurt and angry.  How she hated being Pentecostal and wished that Reverend Gundspiel had never come to her village.  Because of him, she could no longer be with her grandfather and listen to his stories of the old ways.


Mary Jane and Rosilda sat quietly with each other for many minutes.  Long periods of silence were common to the O’odham.  They gave much thought to what had been said to them before they spoke. “When did you start hearing the voices?”  Mary Jane asked.  “They started when I was twelve, soon after I became a woman,” Rosilda replied.  “How did you feel about the voices?”  I did not understand what they were saying.  I was confused, but not afraid.”


“Rosilda,” Mary Jane started, “Thank you for sharing your stories.  I saw how difficult that was for you.  Do you want me to say what I think of what you have said?”  Rosilda nodded her head.  “What I will say is not what you have to believe.  I am only saying what I believe, what I see.  It is between you and the Creator what is your truth.”  Mary Jane was quite for a long few minutes, and then started up again.  “I know about your family from my elders.  Your family is like my family.  We are Medicine People family.  At least every generation or two, a Medicine Person is born to our family, and then learns the ways of healing from our elder Medicine Man, or Medicine Woman.  I don’t know why, only Creator knows, but for many generations now, we have had only Medicine Women.”  May Jane paused again for a few minutes?  Rosilda pulled herself from her reverie, and asked, “Does your family have a religion?” “Yes we do,” Mary Jane answered. “We are Catholic.  The Holy Spirit’s power comes from the spirit world and goes through us to heal the O’odham.’  Quietly, Rosilda said, “That is what my grandfather told me.  He and my grandmother were Catholics too.”


“Rosilda, from everything you have said, I believe you have the calling to be a Medicine Woman.  That is why you hear the voices.  They are the voices of the spirit world trying to give you their wisdom.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.  In truth, only you and the Creator know for sure.”  A long silence.  “Mary Jane I do not mean to be rude, but what about my mother and the minister saying that the medicine way is the way of the devil.”  Mary Jane smiled and said, “Everyone has their own truth.  Not for me to say who is right, who is wrong.  If that is your mother’s belief, then that is your mother’s belief.  We are all sons and daughters of the same Creator.  Our spiritual paths may be different, but they all lead to the Creator.”  Again, silence.  Mary Jane started, “I have no interest in trying to convince you or anyone else of anything, but what I hear from you is that the Pentecostal way did not stop your voices.  The doctors did not stop your voices.  And you are not afraid of your voices.  What is that saying to you?”  Rosilda, sensing something special, told herself it was alright to take a long deep into Mary Jane’s eyes.  Rosilda felt safe.  Her voices now spoke softly like a gentle breeze.  But Rosilda still could not understand what they said, but she thought they were saying something about Mary Jane.  “Mary Jane, I am not sure what all this means, but what seems most important is that the voices do not scare me.”


Mary Jane smiled at her and said, “Rosilda, I suggest you go to your grandfather, and tell him about the voices, and see what he says.”  Her voice stressed, Rosilda replied, “My mother will be very angry with me.”  More silence.  “How old are you Rosilda?”  “I am 25.”  “You are a young woman; anymore do you need your mother’s permission to live as you want to live.”  Silence “I never thought about that, but you’re right.  I am old enough to make my own decisions.”  Mary Jane said, “I suggest you do not ask or even tell your mother; just go to see your grandfather as you have every right to do.”  A very long silence.  “Rosilda, I have another client to see.  You are a wonderful young woman.  I wish you the best and will pray for you.  If you feel comfortable, visit with me again, and tell me how you are doing.”  Rosilda nodded, stood up, and left Mary Jane’s office.  Walking back to the hospital, and then on the ride home, Rosilda had mulled over, and over all that Mary Jane had said.  When she got home, Rosilda realized she had not gone to the Low Store and bought the groceries.  Her mother was angry with her, but strangely, Rosilda did not feel ashamed listening to her mother’s anger.  Something had changed.


For several weeks, Rosilda debated in her mind whether or not she should visit her grandfather.  She finally concluded that all of her life, he had been nothing but loving with her.  Not telling her mother, Rosilda walked over to her grandfather’s home.  She knocked on his door, and he opened it, smiled, and gestured for her to come in.  He opened his hand to the couch.  Rosilda sat down.  He then sat down in a chair in front of her.  She looked at his happy eyes.  She was happy.  She knew she had done the right thing.  As she and her grandfather sat quietly together, she had the uncanny feeling that her grandfather knew exactly why she was there.  O’odham silence.  “Grandfather, I hear voices, and I do not know why, or even what they are saying.”  A longer silence.  Then her grandfather slowly stood up, and went to the corner of the room in the one room house.  After a few minutes, he came back with a bundle of Eagle feathers, and sweet smoking herbs in a lustrous abalone shell.  He stood quietly in front of her, the herb smoke misting over both of them. With his eagle feathers, her grandfather, drew the smoke over his head, his shoulders, chest and legs.  Rosilda knew he was smudging, as she had done as a child, with both hands, she drew the smoke over her hair, her shoulders, chest, and her legs.  Then her grandfather held the Eagle feathers above his head whispering prayers.  Rosilda closed her eyes and asked the Creator for healing.  Grandfather turned slowly, stopping momentarily in each of the four directions, and ending in the west, the place of the ancestors.  He then slowly brushed Rosilda from head to toe with the Eagle feathers as if sweeping away the dust of impurities.  Her eyes still shut; Rosilda heard a voice clear and true say to her, “Heal the O’odham.  Teach them of the spiritual path back to the Creator.”


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