May 25, 2016
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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


Apache, Chickasaw and Cherokee

“My mother feeds this fox that she calls Frederica, so I have to give it an egg,” Erika T Wurth says into the phone from her mother’s house in Colorado. This isn’t a unique metaphor Wurth is using to describe her artistic offering to her Apache, Chickasaw and Cherokee heritage; there actually is a fox waiting at the back door.

“I can’t remember if she cooks it for her or not, oh God. OK, this one seems cooked…oh no, it’s not. Oh God, I’ll just give it to her. So yeah, yeah. Hi sweetie, here’s your egg. I hope it eats it raw, OK—um, so, yeah.”

Wurth, who just celebrated her 34th birthday, grew up in the Denver area in a house that was half Anglo and half Native. Coming from a mixed heritage greatly informs Wurth’s work; rather than feeling an intense connection to one particular tribe, Wurth feels a sense of connection to all indigenous people.

“I like the Lakota word for it…tio spaye basically means carrying your entire extended family with you…And I’m very much an individual, I’m very irreverent, I’m perhaps selfish in certain ways, but at the same time…I like the idea that somehow I’m bringing my extended family with me all the time.”

Once Wurth reached college, she tried to major in biology and international business but, after one English class, found herself hooked to words. She was 25 and had already earned her doctorate in English by the time she realized she could have received an MFA in creative writing. “Once I had a couple little publications I thought, ‘You know what, I should take a creative writing course,’” Wurth says with a laugh. Though she didn’t study creative writing in particular, she feels receiving her degree in English greatly enhanced her writing.

“I came out of my PhD with three rough manuscripts, a collection of poetry, a collection of short stories and a novel…[This work] forced me to do a lot of research and it forced me to look at the Harlem Renaissance and Latino fiction and see how all of those movements really have all kinds of similarities to Native American…I think that was good for me, intellectually and creatively.”

Wurth was a visiting writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts during the 2007-08 year and now teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University.

Wurth is warm and friendly, but her narrative, almost confessional work shows the poet’s darker, sadder side. “In doing the PhD, you’re forced to see historical constructs, and then you put it into your own personal experience—and there’s no way around it,” she says. So while young Native poets, she adds, may be tired of “the same old issues,” look deeply into their work and one finds “there’s no way out of 500 years of genocide.”

Wurth doesn’t want to be buried in the collective past of her Native heritage, but she admits that “it’s very, very, very personal. All these kinds of ideas about history really just boil down to [things like] my cousin who went to prison and my sister who had some illegal activities as her profession when she was younger…It’s formed my world.”

“I’m really excited that there’s this new generation, if you will, of Native American writers,” Wurth says of her contemporaries. “It’s all happening really fast, and there’s a bunch of us, and we all seem to really know each other, even though most of us are very different…We don’t want to be in charge of political agendas…or at least we want to re-assess that and figure out what our roles are in that…I’m reading these books of Native American criticism and they’re making these really tall orders, like, ‘Oh, we need to be activists.’ But when I taught at [IAIA, there were] these [18-year-old] kids…and [that political expectation] was making them not want to write. It has the opposite effect. They just want to be young people writing.”

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