Arizona Indian Living Treasures Awards

To Honor the Cultures of Arizona Native American Tribes

Donate Now

Elda Butler


Sacred Wordsmiths - the Power of Native Languages
by Brenda Norrell / Correspondent / Indian Country Today

Elda Butler is a woman of many words, many Mojave words. Butler worked with high security clearance as a stenographer at the Pentagon in Washington. But when it was time to go home to her Mojave people, she did so, and helped rescue their language from extinction.

"Be true to thyself," is her message.

Butler taught the Mojave Bird Songs and helped develop the AhaMakav Alphabet to preserve the language. Weary of the lack of truth in history, she helped tell the Mojave story in the book "Bitterness Road."

For her efforts, she was recognized Oct. 5 as one of six Arizona Indian Living Treasures and honored this year at the banquet of the non-profit organization founded in 1988.

Looking back, Butler recognizes that it took strength and determination to remain far from home in boarding schools. She worked summers to have money for the school years, giving up summers with her parents at home.

Stressing the importance of language, she said it is language that allows Indian people to tell of the horrible things that have happened to them. It is also language that makes it possible to work with others to make things better.

Remembering her life, she said when her parents became too elderly to care for themselves, she and a sister moved home for two years rather than have them placed in an elderly care facility.

Butler said her parents were very poor, but she never thought of it that way. "We always thought we were very rich," she said.

Remembering her parents, she said, "We gained our strength from their strength, our love from their love and our caring from their caring."

Although she worked at the Pentagon and served on the Mojave Tribal Council, she said it is her work in cultural preservation that is the centerpiece of her life.

Living in Arizona's east-central mountains, White Mountain Apache Eva Tuleen Watt is carrier of the names, the words that carry forward the songs, sacred places and healing herbs.

Watt always wanted to tell her own story, the way she wanted it told. Now, her dream is being realized with the upcoming book, "Don't Let the Sun Step Over You."

"White people write books about us, but they aren't right, they tell lies about us," said Watt. She said whites should go and talk to Apaches first before writing anything.

Vincent Randall of Camp Verde gave a tribute to his aunt, his mother's sister, and explained the book's title. He said, "You had better get up early, don't sleep late."

Randall said Watt always wanted people to know the truth about Apache life.

"Apaches didn't just go live on a reservation and live happily ever after eating rations."

Speaking to the crowd of family and friends, Randall said, "You tell your story and you'll find we have common things. Not only is our blood red, but we share the same disappointments, we share many things."

Praising Watt, he said, "She is an encyclopedia of wisdom and technical information."

"As she has said many times, 'it is the children who need to know this, so it will never die.'"

Watt, a renowned moccasin maker and storyteller, is cultural advisor to the Nohwike Bagowa, the tribe's cultural center. She was a charter member of the tribe's cultural advisory board.

She also served as a key advisor to the Western Apache Place Names Survey, contributing dozens of names and much oral history to the database of 2,000 places, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific and into Mexico.

Randall said those who know her consider her friendship a gift. "It is a great honor to know her for our people."

Louis Wauneka, Navajo from Fort Defiance, has also found words a means of passage on his life's journey, both as a storyteller and as a humorist in healing work in alcohol and mental health treatment.

Wauneka has taught in high school and college. He has lived a life of hunger for education, appreciation for humor and humble gratitude for it all. He is a stone cutter, silversmith, potter, weaver, drum maker and storyteller who enjoys tanning and beading.

As a counselor, he urges others to use their cultural heritage to heal negative forces in their lives and step back on the positive road.

Combining art with traditional values, Wauneka takes his message to children who have cancer, singing Navajo songs for them, and the mentally ill.

For those with mental problems, clay can be a great healing force for the person fashioning it.

"Silversmithing, pottery, basketmaking relieves stress and depression," Wauneka said. There's also another magic ingredient.

"Humor makes people feel good. It is something I use a lot to make them well," Wauneka said as he was honored as a Living Treasure.

"To make a person well, you have to give him back his mind."

Wauneka said to become healthy mentally again, a person must be active. "Making arts and crafts is a way to give a person back their mind and make them well."

Cultural Preservationist

Previous AILTA Recipients

José Enriquez
Craft: Cultural Preservationist, language master, Storyteller
Tribe: Tohono O'odham
learn more


With your gift, The AILTA organization will continue our work to honor the lifetime achievements of Arizona American Indian traditional artists, teachers, cultural and language preservationists.
Donate Now

Other Activities

Honor and keep our culture and traditions alive by becoming a Friend of AILTA...
learn more