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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


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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