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Paschen joins In Na Po ‘Language Back’ initiative

Indigenous Nations Poets is one Indigenous-led writing organization helping to reclaim Native tribal languages for writers, and all those who love to read

At the Kansas City Public Library, Osage poet Elise Paschen addressed writers of all backgrounds at a crowd of hundreds gathered for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. In an address and panel that drew attention to the Osage language, she spoke about the greater nationwide phenomenon of Indigenous language revitalization.

“Our Indigenous languages connect us to each other, and to the more-than-human world that surrounds us,” she said, and described a possible future in which we all thrive together through working to expand traditional knowledge and share this knowledge with the larger world, via language.

In the panel, which celebrated the Indigenous Nations Poets (In Na Po) “Language Back” initiative, Paschen told the diverse crowd about the 36-character orthography developed by Dr. Herman “Mogri” Lookout in 2004.

“Dedicated to Osage sounds, and inspired by the English alphabet, which we used to transcribe our language …” Paschen said, describing some of the ways that “orthography is sovereignty,” then speaking of her mother Maria Tallchief, Woman of Two Worlds, whose name 𐓏𐒰𐓐𐒿𐒷-𐓍𐓂͘𐓄𐒰 is now featured on the U.S. Mint’s quarter.

Paschen is a poet inspired by the past, the dream life, the unconscious, and the linguistic imagination of Osage generations before, she said and is writing poems incorporating Wahzhazhe ie words with the help of the Osage Nation Language Department.

Anishinaabe poet and In Na Po founder Kimberly Blaeser of the White Earth Nation spoke after Paschen, followed by fellow Anishinaabe Heid E. Erdrich of Turtle Mountain, and Diné poet (Navajo Nation) Jake Skeets. The poets discussed context for the historical reality of stolen languages and noted that Indigenous languages were forbidden to be spoken, were outlawed via banning of the ceremonies in which they were spoken and “language was not only stolen, but killed,” said Blaeser, using the term “linguicide.”

From left, Jake Skeets, Elise Paschen, Kimberly Blaeser and Heid Erdrich at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Kansas City. Courtesy Photo

Learning Indigenous languages for everyday use

Linguicide is “to take languages from Indigenous nations,” said Blaeser, describing an effort that Paschen is part of, in which Indigenous poets’ efforts to heal and restore their ancestral languages so they may be used again—and not only in prayers or limited contexts such as language classes or curriculum, but in literature, publications, and in everyday life.

Expanding language out of limited contexts—such as the language classroom or homework—is one area in which oppressed and minority languages can benefit from growth, according to the work of Dr. Kimberly Adilia Helmer of the University of Santa Cruz, and numerous other applied linguists on whose work hers builds. Organizations such as In Na Po are helping Native writers break through resistance to use their disinherited Indigenous languages, whose reluctance relates to wider issues such as the undervaluation of Indigenous languages in the U.S. broadly, as well as the English-first attitudes characterizing most tribal communities.

“It is not a moral failing that we don’t know our languages. It is because of linguicide that we don’t know our languages,” said Blaeser at another AWP event later that week. 

Paschen moderated the event, asking her three fellow poets about their efforts and challenges around writing in their languages. The panel noted that 2022 through 2033 is the International Decade of Indigenous Languages and poetry is a vehicle to both learn and teach Indigenous languages, which can provide incentive for others to begin studying their language, particularly if they enjoy reading poetry.

“Our efforts at Indigenous Nations Poets, combined with efforts around the world, are to return the autonomy of Indigenous people. To return our sovereignty. To speak, read, sing our languages,” said Blaeser. “We are giving back the languages.”

Erdrich expressed a common sentiment among tribal learners—that she is “just not a good language learner”—but mentioned she had a four-year-old relative who could speak the language, which is a point of encouragement for the language, broadly. Erdrich’s first language teacher counseled her that the language is alive and can be learned, but asked what the poet would do with it. Additionally, the teacher said that they would teach her only if Erdrich promised to do things for the language. This opened up Erdrich to thinking of areas of contribution that did not center around actual language usage but could uplift or expand opportunities for other language learners. Even if she is not pursuing proficiency herself, she said she has been able to sing and enjoy songs and will help others: “I can’t write the way I would like to in the language,” said Erdrich, “But I can work with language learners.”

Osage poet Elise Paschen speaks at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Kansas City. Courtesy Photo

Along with her sister, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louise Erdrich, Heid published the first mono-language books in Anishinaabe for the language. “They aren’t for now, they’re for the future,” she said. 

Skeets said that despite the relative strength of his own language, Diné Bizaad, he is not a fluent speaker either so it’s a strenuous process for him to write poems that incorporate his language but he is nonetheless trying. “I have been taking classes in Diné since I was a baby,” said Skeets, who said that as a result he knows his colors, numbers, and his tribal introduction very well, but he cannot speak beyond the curriculum area that his schooling emphasized. Even today, Skeets cannot converse in Diné. “That is the curriculum I had back home,” he said, “and it’s only until recently that I began the sort of work in trying to locate Diné within my poetry.”

With the help of his partner, who is fluent, Skeet is working to write in this language as a form of study, sharing with others, supporting the language, and expanding domains of usage beyond that of curriculum. In this arduous process, he said that oftentimes when he is trying to translate his poems, his partner might say, “it doesn’t make sense,” or “you need to be more specific. Where in time is this? You are speaking to who?” In considering these questions, which reform his sense of language in Diné, Skeets is beginning to develop a contemporary Diné poetics, and assisting the movement of Indigenous language reclamation alongside his peers.

As moderator, Paschen did not need to answer her own questions but helped Osage poets in the audience as well as other Natives who are getting their lay of the land of the Indigenous language creative writing sector of literary publishing, a new and developing field which may include more and more Wahzhazhe ie writing, as sovereign time, effort and various approaches to creative production strengthen the language.


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Chelsea T. Hicks
Chelsea T. Hicks
Title: Staff Reporter
Languages spoken: English
Chelsea T. Hicks’ past reporting includes work for Indian Country Today, SF Weekly, the DCist, the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Connection Newspapers, Aviation Today, Runway Girl Network, and elsewhere. She has also written for literary outlets such as the Paris Review, Poetry, and World Literature Today. She is Wahzhazhe, of Pawhuska District, belonging to the Tsizho Washtake, and is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Cyprian Tayrien, Rosalie Captain Chouteau, Chief Pawhuska I, and her iko Betty Elsey Hicks. Her first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, won the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. She holds an MA from the University of California, Davis, and an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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