WASHINGTON - Hearing a phrase of Tohono O'odham in Washington is like catching sight of a rare and beautiful bird. It's a language of hushed, lilting sounds, perfect for making songs about rain and corn or writing poems about desert clouds.
That's how Ofelia Zepeda, linguist and writer, began a public talk at the National Museum of the American Indian one evening late this fall - in O'odham, her native tongue. She was in town to attend meetings on Native language preservation and to sign copies of ''Home: Native People in the Southwest,'' a companion book she co-authored for a recent exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Like many people native to the Southwest, Zepeda's life is a braid of different languages and lands.
Her parents crossed over from Sonora, Mexico in the 1950s and settled on the periphery of the O'odham reservation in Arizona. Zepeda was born in a wooden row house in Stanfield, surrounded by fields of cotton, and didn't speak any English until she was 7. She told her audience she felt ''too lazy'' for the labor of picking cotton and decided to get an education instead, becoming the first in her family to finish high school. In fact, she may be the first person in American history to earn a doctorate in linguistics and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for being too ''lazy.''