Cows wander around the rez all the time. Sometimes they travel in small herds; sometimes you’ll encounter only one. I spent a great deal of my childhood trying to chase cows out of our front yard. Of course, they’re not limited to the villages, I often see them being chased out of parking lots by people in office attire in the greater, metropolitan area of Sells. They’re all over the place.
When we were kids, we used to sleep outside on metal-frame, military beds, to escape the heat of the house. It was pretty great sleeping outside. You’d have an entire sky full of stars for your personal enjoyment and you’d wake up needing blankets, even in the Arizona summer. The only downside I remember was the possibility of waking up to a cow licking your head. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s startling to wake up with an animal in your face, and of course, your brothers and sisters will make fun of you all day, (if not for the rest of your life) because a cow licked your head. Cows were always just kind of a nuisance, but harmless for the most part.
Of course, that’s not to say that cows aren’t dangerous. Sometimes you find yourself hoping and praying, eyes wide and unblinking, as you slowly edge your car forward, that the bull staring you down won’t charge your car. When I’m on the rez, I hear people call out, “Watch out for cows!” anytime anyone is about to drive anywhere. It’s a little more specific than just a general, “Be safe!” because sometimes people forget about them and tend to speed on the seemingly empty roads, which can be a very serious mistake. Every person in my family but me, (knock on wood) has hit a cow at least once; my dad has hit at least three cows and one horse. Seriously… watch out for the livestock.
I know most people have an image in their heads when they hear the word, “Native” and a different image pops into their heads when they hear the word, “cowboy”, but there are a lot of Native cowboys out there. My great-uncle was a well-respected wakial, a “cowboy”, he always had livestock on the brain. He played an important role in “The Association”, which was the group of cowboys that took care of all the open-range livestock in our area.
Cows are free to wander the rez during most of the year. Sometimes the Wapkial, the “O’odham cowboys”, do a round-up so they can brand the cows, count them or sell them. My Hu’uli-bat and my Hu’ul Ke:li-bat always had a surprising number of cattle roaming around. They rarely discussed their finances with me, but from what I gather from having sat at the dinner table, owning cattle can be quite lucrative.
We never got to personally know cows or anything, we weren’t living like the Little House on the Prairie, where we name our cows and sneak outside to give them treats and befriend their young. In fact, my favorite thing about rez cows is that they’re butchered for big events like funerals, dances and weddings.
It’s a lot of work to kill and butcher a cow, not to mention it’s also very expensive. Killing a cow is usually only done when a large number of people need to be fed. It’s a huge, exhausting process that can take a couple of days and a large number of people are involved.
Usually, the wapkial come early in the morning to the site where the cow will be killed. They’ll bring the unfortunate beast that’s been chosen, desperately mooing in a trailer, as if it already knows what’s about to happen. Although most cows are killed near the community’s feast house, where the celebration is likely to take place, several times as a child, cows were killed in my Hu’uli’s back yard.
I never liked to watch as the cow was tied down and wrestled to the ground. There’s a lot of dust and yelling and of course, at some point there’s blood. There’s always a prayer and thanks given, but it’s a very messy business and I’d rather not watch.
Once the cow is dead, however, everyone is expected to be useful and productive.
The cow is skinned right there on the ground and pieces are hacked off and carried to the long tables that will be used to cut down the meat to more manageable pieces. Soon, only the inedible parts of the cow are left on the ground.
The sound of knives being sharpened mingles with the men’s joking and storytelling. Their eyes watch their fingers carefully as they quickly dissect the portions of beef they have in front of them. Small cubes of bright, red meat pile up in large bowls as the men skillfully cut it down for ko’kol hidot. Every once in a while, the bowls are switched out and replaced with clean, empty ones until all the meat is refrigerated or in the process of being cooked.
It’s exciting to see so much meat being stored away, knowing that it will soon feed all your relatives, friends and neighbors. In the O’odham community, friends and neighbors are usually relatives anyway, so really it’s for the whole family. The chatting and joking between everyone as they work is comforting and familiar.
The smell of the mesquite smoke from the fire and the smell of cecemait cooking are intense and hunger inducing.
My absolute favorite, favorite, FAVORITE part about the killing of the cow was having a long strip of meat cooked over hot coals and immediately wrapped in a piece of freshly made cemait.
I guess being stared down by cows or being woken up early in the morning by a cow licking your head is a small price to pay for that delicious moment of beefy-cecemait bliss.
Wapkial on round up guiding cow to the corral. See, O'odham Cowboys. Told you.
Wapkial on round up in the desert. (see the ropes and dust?)
Photo credits to Fred S., part time wakial and buddy of mine.
---------------- Quick Reference -----------------------
Although I’m not a linguist, I thought I’d share the following loose “translations” for my non-O’odham readers. I cannot guarantee the correct spelling or “translations” of the following words. I'm a bad speller in all languages, but there's a handy built in English spell check on my computer. Until there's an O'odham spell check, here's my closest effort.
This is simply how I write them and use the following words.
Rez– (English) slang for reservation
Wakial – CowboyWapkial – Cowboys
Hu’uli – Grandmother (baby talk, equivalent of saying "mommy" for a grandmother)
Hu’ul Ke:li – My family’s pet name for my great-uncle (Hu’uli’s little brother)
-bat – is used to indicate that this person has passed away.
Ko’kol hidot – red chili (with stew meat)
Cemait – the O’odham version of a tortilla
Cecemait – a lot of O’odham “tortillas”
** Yes, there's a difference between cecemait and tortillas, I plan to write about that at another time.