Growing up on the San Xavier Reservation, Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan often heard about the late anthropologist, Bernard “Bunny” Fontana. She and her extended family lived very close to the Fontana home, off of South Mission Road, which was just steps outside of the San Xavier district.
“But in that part of the world,” as Fontana’s neighbor and fellow anthropologist James “Big Jim” Griffith has said, “being next-door neighbors means you don’t hear people hollering; you can just see their house.”
Through her mother, grandmother and other O’odham elders, Ramon-Sauberan knew about Fontana’s groundbreaking work on O’odham life and culture, and the late 18th Century Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Fast forward to early 2014 when Ramon-Sauberan, now a graduate student in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, met Fontana. It was a meeting that was meant to happen, she said.
She began a series of interviews with Fontana, a prolific writer and scholar who passed away on April 2 at the age of 85. There are more than six hours of video and audio recordings of their conversations. They talked about his life, his extensive academic work, his exhaustive efforts to restore the fabled White Dove in the Desert, and his wider Southwestern studies.
But for Ramon-Sauberan the principal interest in Fontana was his respectful immersion into O’odham ways and his unique relationships with the O’odham from San Xavier to Sells, the O’odham capital, to the villages across the nation and in Sonora, Mexico.
“If it weren’t for him, I don’t think people would know who we are today,” said Ramon-Sauberan.
The result of her interviews with Fontana, and those who worked with him, will be her master’s thesis. It is the first biography of Fontana, which she will complete this semester.
In doing so, Ramon-Sauberan, will break new ground.
“I’m an O’odham native writing about a white academician who wrote about the O’odham,” she said. “I’m writing from an O’odham perspective.”
Ramon-Sauberan and I met up Thursday early afternoon at the mission. It was a sad day. That morning, visitors, restoration workers and O’odham church goers discovered the San Xavier was defaced with graffiti. Workers were finishing the cleanup while we sat inside the courtyard at the Mission’s entrance.
Friday, with the graffiti gone and the ground damp from an overnight rain, more than 300 people filled the 219-year-old baroque styled church and flowed out beyond its double wooden carved doors to celebrate Fontana’s joyful life. Ramon-Sauberan was present.
Her thesis almost didn’t happen, however. When Ramon-Sauberan first approached him about her idea, Fontana told her, ‘you don’t want to write about me,’” she said.
“I was fortunate and honored,” said Ramon- Sauberan, a Desert View High School graduate and the 27-year-old daughter of two teachers, Janice Ramon, an O’odham, and Clark Sauberan, a native of New York state.
Years before Ramon- Sauberan met Fontana, while a student at Pima Community College, she read his 1989 book, “Of Earth and Little Rain: The Papago Indians,” with photographs by former UA president John P. Schaefer.
That book was a powerful revelation to her. It was the first time she read about O’odham culture.
While Ramon-Sauberan was strongly connected to O’odham culture and its oral history tradition — she also spent time in Sells and other places in the nation, and her auntie Julie Ramon Pierson is known for her cultural work — literature about the O’odham was unknown to her.
“I was like ‘wow,’ ” she said about reading Fontana’s book.
He made cultural and historical connections for her. She was yearning to learn more, expand her knowledge. “It was a perfect time in my life,” she said.
And as it turned out it was a perfect time for Ramon-Sauberan and Fontana to meet. It was the last two years of his life. He embraced the young scholar, who will enter the UA’s American Indian Studies doctoral program in the fall, as he had with numerous other scholars before her.
“He’s a real good role model,” she said.
She wants other O’odham to recognize Fontana’s contributions and to appreciate O’odham Himdag, O’odham way of life.
“I want others, younger than me, to read my thesis and understand what he did,” she said.
He was sensitive to the O’odham, she said. He was friendly to everyone. He was genuinely interested in their stories which he generously shared, she added.
Mostly, she said, “He was like the O’odham. He was humble.”
Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4187. On Twitter: @netopjr
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