This National Poetry Month, readers may be more attuned than ever to Native American voices, as indigenous poets enjoy a long-awaited period of renewed recognition. In June, the Library of Congress appointed Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as U.S. poet laureate. Harjo is the author of 14 books of poetry including, most recently, An American Sunrise (Norton), and she edited the forthcoming When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (Norton, Aug.), a survey of more than 160 poets from nearly 100 Native American nations, with work dating back centuries.
Harjo’s laureateship comes on the heels of Lakota tribe member Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (Graywolf), a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and a finalist for the National Book Award, and seems to promise more public attention to Native concerns. Recalling hearing news of Harjo’s appointment, Long Soldier says, “I think I cried three times that day. It felt like a big vista opened up for all of us.”
Poets from diverse Native backgrounds agree, while also pointing to the danger in having a cultural moment. “Of course, the fear of having a moment is that it’s ephemeral,” says Feed author Tommy Pico, a member of the Kumeyaay nation. “If our work is du jour, how much are readers really invested?”
A renaissance old and new
The years from the end of the 1960s to the early ’80s saw a flowering in the national visibility of Native poetic voices, with Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, and Simon Ortiz among those published by major houses of the era. But a drought seemed to follow, says Ojibwe poet Heid E. Erdrich, who edited the anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf). The explanation, she says, is simple: “Publishers were saying, ‘We’ve already got our Native poets.’ ” Concurrently, poets with tenuous connections to Native heritage, whom she calls “faux-skinned” and of “the Gary Snyder school,” claimed space and satisfied publishers with a brand of spirituality to which Native poets were expected to conform.
But a series of underground efforts sought to promote and support less prominent writers and Native poets whose work did not fit the stereotypes. “Really, you could almost call it a movement,” says Erdrich, who is acknowledged by other Native poets as influential in such efforts and whose endeavors continue. For Native Nations, she asked featured poets to spotlight other writers in their contributor’s notes.
In many Native cultures, Erdrich explains, it’s almost a requirement that one not put oneself too far above others; saying who you come from, who else is part of you, is de rigueur. “It’s platform building by necessity,” she adds.
Long Soldier agrees. “We’re still working with a landscape where the American mind associates Native writers with a particular kind of writing,” she says. “People often come to the work of Native writers as a form of cultural excavation, mining, rather than coming to it to appreciate the art form itself.”
In speaking with Native poets, that narrative of community support recurs. Graywolf executive editor Jeff Shotts contacted Long Soldier after reading one of her poems online, which led to Graywolf’s eventual release of Whereas. Cedar Sigo and Tommy Pico were approached by their first publishers after readings. Friends of Natalie Diaz sent some of her poems to Copper Canyon without her knowledge; the press released her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, in 2012. (See PW’s q&a with Diaz, “Broken and Beautiful.”)
Jason Grundstrom-Whitney, a Passamaquoddy poet whose debut collection, Bear, Coyote, Raven (Resolute Bear), features cosmic trickster figures from Native storytelling, tells a similar story. Although an experienced musical performer, he hesitated to promote his poetry. “I would write in the morning, and poet friends urged me to send it out,” he says. “I was daunted by the process. Then Valerie Lawson and Michael Brown [of Resolute Bear] heard me read and said, ‘We’ve got to do his book.’ ” The collection’s use of white space mirrors the deserts of the Southwest where Grundstrom-Whitney spent time among members of various nations, while its rhythms, he says, reflect that “drumbeat is part of the heart—at Native gatherings you hear it.”
Lawson says the location of Resolute Bear, a small press in Robbinston, Maine, informs its mission. “We’re just across the bay from Canada. Tribal lands overlap the U.S. and Canada, and all are sovereign territories. Thinking about borders, boundaries, and sharing the same space and heritage pushed us to put together 3 Nations Anthology: Native, Canadian & New England Writers in 2017. Along the way, I discovered the richness, and relative scarcity, of indigenous writings in the region. It feels like we didn’t find this road, but it was made for us.”
Many Native poets stress the importance of curiosity and collaboration on the part of allies. Such support can be seen at such spaces as Santa Fe, N.Mex.’s Institute of American Indian Arts, which since its founding in 1962 has centered Native values as part of its mission while maintaining a non-native presence among its faculty and student population. Given the 566 Native nations in the U.S., IAIA prioritizes a recognition of the multiplicity and complexity of Native experience, which ranges from rural to urban. As Erdrich points out, many Americans are unaware that the vast majority of Native Americans don’t live on reservations.
Chip Livingston, a poet and short story writer from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, lives in Uruguay and teaches in IAIA’s popular low-residency MFA program. “Sometimes visitors or students from the dominant culture are for the first time not in the majority,” he says of the culture at IAIA. “I think that’s a good feeling for everyone, and especially helpful for conscientious writers.”
Themes in Livingston’s work include southeastern Indians, gay sex, world politics, and life in North and South America, evincing a typically multivalent Native existence and the complexities of Native heritage. “Although I’m mixed blood, I physically appear very Anglo/gringo,” he says, “and my life experience has included being afforded a lot of white male privilege based on my appearance and other people’s assumptions about that appearance.”
Part of the appeal of IAIA, and other institutions such as Diné College, in Arizona, the first tribally controlled and accredited collegiate institution in the U.S., is a freedom from performing Native stereotypes. “At IAIA we have a particular kind of radar: an alertness to tropes,” Long Soldier says. “There’s a kind of lexicon that’s familiar to Native writing, and we can talk about that: we can say, this feels very familiar—so what can we do to tilt this a bit or refresh it?”
Apocalypse then and now
One trope Native poets feel wary of is the visceral connection to landscape, which has often been reduced by a colonizing gaze into a savage or unsophisticated trait—a fate the English pastoral tradition avoided, Erdrich says. While eco-poetics may be fashionable given contemporary awareness of environmental crisis, the mainstream is playing a game of catchup compared with Native poets.
“The apocalypse was in 1492 for us,” Pico says. “So, who better to look to than to those who have survived their own end of days? There’s a resilience there that I think and hope people want to listen to.”
Pico’s Feed (Tin House) implicitly acknowledges the hazards of nature writing for a Native poet. He built the collection around a commission for work that could accompany a walk through Manhattan’s High Line park, and section breaks correspond to the appearances of the garden’s prominent plants.
“With [2017’s] Nature Poem, I was so aware of and grappling with how I was being read and interpreted,” Pico says, “and then all these white ladies would be on my Facebook wall posting a picture of a redwood forest—like, thanks? Completely counter to the message. Which wasn’t even subtextual. But Feed says: read me however you want to. This isn’t going to trouble me at night.”
Pico’s newfound acceptance is evident in Feed’s joyful sense of wordplay and humor, which he credits to his immediate family and also to the clowning insults on the Viejas reservation of his childhood, both of which, he says, “fermented” his trademark gallows humor.
Similarly, the wit and wordplay in Erdrich’s Little Big Bully (Penguin Books, Oct.) is informed by Ojibwe, which she calls a “language of verbs,” while the poem’s speakers erase false divisions between personal and political concerns. Embracing a level of vulnerability new in her work, the collection “is about the mechanisms we internalize that allow us to be in abusive situations and to fight through abuse,” she says. “I think of us all as abused, in some way, by a colonial system we’re all still struggling with, so I hope it’s a ladder for folks to see a way out of a bad spot.” Poems such as “If I Gave You a Last Lesson” express concerns about the environment with the same urgency as they share personal histories, asking, Erdrich says, “how to live with the hurt of being human.”
It’s a pain that Grundstrom-Whitney feels keenly. “I feel hurt when I see our Earth disrespected in such a way,” says the poet, who, in “Thin White Bears,” has ursine voices speak directly to humanity about the catastrophic damage to their habitat. “This theme is a primary focus for me; I’m an activist with water rights, and it’s active in my writing. I can’t understand: what are we thinking?”
Yet many Native poets share a sense of optimism as barriers continue to be broken. Erdrich cites a recent study finding that while most Americans do not know any Native Americans well, seeing relatable, modern depictions can foster understanding. Those seeking an introduction will find it in the poetic speech of more than 500 indigenous nations.
Jerome Ellison Murphy is a poet and critic in New York City.
Below, more on poetry books.
Broken and Beautiful: PW talks with Natalie Diaz
In ‘Postcolonial Love Poem,’ Diaz reinvents narratives of desire while exploring the history of violence against Native Americans.
Native Tongues: Poetry 2020
New and forthcoming books give voice to a variety of indigenous experiences.
National Poetry Month and the Coronavirus: Poetry 2020
As events across the country are canceled and book launches postponed, a community supports its poets.