Capturing a Chediskai childhood

  Eva Tulene Watt was born in 1913 on the Fort Apache Reservation, just north of the Salt River in southeastern Arizona. She’s traveled far during her long life, living and working in Spokane, Wash., Stillwell, Okla., and San Francisco, Calif., among other places. But her home has always been in and around the small reservation settlement of Chediskai, where she spent most of her childhood and young-adult years.

Her reminiscences, recorded by University of New Mexico anthropologist Keith Basso in Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You, recall the mundane, delightful, and painful details of life on and off the reservation. Her extensive memories and family stories include childhood games, square dances in the street in Show Low, Ariz., outbreaks of flu and trachoma, ceremonies by local medicine men, run-ins with wildlife, and cattle drives with her stepfather ("I helped him keep the horses together. I think I was the only woman who did that," she says).

Watt, who now lives on the reservation with her son’s family, lost two siblings and her father to illness and accident during her childhood, and she and her surviving siblings were repeatedly separated by stints at government boarding schools. Though her tone is never bitter, her stories often show the overt discrimination of earlier times: For instance, U.S. government officials referred to male heads of Western Apache families by codes — such as A-1 and F-1 — rather than proper names.

Basso, who recorded these tales over five years and more than 200 hours of interviews, is a quiet mediator, providing only small clarifications in the text and helpful historical endnotes. At Watt’s request, he refrained from ethnographic analysis, letting her stories stand largely alone. "Too much of that stuff can throw a blanket over your thinking," Watt said of his interpretive urges. When Basso agreed, she teased him: "Good, that way you won’t get a headache."

Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975
Eva Tulene Watt, with assistance from Keith H. Basso. 340 pages, softcover $24.95
University of Arizona Press, 2004.