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Native American Poets: A Selected Survey
~Natalie S. Brown
Who are your favorite poets? How many Native
authors are on that list? This overview is by no
means comprehensive, but rather a mere
sampling of the handful of Native poets whose
work I’ve been getting lost in this past year. Here
is a brief taste of what captivated me about
Sherman Alexie, Spokane-Coeur d’Alene, The Business of Fancydancing, 1992
As with his other forms of writing, Alexie’s poetry does not hold back. In Traveling, he states definitively that “being Indian is illegal” during a bit of dialogue between two men as they contemplate the possibility of being stopped by police. 13/16 is a poignant poem about the painful math of blood quantum and its significance. In Indian Boy Love Song (#2), Alexie explores the pain of urban Natives who have not had the opportunity to learn their ancestral languages, while Reservation Love Song is a tongue-in-cheek description of romance on the rez. While some might find When I Die to be grim, I found the matter of fact instructions regarding distributing possessions to those in the community most in need to be a refreshing change of pace from White culture’s reticence to acknowledge mortality. Poetry will likely not be what Alexie is remembered for, but this collection is certainly worth adding to your collection.
Jimmy Santiago Baca, Apache and Chicano, Black Mesa Poems, 1986
Living in Arizona, New Mexico is often my go-to destination for brief road trips and escapes from my daily routine. Over the years, I have enjoyed exploring much of the state, and Baca’s words often brought back happy memories from that region. Green Chile had my mouth predictably watering, but with the added dimension of a green chile taking on masculine energy and sensual characteristics in the hands of a grandmother preparing a meal. Family Ties was relatable as it recounted a man’s need to wander off with his family of choice (spouse, children) to quietly experience nature when he felt out of place and unwelcome at a larger gathering of family of origin, with all the drama that that can sometimes involve. Picking Piñons is a wonderfully descriptive poem that upon reading one feels instantly more connected to the earth. For BJ is a tender description of decades-long love endearing after one’s partner sustains a debilitating stroke. It is evocative of the type of long-term relationship we all crave and aspire to. Baca does also take on challenging topics as well. Both Invasions and Black Mesa juxtapose the cruel history of colonialism with the beauty of the land now known as New Mexico, while Perfecto Flores analyzes the systemic injustice of underpaid laborers in the lands of the wealthy.
Louise Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band, Chippewa, Jacklight, 1984
Erdrich’s lyrical writing includes such phrases as “The Waleski approached with a swiftness uncommon for one of her age…. Even spiders spun clear on her lengthening shadow.” Both The Butcher’s Wife and To Otto, In Forgetfulness illustrate the daily joys and struggles of a woman married to a man most perceive as rough. “Dogs live well in the house of a butcher, and we love them” is just one of the lines that shows the tenderness of that reality.
Joy Harjo, Muscogee, In Mad Love and War 1990 and The Woman Who Fell From The Sky, 1996
A few of the poems in Harjo’s In Mad Love and War spoke to me as a desert dweller, particularly Day of the Dead and Javelina. In the latter, she writes about having “entered a land where a drink of water is a way to pray” and references prickly pear – a staple in my chosen homeland. Fury of Rain is also relatable as it examines Thunder beings with reverence and fear.
Harjo invites her readers to glimpse her culture’s teachings with Original Memory, which hints at the significance of Rabbit as Trickster through explorations of love, doubt, and concepts of time.
I love jazz and blues music and am a huge Billie Holiday fan, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not one but two of Harjo’s poems in this collection paid homage to her: Strange Fruit and Rainy Night.
Several of Harjo’s poems struck deep emotional notes with just a few words. Deer Dancer speaks directly to Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in ways that will surely cause anyone familiar with her story to choke up. Among those lines: “Everything and nothing changes.” Grace simply states, “We had nothing to lose – and lost it anyway.” Mercy highlights the absurdity of war with the powerful declaration, “I won’t pour rifle shot through the guts of someone I’m told is my enemy.” The ugly, often ignored history of colonialism throughout the western hemisphere is laid bare with unambiguous language: where bloodstains have already soaked through to the bottom of the Caribbean.”
Six years later, Harjo’s The Woman Who Fell From the Sky offers more wisdom to reflect on. In A Postcolonial Tale, we learn that “poet is synonymous with truth-teller” – a powerful thought indeed. Various poems in this collection provide insight into the importance in Muscogee culture of crows, blackbirds, and snakes.
Perhaps especially because I am myself in the midst of a move, out of a house I have loved living in for the past several years during a major time of transition in my life, I was struck by The Song of the House in the House, in which Harjo reflects that “We don’t just live in a house, but with it. The houses and rooms in which we live and lived stay with us. Hopes and dreams are buried in them, as are cries of love and bruises of violence. If a particular house or room is crucial to our understand love, that place too grows attached to us, misses us.” Similarly, in Perhaps the World Ends Here, we find these universal truths: “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. … Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Some of Harjo’s poems reflect on Creator and the process of Creation. In Reconciliation: A Prayer she states that we “were put here by a god who wanted relatives. This god was lonely for touch … This god who grew to love us became our lover, sharing tables of food enough for everyone in this whole world.” In The Creation Story we read, “I am not afraid of love or its consequence of light.”
Witness includes powerful lines such as, “The Indian Wars never ended in this country.” Describing an encounter with police, Harjo writes, “They cited her for weaving! (She came from a family renowned for weaving.)”
Roberta Hill Whiteman, Oneida, Star Quilt, 2001
Having lived most of my life in Arizona, never far from coyotes’ roaming grounds, I connected with Roberta Will Whiteman’s The Recognition, in which she provides a descriptive account of encountering one of these captivating creatures.
Music for Two Guitars is a beautiful love poem. “You have robbed my hesitation and distrust. You have taken my fears and wrapped them in fires. Full of possibilities, I cannot name what rings me. Bell or empty bowl? Guitars on the verge of song.”
Other poems of hers revolve around longing, including A Song for What Never Arrives and Reaching New Town, N.D. Who among us, at one point in our lives, has not been able to relate?
Admittedly, none of these are recent publications. What emerging authors are you reading now? Whom should we add to our bookcases? What are you writing? Would you be so kind as to share your work – and recommendations – with us? (We compensate our poets and will publish our next issue on January 1, with a December 1 deadline to submit your work to email@example.com .