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Native Tongues

Indian Market’s new literary event adds another chapter to the story of Native expression

August 12, 2009, 12:00 am


Poet Orlando White measures words carefully, as one would sugar or bleach. When he speaks, he pauses often between words, seeking just the right way to express himself with as few utterances as possible. His stories, like those of many Diné people, meander through the years and across the landscape, touching briefly on many subjects before finally coming to rest on one solid subject he’d been secretly building the entire time. His poetry—sparse and measured on the page, full of white space and single words floating alone—is the visual manifestation of his speech.

White, 33, was born and raised on the Navajo reservation near Sweetwater, Ariz. Until he graduated high school, he lived what he views as the typical Diné lifestyle: a house without electricity or running water, a childhood spent hauling water, chopping wood and herding sheep with his siblings. His mother was a weaver by trade. His grandfather fostered his strong connection to words; the same grandfather, though he believed that education pulled young people out of their homes and away from their families, gave White deathbed advice that consisted of: “Keep going in your education. That’s the only way you’ll be able to understand why things are the way they are.”

His young life, fraught with poverty and a struggle to fit in with non-Native kids at public school, was spent striving for simplicity. He wanted to express himself in as few words as possible and spent a lot of time away from home as a teen, listening only to his own thoughts. As a high school freshman in 1991, the simplicity he craved came to him in the form of the music of Nirvana.

“When I was living on the rez, Kurt Cobain…was really almost like a parent to me,” White says. “It was almost like he could use a single chord throughout 15 songs, but they all sound different. So that was a stepping-stone for me. And later I would find out in my first book, Bone Light, that the way I work is sort of centered around that idea that you work with just a limited amount of things. It’s not how much you put into it, but how much you leave out.”

White often refers to books as alive, to letters as people and to the white space on a page as a palpable feeling against his skin. This focus on object speaks to a cultural way of thinking.

“I write in English but I think in Diné,” White says. “In Diné, there aren’t exact words for objects. When you’re talking about an object, you’re only talking about the movement of the object, not the actual object. So you’re only talking about the movement of a hammer, not that it’s a hammer.”

Thus, every object is capable of action, every object is alive and every object has a story. Most notably, the letters “i” and “j” have become friends to White. He writes of them: “If you look/under/the page,/you will see/two lovers/shaped/like i and j/kissing with a hyphen.”

The Diné worldview comes into White’s writing subtly, through language structure rather than through specific narrative.

“It’s about the art first, rather than my identity. That can come later,” White says. “I had a Native writer review my work, and she said basically I focused too much on style…and my work wasn’t of any importance because I wasn’t portraying what it’s like to be a 20th century Native American.” White smiles. “Which doesn’t bother me. I’d rather let the reader be more aware of the poem itself, the work on the page, without any sort of preconceived notions of these poems [being] the result of the idea that ‘this is a Navajo.’ Isn’t that why we appreciate art in the first place? Because of how it was made?”

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