Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ortiz is a storyteller, a fact to which he alludes in the second stanza: “Once, in a story, I wrote that Indians are everywhere.” His travels in the South attempt to prove that Indians do indeed live in every part of the United States and thus debunk the popular “vanishing Indian” stereotype. Growing up in the oral tradition, his commitment to the Acoma tribe is strong. He believes that culture survives because of the story, which in turn generates poetry that tells the life of the people. Yet as a young man he was struck as if by a revelation by the writings of the Beat generation. He recalls being overly impressed by Jack Kerouac’s prose. Indeed, many of Kerouac’s themes are echoed in “Travels in the South”: a focus on struggling people, a search for identity, and an on-the-road experience that ultimately exposes America’s rough edges and dark underside.

These motifs are repeated in his books of poems published after Going for the Rain, especially A Good Journey (1977) and Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, for the Sake of the Land (1981). His poetic works chronicle “red power” activism and an awareness of the extended problems created by society’s decimation of American Indian lands. Ortiz’s poetic vision is clear in this early poem: Society’s caretakers of the land, the park rangers in Texas and Florida, lack a basic understanding of its history and significance. This deficit is highlighted further in the second stanza when the narrator meets Chief McGee, who shows him his garden and fields. Speaking of the white oppressors, Chief McGee says, “There ain’t much they don’t try to take.” In the final stanza of the poem, the traveler pays $2.50 to enter the space once owned by his people, a painful and ironic commentary on how successful white society has been in their greedy quest for land.

“Travels in the South” offers readers a series of images that illustrate how one man can feel like an outsider in his homeland. Ortiz cleverly contrasts the deep spirituality of the Acoma tradition with the shallow surface of contemporary society. Pueblo oral tradition includes stories, advice, and counsel, the priceless legacy the narrator inherits from his elders and, in effect, passes on to the readers.