Miguel Reyes Contreras and the Art of Language

By Jesse Short Bull

Imagine being told you couldn’t speak your language. Whether it’s English, Spanish or Lakota, pretend someone told you that you must learn another language for your survival. Imagine being told that if you communicate in the way that your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and hundreds of generations before, that it is considered irrelevant. For Miguel Reyes Contreras, this was not a dream, it was reality. However, life has a funny way of bringing things back around and where we need to be.

I first met Contreras at the beginning of the 2018 fall semester at the Institute of American Indian Arts on the south side of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The IAIA Preforming Arts Department hosted a Friday night concert under the fiery crimson sunset of the high desert. It was no ordinary concert, it was basically a jam session where teachers, community members and students, such as myself, made music together in an organic and intimate manner. Everyone had a chance to play alongside Lakota John with any instrument the department had on hand. I chose a beige acoustic guitar with the bridge coming unglued. It definitely had seen better days, but for now it was the only guitar I needed. In the crowd, Contreras sat on the circular concrete bench holding a guiro, a Spanish percussion instrument. Sheila Rocha, the Performing Arts chair, called out a song to playfully honor Contreras. She requested “Oyo Como Va,” by Carlos Santana. Everyone started to strategize on how to play the tune, finding the right key, who will start us off

and so forth. Amidst the cheerful banter someone asked from the crowd, “hey what does that mean?”

Contreras told the group, “hey how is it going.” He led us in with the vocals in a rendition that would have made Mr. Santana proud.

Contreras is a visiting instructor from the campus of Universidad Intercultural del Estado de México of San Felipe del Progresso, or UIEM. He is a Fulbright scholar which will support his work at IAIA. Contreras has quickly become a fixture on campus as well. I frequently run into him at the cafeteria, I say, “hau” which means hello in Lakota. He invited me to a class he was teaching on literary onomastics in the Center for Life Long Education building. In an hour we broke down subjects such as paremiology or the study of proverbs, to analyzing song lyrics in Spanish.

See, Contreras knows language. He devoted his life to learning, understanding, and speaking languages. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in the English Language, as well as a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics. He can tell you about French, English, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Japanese and Chinese. Despite having an extensive knowledge about these languages, I soon found out that there was something missing that linked us together despite growing up worlds apart.

I sat down with Contreras to learn more about this link and how he came to New Mexico. Contreras was raised in the vibrant country side of Ixtlahuaca de Rayon outside of Mexico City. Contreras is of the Mazahuau people, a large Indigenous tribe in Mexico with almost a quarter million members. His father suffered an injury which impaired him from working in the city. He did what he thought was best to give his family a chance to succeed which did not include the Mazahuau language.

Contreras recalled, “there was a lot of discrimination to people who spoke the language, so my mom speaks, my father understood, but he forbade my mom to teach the language.”

I sat with that line.

A language expert was forbidden to speak his own Indigenous language. This struck a personal chord with me. I come from the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota. In the 1950’s, my father grew up speaking Lakota until he entered the Holy Rosary Boarding School near the reservation community of Pine Ridge. My father told me of the time he was slapped by a Catholic priest for saying a Lakota word when he was 10 years old. This would be one of many incidents that lead him to reject anything Lakota for many years. This experience almost led my father to change his last name from Short Bull to an Anglo sounding name like Marshall or Smith. Much like Contreras’s father, mine also understood his Lakota language, and he didn’t impart any of the knowledge onto me. I imagine for my survival as well.

It’s no surprise that Mazahua experienced cultural eradication like many Native American tribes in the states. The Mazahua were forced to learn Spanish in the 1920’s.

Contreras put it bluntly. “It was the policy of the government in terms of purifying and unifying the nation.” Thankfully that policy is not in the IAIA handbook.

According to the IAIA website, ninety-six federal Indian tribes are represented on the campus of IAIA. You walk around any building and you can see amazing artworks by students, alumni and even faculty. The emergence of Native cultures through modern and traditional art is strong. I walked over to Contreras’s office while hearing the singing of a traditional song being sung by young man, who stood overlooking the large grass covered circle where the IAIA graduation ceremony and powwow are held each spring. The song was unfamiliar to me, but there was a curiosity in the words that were coming from the singer’s lips.

Contreras sits at his desk looking at his laptop. On the screen is a database he compiled with over 2,422 official place names in the state of New Mexico. Contreras’s research focuses on onomastics, the study of names specific to the state of New Mexico.

“I decided to trace cultural relationships between people from New Mexico with tribes back in Middle America and the south, with the Aztecs basically.” Contreras pointed out 36 Aztec names in New Mexico, communities like Toltec, Capulin, Analco, and Montezuma are all Aztec words. But his work isn’t just limited to that.

Contreras is also interested in how some Indigenous communities are reverting back to their Indigenous names rather than the ones that were imposed by outside entities. In 2005, San Juan Pueblo reclaimed their traditional name of “Ohkay Owingeh,” which translates to “Place of the Strong People.”

I thought about this for minute and a reflection came to me. In 2014, me and a handful of my friends brought a name change petition to the people of Shannon County on the Oglala Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. We considered the origins of the namesake of county and discovered the history of a South Dakota Territory judge who coerced our tribe’s school aged children to sign a federal agreement that would open the Great Sioux Reservation up for settlement by non-natives, a majority being immigrants from Europe looking for a new life in America. The reason for targeting children was because the Lakota adults refused to sign. His name was Peter Shannon, and his criminal methods exploiting our Lakota children were called out by Oglala tribal members and his initiative to secure Lakota land failed. His name however stuck, that is until the Oglala Lakota people took our petition to the state capitol to officially change the name to Oglala Lakota County. Oglala translates to “Scatter Their Own,” and the people thought it was more fitting of a name.

Contreras’s tribe of Mazhuaua translates to “Deer People.” They too have a long dynamic history in Mexico long before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. Contreras is Mazhuaua.

Contreras knows language.

Now he is coming full circle as he is starting to learn his own language. Both his father, and mine felt it was best for us not to learn our Native languages, not out of spite, but for survival. Contreras is letting his own children become curious about the Mazahua language and is using the help of his mother who was once forbidden.

“That’s the way to engage them,” Contreras said.

I hope to follow suit, and bring the joys of the Lakota language to my family as well.

Wopila tanka! Thank you very much.

Miguel Reyes Contreras discusses literary onomastics in class on the IAIA campus. Photo credit Jesse Short Bull
Miguel Reyes Contreras, visiting faculty from Universidad Intercultural del Estado de México of San Felipe del Progresso, (UIEM). Contreras is teaching language and Mexican culture and conducting research on the IAIA campus. Photo credit Jesse Short Bull.
At the Lakota John jam session hosted by the IAIA Performing Arts Department where I jammed alongside Contreras in the yellow striped shirt. Photo credit Sheila Rocha.


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