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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


When asked how he feels about acting as a sort of “elder statesman” at the (Re)presentation event, Simon Ortiz hesitates. “Well, let’s see, I feel self-conscious,” the 68-year-old author says with a chuckle. “I am of another generation,” he says regarding the younger writers with whom he shares the bill at the Indian Market event. “I’m usually credited with the beginning of what some people call a [Native American literature] Renaissance, but I think that’s incorrect. I think it’s a modern way of expressing ourselves as indigenous people.”

Ortiz, who grew up in Acoma Pueblo (located between Grants and Albuquerque), attended Indian and parochial boarding schools throughout his young life. “There were some public schools nearby, like Grants was the one near Acoma, but…people were sometimes concerned about social and cultural and racial discrimination. So it was more convenient or comforting to go to Indian boarding school.”

After a brief stint in the chemistry program at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., he served in the US Army during Vietnam. Upon discharge, he found himself back in New Mexico, where he continued his college education at the University of New Mexico and worked as a journalist for various publications. In 1968, he was offered a prestigious fellowship at the University of Iowa’s international writing program; the prospect of moving to Iowa was not very palatable (“My wife hated it; it was too cold. She’s from Arizona,” he says). However, the prospect of a fellowship that paid $300 a month, versus the $60 per month he was making as a journalist, made the choice for him, his wife and their first child.

Since 1971, Ortiz has published numerous books of poetry, nonfiction and fiction, as well as a children’s book in Keres, the native language of Acoma. Through it all, Ortiz has focused on communication and understanding between cultures, a prerogative he first learned as a journalist and brought with him to fiction and poetry.

“Generally, all communication is to achieve comprehension,” Ortiz says. “Language is not used just to convey facts and data—it is emotional, philosophical, abstract ideas. It is important to convey who you are as a Native American to the larger world. It must be done. And the arts are a vehicle for that kind of communication.”

Knowing this—and knowing also that concepts of the indigenous worldview are not always easily translatable into English—Ortiz works for the ultimate goal of comprehension.

The addition of the literary arts to the Indian Market event, he says, is a significant step toward an all-inclusive communications-based weekend for Natives and non-Natives alike. While Ortiz is humbled by regard for him as one of the most important names in Native American literature, he steps away from that characterization.

“See, I don’t think it’s necessary to place ourselves only in the Native American literary world or literary canon because, as human expression goes through literature or painting, we are speaking as human beings, cultural human beings.”

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