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I last saw Kay Sands in the early winter of 2016. ASU alumnus Lutfi Hussein (MA 2000; PhD 2006), English emeritus professor Nick Salerno, and I had picked up sandwiches and salads at a local eatery before heading to Kay’s condominium in Central Phoenix. Kay and Nick had known each other for years—decades, actually—and regaled us with tales of the English department in the misty past of the 1970s and ‘80s. It was a delightful afternoon, and one I will never forget. Neither will I forget the two remarkable professors who stood at the center of our gathering that day.
I had met Nick only recently. The previous December, Lutfi and his wife Heather Hoyt (MA 1999; PhD 2006), and I joined him for Christmas brunch at the McCormick Ranch Resort in Scottsdale. In my undergrad days, I had watched his Cinema Classics show on KAET but never had the pleasure of taking a class with him. Sadly, Nick passed away several months after the day of our lunch.
I had known Kay much longer. We first met when I took her “Native American Oral Traditions” seminar in 1993. I had come back to grad school after a long absence from academia and was scared silly by the reading and writing demands of the class. Kay was ever the taskmaster but generous to a fault with the time and effort she dedicated to her grad students. Those of us (and there were more than a few) who were late turning in our drafts would hold informal vigil in the halls of the Language and Literature building and pass warning to the rest whenever Kay was abroad. Her no-nonsense manner—intimidating to some—was mitigated by her wry sense of humor and accessibility. She mentored me through what seemed like endless years of grad school, directing both my master’s and PhD committees and recommending me as teaching assistant for a wide variety of classes in and beyond my specialization. I fondly remember the parties at Kay’s home on Cairo Drive, where faculty, students, and charros (horsemen of the Mexican rodeo tradition of the Charrería) feasted on carne asada as ASU anthropologist Don Bahr held court on the back patio.
She used the term "collaborative autobiography" to articulate the partnership between subject and observer that characterized much of her work.
Kay Sands joined the faculty of the ASU Department of English in 1977, specializing in folklore and Native American literature. With other interdisciplinary scholars (among them, Larry Evers, Barbara Babcock, and William Clements), she advocated for the inclusion of Native American oral traditions in the canons of print literature. Influenced by the methodology of Professor Ned Spicer under whom she studied at the University of Arizona, Kay employed the participant-observation approach in her fieldwork, committing to an intimate involvement in the cultural contexts of the individuals who were the focus of her research. She used the term “collaborative autobiography” to articulate the partnership between subject and observer that characterized much of her work, such as the Autobiography of a Yaqui Poet (1980) and Telling a Good One: The Process of a Native American Collaborative Biography (2000). In both works, Kay placed the subjects of her studies as first authors—an acknowledgement that would have been unheard of in earlier ethnographic scholarship. In Charrería Mexicana: An Equestrian Folk Tradition (1993), her study of Mexican ranching culture, she exhibited a similar involvement in the contexts of her subject. She was, after all, an avid horsewoman.
Kay hooded her last PhD students in May 2003. My classmate Dorie Goldman (now a professor of English at Central Arizona College) was one; I was the other. To accommodate the disparity in our heights, I had to bow low so that Kay could slip the hood over my head. She would admonish me for closing her tribute with such a sappy metaphor, laying her comments slantwise in the margins with her dreaded #2 pencil.
Kay Sands passed away on December 25, 2018 while visiting family in Alexandria, Virginia.
Image: An undated photo of Kay Sands (c. early 2000s) from Department of English files.