Culture , Columns

The Beauty of Native Voices

Osages are well represented in Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations, an anthology published by Tupelo Press this year. Esteemed Osage poet Carter Revard wrote an introduction to the volume that includes 44 indigenous poets ranging from Craig Santos Perez (Chamoru) to dg nanouk okpik (Inupiaq-Innuit) and includes poets living in Japan like Michael Wasson (Nimíipuu) and Uruguay as Chip Livingston (Mvskoke) does.  

Editors CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader invited poets to share the poems that influenced them and to write an essay describing their development as a poet. Osage poet Elise Paschen describes her journey that includes writing a doctoral dissertation on William Butler Yeats and her relationship with Mvskoke poet Joy Harjo and Harjo’s well-known poem “She Had Some Horses.” For me, more a prose writer than a poet at heart, the essay offered a chance to talk about Carter Revard’s generosity and inspiration, the richness of his vision and the importance of mentors, those who welcome a new writer.

In late April, I attended Get Lit! a literary festival in Spokane to be part of a panel of indigenous women poets included in Native Voices. Laura Da’ an Eastern Shawnee poet living in Washington state, spoke eloquently of her time as a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1997, when classes were held in a listing portable. For Da’, who was 17 at the time, it was a first exposure to the long indigenous literary history that grounded her as she faced the Western literary tradition and experienced the complicated relationship of a colonized people to the dominant culture’s version of history. I suspect many of us have had the experience of standing outside the school’s curriculum, of carrying the full context of the history being taught.

Native Voices includes foundational Native poets like Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) as well as recent graduates from the Institute of American Indian Arts like Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger (Sicangu Lakota) and Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp (Ohlone (Costanoan-Rumsen Carmel Band).

Even at 521 pages, Native Voices is only a portion of Native poetry. Heid E. Erdrich (Ojibwe and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) edited New Poets of Native Nations, an anthology focused on indigenous poets whose first book was published after 2000. Some of the 21 poets, like Laura Da’ and LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), are included in both volumes, but New Poets also includes Natalie Diaz (Mojave) and Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay Nation) among others. In addition to holding up a new generation of poets, Erdrich sponsored a scholarship to the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference with Graywolf Press for an indigenous woman that I was privileged to receive.

When I think of the Norton Anthology and the other fat volumes we read in school that had little if any indigenous writing, and how the Native texts included were categorized as myth, it’s a good feeling to consider these compilations of such beauty and depth.

In late March, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) held their annual conference. Over 13,000 authors, creative writing students and teachers, editors and booksellers came to Portland, Oregon. Writers streamed in long lines from one end of the Oregon Convention Center to the other, walking through underground corridors like miners passing each other. In the face of so many people, each dedicated to expressing themselves and getting their work published, I felt the sheer number of writers seeking publication.  

What makes AWP worth the overstimulation of so many writers, so many presses, so many panels—each of which you want to see—is the chance to see friends.

Fellow writers, first readers, writers whose work you admire and who inspire you are what make the work possible.  Although creating first drafts, envisioning a story or a poem is solitary work, bringing it into the world is a community effort.

Being a writer gives you a chance to deal with perfectionism and competitiveness, with rejection and disappointment. As challenging as writing can be, the joy I feel at hearing or reading good work convinces me I’m a writer at heart. At AWP I sat with two dear Native friends, listening to Debra Earling (Bitterroot Salish), author of Perma Red, an American Book Award winner, read a visceral and brutal scene from her novel-in-progress, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea. Then, award-winning author Eden Robinson (Haisla/Heiltsuk) read from her Trickster Trilogy set in Kitamaat, BC. The power of these Native women talking and laughing was palpable. The richness of these strong scenes sent me back to the page ready to create something equally beautiful.

Being a writer, an artist means celebrating beauty. Seeing photos of Osage artist Yatika Fields’ residency at Crow Shadow on Umatilla land in eastern Oregon reminded me of a workshop I had there with Crow artist Wendy Red Star and the star-quilted shawl we made together.

The writer’s life is full of challenges but Osages and other indigenous folks are determined and prepared. I think of esteemed Caddo potter Jeri Redcorn who recently used a red arrow to indicate an area in a pile of rubble that remained after a tornado struck the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Alto, Texas during the annual Caddo Festival. “This is where we were buried,” Redcorn wrote simply.

We call on generations of strength and perseverance. We say Washko^.

Find a copy of Native Voices at www.tupelopress.org ($29.95) and New Poets of Native Nations at www.grawywolfpress.org ($18.00) and ask your local library to purchase a copy.