My Father's Song

by Simon Ortiz

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Historical Context

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Native-American History: 1960s–1970s
During the late 1960s and early 1970s in America many oppressed groups, including African Americans and women, protested economic and social inequality and demanded greater representation. This was a time of idealism and youthful enthusiasm, when a just future for all seemed possible. By the mid-1970s, Americans had developed a hardened cynicism, born from their failure in Vietnam and the debacle of Watergate.

Around the time when Ortiz was writing the poems that appeared in Going for the Rain (1976), Native Americans were rebelling against centuries of oppression by the United States government. Then, as now, most Native Americans lived on impoverished reservations, their land and many of their traditions taken from over a few hundred years by European colonizers. In 1969, a group of Native- American activists occupied vacant Alcatraz Island, off the coast of San Francisco, for eighteen months. The group demanded that a cultural and educational center for Native Americans be built on Alcatraz, formerly the site of a federal prison.

In 1972, another group of activists led a march to Washington, D.C., to publicize the numerous treaties between the United States government and various Native-American tribes that had been broken. They called this march “The Trail of Broken Treaties,” alluding to the forced migration of the Cherokee Indians from the eastern United States in 1838–1939 called “The Trail of Tears.” Once in Washington, they occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a week.

A more radical group of activists, the American Indian Movement, seized the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 to protest the collusion between the government and what they claimed was a corrupt tribal leadership. The federal government agreed to negotiate with the Indians after 71 days, but they refused to reopen treaty negotiations. Two AIM leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, were arrested and indicted for their part in the siege. These actions gave Native Americans across the country courage to battle the federal government, and many tribes took the federal government to court in an attempt to reclaim land and demand enforcement of treaties. The Sioux, for example, sued to reclaim 1.3 million acres of land in Black Hills, South Dakota, and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine won a $37 million dollar settlement from the United States government.

Native American Publishing
In the 1960s and 1970s, many Native-American authors published their writing to public acclaim. Kiowa Indian N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. In 1971, Ortiz published a chapbook of poems, Naked in the Wind, followed by Going for the Rain (1976), and A Good Journey (1977). This was also the year that Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko published her startling first novel, Ceremony. Other important novels of this period include Blackfeet Indian James Welch’s Winter in the Blood (1974) and Riding the Earthboy 40 (1976).

Over the next few decades, numerous Native- American poets and fiction writers gained an audience for their writing. Some of the most important include poets Joy Harjo, a Muskogee Creek; Adrian Louis, a member of the Paiute tribe; and much-lauded novelist Sherman Alexie, a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Writing in the late 1980s in I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, Ortiz himself notes:

It has been only a little more than twenty years since Indian writers began to write and publish extensively, but we are writing and publishing more and more; we can only go forward. . . . we persist and insist in living, believing, hoping, loving, speaking, and writing as Indians.

Literary Style

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“My Father’s Song” takes the shape of a...

(This entire section contains 174 words.)

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simple first person childhood memory story. It is structured into five stanzas of varying length. The syntax is conversational, with the punctuation simply marking pauses and stops.

The poem is framed by the first two lines, “Wanting to say things, / I miss my father tonight,” and the concluding stanza, which begins “I remember. . .” and ends with “and my father saying things.” In between are memories, each stanza bringing the memory to a solid physical reality of “the soft damp sand,” “the soft moist sand,” and “a sand moist clod.”

In the first stanza, there is the physical memory of the voice moving out of his father’s “thin chest.” The second stanza is the memory of the specific activity of planting corn. The memory deepens in the third stanza, with the discovery of a nest of mice. The fourth stanza focuses the memory more closely by the appearance of the “tiny pink animals.” The final stanza connects this memory back to the father’s voice.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: The Indian unemployment rate is 10 times the national average, and 40 percent of the Native- American population live below the poverty line.

Today: Half the total Native-American workforce remains unemployed, and nearly one-third live in poverty compared to 13 percent of the total U.S. population.

1970s: Native-American life expectancy is just 44 years, a third less than that of the average American.

Today: Life expectancy for Native Americans remains virtually unchanged.

1970s: The American Indian Movement leads urban Indians, traditionalists, and young Indians along the “Trail of Broken Treaties’’ to Washington, D.C., seizes the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and occupies them for a week in order to dramatize Indian grievances.

Today: Most Native Americans maintain an uneasy relationship with the BIA, which is responsible for managing Indian affairs, claiming that the BIA restricts their freedom and continues to demonstrate a paternalistic attitude towards Native Americans.

Media Adaptations

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In 1993, Audio Literature of Berkeley, California, released A Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians, an audiocassette of Ortiz and Joy Harjo reading from their work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Baxter, Andrea-Bess, Review of “Woven Stone,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, August 1993, pp. 162–63.

Bruchac, Joseph, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 211–29.

Coltelli, Laura, “Simon Ortiz,” in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, University of Nebraska Press, 1990, p. 104.

Gingerich, Willard, “The Old Voices of Acoma: Simon Ortiz’s Mythic Indigenism,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter 1979, pp. 18–30.

Hobson, Geary, Review of “A Good Journey,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, May 1979, pp. 87–89.

Jaffe, Harold, “Speaking Memory,” in Nation, Vol. 234, No. 13, April 3, 1982, pp. 406–08.

Kroeber, Karl, Review of “Howbah Indians,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 3, November 1978, pp. 280–81.

Kuzma, Greg, “The Catastrophe of Creative Writing,” in Poetry, No. 148, 1986, p. 349.

Meredith, Howard, Book Reviews, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer 1998, p. 665.

Ortiz, Simon, Going for the Rain, Harper & Row, 1976.

Ortiz, Simon, ed., Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing, University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Peters, Robert, Hunting the Snark, Paragon House, 1989.

Schein, Marie M., “Simon Ortiz,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets Since World War II, Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 231–34.

Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds., I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, University of Nebraska Press, 1987, pp. 185–94.

Further Reading
Allen, Paula Gunn, ed., Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, Modern Language Association of America, 1983. Allen offers not only insightful essays on Native- American writers but suggestions on how to design courses in Native-American literature. Sample syllabi are included.

Niatum, Duane, ed., Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, Harper, 1988. This collection contains more than 350 pages of poetry from some of the leading voices in Native- American poetry, including that of Ortiz.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, New Press, 1996. This engaging collection of documents chronicles the turbulent years from 1969, when members of the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island, to 1973, when AIM sympathizers held off federal agents for eight weeks at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Wiget, Andrew, Simon Ortiz, Boise State University Press, 1986. Wiget’s critical biography is indispensable for scholars of Ortiz’s writing. Wiget’s accessible study makes connections between Ortiz’s life and work, while providing intelligent readings of individual stories and poems.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide