AM'65, argues for connection between Japanese and Zuni cultures
Yaw Davis, AM'65, journeyed to the Philippines as a
music student at Lewis and Clark College, the missionaries' daughter
discovered another academic field. The more she learned about
Filipino folklore, the more she became taken with anthropology.
Accepted early to the U of C master's program in 1959, the Alaska
native stayed at International House, using her music background
by playing the oboe in the University Symphony Orchestra and serving
as an organist at Bond and Rockefeller Chapels.
representation in the anthropology department was sparse, she
says, and the atmosphere was formal. "You weren't supposed to
bother professors unless you had something extremely important
to say," she recalls. Although planning to focus on southeastern
Asia, she took a class on the southwestern Native-American culture,
Zuni religions, and social ethics.
one assignment, she diagrammed the directions and colors of nine
different aspects of a Zuni anthropological chart, including language.
Having learned some Japanese through her job in the special-services
department at the State Street Marshall Field's, she noticed some
startling similarities of words: for instance, the Japanese word
for clan is kwai, while the Zuni equivalent is kwe.
Intrigued, she looked for more links between Japanese and Zuni
cultures-discovering similarities in hereditary disease, religious
structures, and even jaw size. She'd found her thesis topic.
then left Chicago to work on her master's thesis while teaching
at Alaska Methodist University. When advised to complete a year
of her doctorate, she enrolled at the University of Washington
as a "commuter." In 1965, she drove from Anchorage to the U of
C to present her thesis on an Alaskan tribe, "Eklutna: A Tanaina
Indian Village." Her adviser skimmed one paragraph and handed
it back. "Go back to Alaska and do something productive," he told
her. Burned out, she headed back to the Northwest. "I didn't cry
until I hit the highway."
she persevered and earned her Ph.D. from UW in 1971, writing her
dissertation on the 1964 Alaska earthquake. She taught at Alaska
Methodist University and at Anchorage Community College until
1975, where she was the only woman on faculty at both schools.
"The backlash against women's lib was fierce," she says today.
"There was potential failure in the setting. I saw the writing
on the wall." Indeed, she lost her position at AMU when she married
a fellow faculty member. That same year, she started her own anthropological
firm, Cultural Dynamics, Ltd. Specializing in sociological, cultural,
and environmental issues, she has consulted for a number of government
organizations, including the State of Alaska, the Smithsonian
Institution, and the Department of Health and Human Services,
while teaching intermittently at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks
and Anchorage, at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska, and
at Stanford University.
a 1992 brown-bag lunch presentation at the University of New Mexico
entitled "The Zuni Enigma: 13th Century AD Asian Influence?" led
her back to her old topic. The enthusiastic reception for her
talk led her to transform the paper into a book. In May, The
Zuni Enigma (W. W. Norton) went to press, sparking debate
from other anthropologists and media coverage, and garnering a
five-star rating from Amazon.com reviewers.
that there is significant evidence of a medieval Japanese migration
to the U.S., she begins by citing Zuni history. The tribe's origin
myth revolves around the notion of groups of peoples convening
to find the middle of the world; likewise, she says, a sect of
Amida Buddhists spoke of a paradise-like Itiwanna, or "the
land in the middle of the earth." The first Zuni pueblos date
from about 1350; the Amida Buddhist sect flourished around the
same era. Davis discusses other uncanny, wide-ranging similarities
between the two cultures: the sacred rosette of the Zunis bears
a noteworthy resemblance to the Japanese imperial chrysanthemum;
linguistic parallelism-both syntactical and lexical; and a proportionally
higher rate of a condition leading to end-stage renal disease.
For the book's epigraph, Davis quotes a Zuni veteran of WWII,
who says; "I always wondered why I spoke Japanese so easily."
all migrated at some point," Davis says, "I just want to foster
the discussion that this theory generates. If I'm wrong, prove
me wrong." In the meantime, she plans to write another book on
the indigenous peoples of the American West-this time focusing
on possible Tibetan influences. Asked if she would ever go back
into academe, she notes that with every new school year, she feels
excitement, but says "Writing is my third career. Education was
my first, then it was consulting. This is what I do now." --A.S.