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Alumni newsmaker:
> > Davis, AM'65, argues for connection between Japanese and Zuni cultures

image: Class Notes headline When Nancy 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.

Female 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.

For 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.

She 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."

But 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.

Then, 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 reviewers.

Arguing 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."

"We've 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.

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  OCTOBER 2000

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