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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

OH, COUSIN
Erika T Wurth

How we rode on your motorcycle that summer and every summer,
on those back roads behind my house,
the smell of the raspberry bushes after the rain everywhere.
 
I buried my mixed blood hands in your mixed blood hair, cut it, you said
and make it look like yours, but darker.
And I couldn’t though I loved you more than anyone else.

How we laughed all night, tormenting
my brilliant younger sister who would grow up so angry and sad
just like dad, just like your dad too, both of them.

Oh, Ab, we grew up and got off that bike too quick,
you with babies and fists, and me, with words and nothing else.

Oh, Ab, let’s get back on the bike, and stop, and pick those raspberries and make
something beautiful out of them and let’s take my sister along this time, I miss her so much



In a culture with a language that is largely—if not exclusively—spoken aloud, the simple act of writing out a story can be controversial and revolutionary. When N Scott Momaday penned House Made of Dawn in 1968, it broke open the world of Native American literature to a greater audience, but with it brought questions of how Native literature fits not only into the predominantly white literary paradigm, but into Native American arts as a whole.

The book’s non-linear narrative transcends years, if not generations, between pages, telling the story in bits and pieces that finally fit together on the last page—but not a moment before. The book reads like a story told by a culture that places its narrative importance not on time, but on experience, on tangible events. House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

In just the few decades since, Native American literature has changed drastically. A new generation of Native American writers has come of age, and its work is as provocative as it is surprising. Sometimes these writers choose to tell stories of their Native heritage, but other times they simply want to write. Now that Native America has been welcomed into the literary world thanks to the leadership of writers like Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and James Welch, new writers in the Native community are free to explore words on their own terms, without having to define or defend their heritage.

Similarly, Santa Fe Indian Market, in less than 90 years, has expanded its parameters to include genre-bending artwork such as the glass of Robert “Spooner” Marcus or the colorful, graffiti-inspired acrylic paintings of Hoka Skenandore, as well as other types of art, such as the short films of the Native Cinema Showcase.

In that same spirit, the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts, along with the Shadow Catchers Institute of Indigenous Arts, this year adds another component to Indian Market weekend: (Re)presentation: An Indian Market Literary Arts Event. The event brings together five Native American writers, all profiled in this week’s issue: Simon J Oritz, Orlando White, Erika T Wurth, dg nanouk okpik and Sherwin Bitsui. Additionally, the Santa Fe Indian School spoken word poetry team, led by Institute of American Indian Arts teacher Tim McLaughlin, is to perform. Writer Evelina Zuni Lucero moderates the event, which includes readings, signings and a discussion dedicated to Native literature.

Karen RedHawk Dallett, executive director of the Shadow Catchers Institute and a member of the Catawba nation (the easternmost Sioux nation, where North and South Carolina meet), has envisioned this event for years.

“The English language is shared now across the globe,” she says. “We have the ability to have a strategic impact as indigenous storytellers, not only to our own people but to non-Native and to other indigenous tribes…The opportunity to [tell stories] around the fire or in a tepee or in a hogan rarely exists any longer because everyone’s spread out across the country or across the world…but you can take a book with you.”

And the transition from the oral tradition to a written one makes Native culture more accessible.

“It used to be that dances weren’t done in public either,” Dallett says. “Now dances are becoming available to people in the public eye. As indigenous people, we were afraid to tell our story, we were afraid to show who we were because so much had been taken…We don’t forget the past. We hold the past as a part of our history and, as indigenous people, we’re now truly looking beyond bridge building…There’s a curiosity about Native life now, there’s a respect because so much damage has happened in the past…What we want to do is share. That’s all we’ve ever wanted to do.”

As such, Dallett has high hopes for the future of literary events at Indian Market. “Putting [our stories] in written word is a risk; it takes extreme courage,” she says. “[The writers are] exposing something about their life and their past that’s not easy, but there’s light. Even through all of that, at the end of that, there’s light.”

ORLANDO WHITE
Diné

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?”



ERIKA T WURTH

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.”



SIMON J ORITZ
Acoma

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.”



SHERWIN BITSUI
Diné

The poetry of 34-year-old Sherwin Bitsui can be called imagistic, surreal, perhaps even eerie and haunting. He grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, living what he describes as “that Southwestern vast desert life” in the rural Four Corners area. As a child, he spoke both English and Diné, and found himself drawn to the arts at an early age. By the time he was at college at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he was studying both painting and poetry.

“I was definitely drawn to writing, and it didn’t require too much in terms of medium, just a pen and a paper,” he says. “I think I originally wanted to write a story—I wanted to seek out a story. Living on the reservation for so long, I sat in on many, many, many stories. And at the point I came to poetry, I had this huge world to write from.”

That world comes out similarly in his painting and his poetry. “When I paint, I lose all language,” Bitsui says. “I enter the painting, and I forget language.” Similarly, when he composes a poem, he creates only images: “When I write, I lose basic structure, and I start creating this sort of poetic world.”

His poetry is a mash of images and feelings that serves to create a mood more than relay a specific narrative. For example, in “Blankets of Bark”: “At 5 A.M., crickets gather in the doorway,/each of them a handful of smoke,/crawling to the house of a weeping woman,/breaking rocks on the thigh of a man stretching…”

Bitsui’s first book, Shapeshift, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2003, and he was also anthologized in the formidable Legitimate Dangers anthology of young poets in 2006. He will release a book-length poem, Flood Song, in October and, in it, he further works to convey language as image. Much of this exploration centers around tó, the Navajo word for water. He says the word aloud again and again in conversation, and the word becomes an object: It is the sound of a water drop. He reflects on his relationship to a simple word like tó and attributes his fascination to an indigenous mind-set that has a closer relationship with the ineffable than most. But he is not satisfied to let the explanation rest solely on the shoulders of his heritage; he wants to “make the dictionary of his own existence” by crafting image-rich poetry that expresses the ineffable experiences of life.

“I think in the Americas, with Native people, there is a connection, an umbilical cord reaching out to a different time, a different place,” Bitsui says of Native poetry. “And there is such incredible beauty…that I think it is equalized by the amount of terror.”

But again, he neither likens his experience to that of anyone else, nor does he wish to claim that his poetry speaks to the greater Native experience. “I think [Native peoples] don’t want to be divided, but everybody is. Everybody is. No matter where we’re at, we’re all moving in multiple directions all at the same time.”



DG NANOUK OKPIK
Inupiat Inuit

“I’ll be the only Inuit in the building,” dg nanouk okpik says in an email, setting up an interview. “I have squinty eyes and dimples.”

When one meets dg (which is pronounced just like it’s spelled: Say the letters d and g), the young poet is quick to smile, revealing those strong dimples. She carries a notebook full of writing (she says she fills a composition book approximately once a month) and launches easily into talks about the nature of writing. She is less quick to talk about her upbringing.

Until 1984, the sixth and each subsequent child of every Inuit family in Alaska was taken from them and put up for adoption. okpik was the sixth child to her Inuit parents in Point Barrow (a traditional whaling village at the northernmost tip of Alaska), so she was placed with an Anglo family in Anchorage.
hough she was not raised with a traditional Inuit lifestyle, she feels her heritage strongly: “It’s almost like a genetic memory,” she says. She is writing back to a culture in which she was born but not raised, and which she is finding again in her adult life (only in the past seven or eight years has she grown to know her blood family closely). She uses her traditional English-language-based education at the Institute of American Indian Arts and now her graduate study at the University of Maine as a subversive attack on the dominant paradigm. “Now I can go back in and create that friction [within English] and create a stopping point where someone can pick up the writing and think, ‘Maybe English is not the only tool, maybe there’s other ways of thinking, maybe there’s an Inuit sensibility that readers know nothing about.’”

okpik describes herself as a hollow bone through which the stories come. Though her language in conversation—and on the page—is full of beauty, she realizes the world is not all beautiful; it is a common misconception of the Native worldview that since it is so tied to nature, it must be beautiful. She references the Glyptapanteles wasp, which lays eggs inside a caterpillar. As the eggs mature, the larvae feed on the bodily fluids of the caterpillar until the caterpillar is finally consumed from the inside and the baby wasps emerge.

“By talking about beautiful things, indigenous people play into a stereotype,” okpik says. “We also don’t have to be an oppressed, post-colonial ‘poor me’—we don’t have to define ourselves; we don’t have to fight that fight.” okpik instead focuses on language and connection with the reader.

“It’s a misnomer that we rub noses,” she says of her people. “We touch our foreheads and noses and breathe the other’s spirit. That’s what I want the reader to come away with.”



SANTA FE INDIAN SCHOOL SPOKEN WORD POETRY TEAM

Though most indigenous cultures have a purely spoken storytelling tradition, many are still surprised when they encounter outspoken Native American writers. Many traditional stories and much ancient wisdom is highly treasured and kept under mental lock and key within a tribe; to openly share stories and poetry in a theatrical, passionate way is not the norm. The students of Santa Fe Indian School break that mold every day.

Teacher Tim McLaughlin founded the poetry club seven years ago, when he first started teaching English and bringing creative writing into the forefront at SFIS. He came from teaching creative writing at the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota, where he saw Native students bursting with stories and poems. Upon his arrival at the SFIS, he knew he could both give the students a release for their stories and teach them something academic about writing.

At first, he says, “there was a lot of resistance from the student body. Because, by stereotype, Native kids are reserved and not inclined to do this sort of thing—to get on a microphone and perform their work aloud. [But I] really felt there was something there that was valuable in the kids’ words and their stories.”

His persistence paid off. After starting the creative writing program with two students and two teachers, the program has swelled to nearly 150 students. The spoken word club has reached 25 students in the past, but McLaughlin finds it’s at its strongest at its current size of approximately 10 students.

Around Santa Fe, the team—which is made up mostly of high school juniors and seniors—is well-known and respected in traditional poetry and slam poetry worlds alike. In addition, the group’s popularity extends across the country and around the world. The team participated in the Brave New Voices poetry festival in Chicago in June as the country’s only all-Native poetry team. Last November, the team traveled to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on a tour aimed at promoting American Indian poetry and literature in Eastern Europe.

That the students are performing at such a groundbreaking event as (Re)presentation may come as a surprise—until you’ve seen them perform.

“In general the kids are not really youth writers—they’re writers outright,” McLaughlin says of the students, who not only craft beautiful pieces of poetry, but sell them to the audience like pros. “The kids are like modern storytellers. They’re tapping into ancient traditions and philosophies and perspectives, and then presenting them in a format that’s more modern.”

McLaughlin urges his students to work hard on the page before they even step up to the mic. Much spoken word poetry, a style that has grown quickly in the US in the last few decades (Albuquerque just appointed the first-ever slam poet laureate), has “become a little too formulaic,” McLaughlin says. “You hear a lot of the same pattern: two volumes, one screaming and one whispering, and one basic cadence and a couple of pitches. It’s like a person banging on a piano with a couple of notes at their disposal.” But when a poet focuses on the words on the page, a truly unique passion can come from that intricate expression.

“The kids are working hard on how to craft a piece of writing that works and that can communicate, and they learn how to go through multiple drafts and really invest themselves in a piece of writing,” McLaughlin says. “The way we run the team, it’s really about how you live. The kids are speaking these poems that to me are, in many cases, blessings and prayers and have a very spiritual base to them. And so I challenge the kids to live in the ways that their poems are dictating.”  SFR


 

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