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Fifty years in the desert – the ethnobiological life of Amadeo Rea

A friend of mine, who was just finishing the manuscript for Birds of Arizona with the University of Arizona Press said “Why don’t you find out from your old Indian friends what the river was like when it ran and what birds were there?”

I sat down for a yarn with Amadeo Rea at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado in April last year during the 35th Society of Ethnobiology meeting.

Amadeo is a taxonomic ornithologist and ethnobiologist whose work is focused on the greater Southwest of the USA. His life’s work deals with the taxonomy and distribution of birds, avian paleontology, and zooarchaeology. His 1983 work, Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila, documents avifaunal changes in River Pima country.

His work in ethnobiology includes three books on the O’odham, a Southwest Uto-Aztecan language group: At the Desert’s Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima, (1997) and Folk Mammalogy of the Northern Pimans (1998).

One of my favourite ethnoornithological works, Amadeo’s Wings in the Desert: A Folk Ornithology of Northern Pimans was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2007.

Bob Gosford: What started your interest in ethnobiology – why and when?

Amadeo Rea: I went to Arizona right after I got out of college, as soon as I got my Bachelor’s degree. As a kid growing up in northern California I just loved the desert and collected everything I could get in the desert – every Arizona Highways and every Desert Magazine I could find.

When I graduated from college I was in the Franciscan order. I wasn’t planning to continue on, but was still in vows. Our Franciscan province had a multi-tribal Indian school in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, St Johns Indian School. So I said, how about sending me over there for the next few years and teaching in the high school? So thats how it all got started.

As I mentioned in Wings in the Desert, I went there in August of 1963 and soon made friends with lots of people. I was an ornithologist and was already doing ornithological research work as well as teaching in high school. A friend of mine, who was just finishing the manuscript for Birds of Arizona with the University of Arizona Press said “Why don’t you find out from your old Indian friends what the river was like when it ran and what birds were there?” The middle and lower Gila was a dead river – it was dry except after it rained, when a little mud ran through there.

So I started asking Pimas, and I soon began to realize that there was abundant information on all sorts of things that was available from my Pima Indian friends, mostly those who had been born before World War I. So that’s the story so far. I am still transcribing tapes. Most of those people are dead but I have enough tapes to last me for the rest of my life and I am putting them together.

I did an ecological work for my dissertation using Pima data on what used to be there – ethnographic, oral history, mythic narratives and folk taxonomic data.There are the Pima Indians and the Papago indians – they are from the same group and they now call themselves O’odham. The River People are called the Akimel O’odham and the Desert People, without a river, are called Tohono O’odham which means desert people.

BG: So this work started from a suggestion from a mentor that you initially thought, I assume, might occupy a few years of your time …

AR: I was thinking in terms of two years but now it is up to forty-five or six or seven years … (laughs) and I’m not finished yet!

The count – the coffin is the light at the end of the tunnel – unless Alzheimer’s gets me first (laughs). I have three more books that I’m working on and I so want to get those done. So I’ve got to keep it together at least until I get those three done – and then there are some others that I’d like to do but – those three will finish off my Pima work.

For instance, I’ve done the plants, the mammals, I did the birds recently and now I’ve got to do all of the rest of the animals – the rest of the cold-blooded vertebrates and the rest of the invertebrates. And that is going to take a lot of work.

BG: Is there some sort of unifying rationale … something to wrap it all together?

AR: I don’t know if I will do that or if I will let somebody else come along behind me and say what this all means.

BG: So do you have people that you are working with that are coming behind you – that you are mentoring?

AR: Not really. I suppose I was hoping that my books would do that but I was – when I was at the University of San Diego I was in the undergraduate program. We didn’t have a graduate program, so I don’t have any graduate students. I had a Prescott College student – Gary Paul Nabhan –  that I took down to the reservation in the early seventies and he went on. I was on Gary Nabhan’s graduate committee – and Gary has written quite a few more books than I have and he is my “little boy”. (laughs)
BG: For those who are not familiar with ethnobiology, why do you think it is important?>

AR: Well, to me it is important – and there are probably as many answers as people you could ask that question of. To me it is important because you have people who have lived in an environment for centuries, if not millennia, and who have adapted so well and who have such an intimate knowledge. The intimate universal community knowledge of natural history and environment. And how to function in those environments is such a beautiful … a work of art if you are looking at the whole cultural ecosystem.

And much of it has been destroyed post-Conquest. And I come along and am looking at the remnants of this, but for much of it is already too late. It is as if we had destroyed the Mona Lisa or were going to throw it in the garbage. It is something that is beautiful, and efficient and functional and sustainable and now we are finally talking about sustainability. Sustainability has become a part of the vocabulary of Americans and people elsewhere in the world. Well lets look at people who did live a sustainable life …

BG: Because we do not, do we? We can only try in our feeble way. Something has overrun us – and it is us …

AR: Well, as long as you have petroleum we won’t go to sustainability and we won’t have sustainable agriculture as long as we have petroleum-based fertilizer and pesticides and can pump water from huge depths in the desert. I don’t know if you have a good water table in Australia?

BG: We have a big artesian basin that covers a large part of the country. But there are problems. We are a dry continent but we do have a lot of sub-surface water.

BG: If you were an emerging or mid-career scientist, what would you look for in ethnobiology – in any one of its many variants and sub-disciplines?

AR: It would be the same reasons. This is a vanishing resource. If I were starting right now I could not write, as I was saying to someone yesterday, if I were to write Desert’s Green Edge today it would probably be ten pages long. The information is not there.

The other books would be much the same. But I’d like to turn that around and say that if I’d started 20 or 30 years earlier … it took me so long to know the right questions to ask. But what richness and depth I could’ve gotten! You know, you can get the names for things – names are just handles to get at the information. Folk taxonomy is wonderful in itself, but where is it going? Taxonomy is the key to open the door to a people’s fund of knowledge, the doorway to their world view.

BG: Is ethnobiology a good discipline for people coming out of undergraduate school looking for a career? 

AR: Yes. You know I have done plenty of taxonomy – at a basic level – and described species and all of that – and there are many people who can do that – but there are not all that many people who can take my data and turn out a book from it.

BG: Wings in the Desert is dedicated to Kenneth E. Hill – who is he?

AR: Kenneth Hill was on the board of Chevron in southern California. He was a bird book collector. Every bird book he could find he would add to his collection. He was also … due to my influence … he was also on the board of the San Diego Natural History Museum, where I was.

At the time that the Museum decided to drop three of their six research departments. My department was one of them – so Birds and Mammals went, Paleontology went, another one went – and Kenneth Hill went to the Acting Director. Who most likely, literally, didn’t know what the word ornithology meant. Kenneth Hill went to him and told him “Dr Rea is working on this book on birds, but first he has to finish this book on the plants and he has a big manuscript on this ready to go to press. “I’ll pay his salary at the museum until he gets that book finished – and the next one.” And the Museum said no.

BG: Oh shit …

AR: They said no. So Kenneth came back to me and he said “You know I have a secretary and I use her about half-time and I am willing – if she is – to help you do all the rest of what’s needed to get this book into publication.” So, when he died, his wife continued to support me. Not a lot. Living on five or six thousand dollars a year it is a bit tight – in southern California. That is the story of Kenneth Hill.

But there are angels out there who realize that this was an important book and it should be done. You would think that the Director of a Museum would know that but he refused the money …

 I’ll continue my discussion with Amadeo Rea here in a few days. Stay tuned for his insights into Piman spirituality and the intertwined lives of birds and people in the southern deserts. 

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  • 1
    Michelle Imison
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Bob – great read! Looking forward to the next instalment.

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