Oral traditions of the South American Indian

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The categories of verbal arts among peoples with oral cultures are not always the same as genres in written literatures. The English category of “verse,” for example, has no counterpart in many North American Indian literatures. Speakers of indigenous languages may say, “We have no poetry in our language,” meaning that spoken, metered verbal artifacts are not composed; the same languages may, however, have a highly developed song tradition, which will be recognized as comparable to the European concept of lyric. For example, the O’odham (Papago) of southern Arizona maintain that “poetry” as it is defined in English does not exist in their language, but they have many songs. Moreover, songs belong to a special category of verbal production; they are composed in a unique language used only for songs, and special composition processes and performance requirements go along with the production of songs. The following Papago song illustrates some of these characteristics:

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In the great night my heart will go out.Towards me the darkness comes rattling,In the great night my heart will go out.

The words and music were not consciously composed by the song’s “owner” but were received in a dream from a person who had died. “Song dreaming” is a feature of traditional Papago literary composition. The function of the song, as part of a ritual intended to heal the sick and prevent death, is also characteristic of many oral poetic traditions.

Lyric poetry

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In Native American Literature (1985), Andrew Wiget identified two major types of American Indian poetry: lyric poetry and ritual poetry. Lyric poetry, while it may have ritual or religious subject matter, is personal, expressive, and often highly emotional. Although composers and their audiences would be likely to divide songs into very different categories, non-Indian readers of translated lyrics may recognize familiar classifications such as love songs, elegies for grief, or lyrics of exultation and boastfulness. An elegy translated from Tlingit, a language spoken in coastal British Columbia, is by a woman whose brothers were drowned; it alludes to the place and manner of their death as she expresses the grieving emotions of sorrow, denial, and despair: “Your reef has beaten me, Kagwantan’s children./ But take pity on me.”

Not all lyrics are tied so closely to personal experience or emotion. Like other peoples, Native Americans have a large store of songs identified with various functions of daily living. Some recognizable categories are work songs, such as corn-grinding songs or rowing songs (which accompany the carrying out of repetitious tasks), lullabies, hunting songs, and gambling and game songs, such as the many songs still being composed to accompany the widespread hand game. Numerous traditional corn-grinding songs, some very old, are part of the literatures of the agricultural peoples of the Southwest. This corn-grinding song from the pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico, has characteristic forms and devices:

I-o-ho, wonder-water,I-o-ho, wonder water,Life anew to him who drinks!Look where southwest clouds are bringing rain;Look where southeast clouds are bringing rain!

Like many others, this song contains vocables; these untranslatable syllables or phrases may be remnants of archaic languages, they may be part of the special poetic language reserved for songs, or they may simply be rhythmic units incorporated into the total structure of the song. Rain, water, and clouds appear repeatedly in all the songs and stories from this arid region. Directional signals are important for the continual expression of the people’s relationship to the center of their universe; the balancing of southeast and southwest integrates the life of the community with the four cardinal directions.

Ritual poetry

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Ritual poetry, in relation to lyric poems, is more communal and less personal in expression, composition, and performance. While the actual texts of ritual poems may appear quite short, often elements are intended to be repeated many times. In other cases, individual passages or poems may be part of much larger performance productions, great ceremonies lasting as long as eight or nine days, which could be considered whole poems or dramatic productions in themselves.

Wiget subdivides ritual poetry into integrative, restorative, and transformational modes. Integrative rituals function as rites of passage, assisting the individual to pass safely from one stage of life, or identity, to another. Thus there are ceremonies for birth and naming, for puberty and initiation into adulthood, for death and dying. Among the integrative songs, Wiget also includes healing songs intended to enable the sick or dying individual to make safe passage back to the community.

One of the most widely known healing songs is a lyric that forms part of the Navajo Night Chant. The Night Chant is a major ceremony of healing for the Navajo people; when performed in full it lasts ten days and nights and involves many ceremonial observances such as face and body painting, ingestion of medicines, dry painting of sacred pictures, and feasting and dancing. The poem is sung as part of the ceremonial activities of the third day; the words allude to a particular place, which is said to be the House of Dawn, and also to sacred or holy beings that are part of the spiritual reality of the Navajo people.

The Night Chant ceremony of which the song is a part is performed to cure and reintegrate the individual into a healthy, viable community. The title of N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), comes from this poem; the novel depicts the struggle of an alienated young man to heal himself of deep psychological distress and reintegrate himself into his Pueblo community. In the novel, the poem appears as sung by one of the characters; it becomes part of Abel’s healing.

The words of this song, as translated by Washington Matthews, express fundamental Navajo ideas regarding the ideal relationship of the individual to the universe:

Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk..  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   .  .  .  .May it be beautiful all around me.In beauty it is finished.

The English word “beauty” is used to translate a Navajo term that encompasses concepts of balance, harmony, and movement through time. Balance is expressed in the alternation and repetition of parallel figures and tropes: Dawn and evening light, clouds and showers, and plants and pollen are paired and joined in the poem. The rhetorical pairing and doubling of pairs corresponds to the Navajo conceptualization of the universe: All entities are seen as gendered (hence the poem makes reference to “male rain” and “female rain”), and quaternary patterning in doubled pairs reflects the fundamental cognitive ordering principle. Four directions, four colors, four sacred mountains at the four corners of the world, four sacred plants, and countless other sets of four recur in all forms of Navajo discourse. The magnificent culmination of the poem expresses the sense of motion, centering, and balancing of four in the repositioning of the speaker at the center of a world of beauty: The four significant directions are before, behind, below, and above, and then comes the inclusive “all around.”

Restorative poetry is a type Wiget defines as forming part of communal ceremonies devoted to redefining the origins and continuity of the community within the natural world. Such ceremonies characteristically incorporate references to myths of creation and origin; sometimes they are called “world-renewal” ceremonies. Like important rituals in other cultures, ceremonial observances in Native American traditions have some resemblance to dramatic performances. An early attempt to transcribe, describe, and translate such a ceremony of renewal is Alice Fletcher’s work in the 1800’s with the Hako ceremony of the Pawnee, which honors Mother Corn:

Loud, loud the young eagles cry, cry, seeing their  mother come;Flies she to them slantwise, flies;Then over the nest she hangs, there hovering, stays her  flight;Thanks, thanks as we look we give..  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .Then over the nest she drops; there, folding her wings,  she rests,Rests safely within her nest.

The translation reflects both Fletcher’s nineteenth century conception of appropriate poetic diction and her attempt to replicate the rhythms she thought she heard in the original Pawnee. The poem displays the acute observation of natural phenomena characteristic of much Native American literature; it vividly renders the sight of the mother eagle approaching the nest, circling and seeming to hover, and finally settling on it. In addition, the poem reflects a particular moment in the ceremony. Fletcher’s notes explain to the reader that these texts are part of rites involving feathers, meant to represent nest building and the relationship of parent and child in the founding myth.

Wiget finds transformational ritual and poetry in the Ghost Dance religion and its songs and rites. Such rituals, he maintains, attempt to negotiate passage between the death of some fundamental element in the culture and the origin or birth of a new order. They differ from world-renewal rites, which replicate an original mythic creation of the universe, by introducing the idea of a new reality not referable to the old, original order. Certain syncretic religious forms, such as the Yaqui Easter ceremonies (which incorporate Catholic and traditional motifs) or the North American peyote rite (which combines Mexican, Plains Indian, and Methodist elements) might also be included under this rubric.

Certain features recur characteristically in lyric and ritual poems of Native American cultures. Repetition is obvious and logical as a mnemonic device. The visual and verbal compression of many written translations of lyric texts, mistaken by the early twentieth century Imagist movement as a protomodernist, Native American form of literary Imagism, belies the effect of these texts’ performance, for verses are customarily repeated, sometimes as many as thirty-six times. Striking visual imagery based on close observation of the natural world pervades the poems, but translated poems can be difficult to grasp or may mislead the English-speaking reader unfamiliar with their references to occasions of composition or reception or to places with which particular stories are associated. Thus, a song received from an animal or another being in a dream may be spoken in the persona of that creature, as are these lines from a hunting song:

I ate the thornapple leavesAnd the leaves made me dizzy.I drank thornapple flowersAnd the drink made me staggerThe hunter, Bow-remaining,He overtook and killed me,Cut and threw my horns away.

Not only are the sung words understood as spoken by the deer, but also the whole song forms part of a ceremony designed to assure a successful hunt by inducing the deer to sacrifice itself to the hunters. Part of the ceremony involves eating a mind-altering drug, datura, which the translator here calls “thornapple leaves.” This song would be sung by a dancer who assumes the persona of the deer in the ceremony; the language refers simultaneously to the behavior of an actual deer, to the singer’s dream, and to the circumstances of the rite.

Recording oral poetry

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The collection of written texts of Native American oral poetry begins with the preservation of some few of the great codices of the Mayas and the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America; many of these works were transported as curiosities to collections in Europe, and translations into European languages have been attempted from time to time. Serious attempts to transcribe and translate North American oral literatures began in the 1830’s, when Henry Rowe Schoolcraft transcribed the legends and myths told to him by his wife and members of her Ojibwa family.

Somewhat later in the century, after the American Civil War, a major movement to record Native American languages and preserve records of native cultures was launched under the sponsorship of major museums, folklore societies, and, especially, the United States government through the Bureau of American Ethnology. The impetus for the project in “salvage ethnography” was a perception that American Indian cultures were inexorably disappearing, and it was important to preserve as much of their remains as possible before the expected end came. The preservationist motive led to collecting of texts primarily for purposes of linguistic study and ethnographic information, rather than as aesthetic objects in their own right. Nevertheless, some of the finest examples of literary translation come from this period; the translations of Matthews from Navajo and the studies of the musician Frances Densmore are particularly noteworthy. Such poems as were translated were published as parts of government reports, bulletins of learned societies, or articles in scholarly journals. From these sources were mined the selections presented in the earliest anthologies of traditional American Indian poetry.

A very early compendium of American Indian literature and song texts is Natalie Curtis’s The Indians’ Book (1907, 1968). Curtis intended her book to permit Indians to speak for themselves as much as possible; she took pains to use graphics by Indian artists, as well as to include musical notation to encourage performance of the songs. Her translation method remains the model for translating such texts today: Her fourfold presentation of each text included a transcription from the original language, a separate transcription with musical notation, an interlinear (“non-grammatical”) literal translation, and a more “literary” poem text.

Curtis’s collection was followed by The Path on the Rainbow (1918), edited by George W. Cronyn and reissued as American Indian Poetry (1962). Unlike Curtis, Cronyn did not himself collect the texts he printed from their Indian owners; he reprinted excerpts from the ethnological collections then being published in abundance. He was not particularly knowledgeable about Indian culture or literature, and he sometimes changed texts he did not understand into something more conformable to his idea of the poetic. He also included non-Indian poems written by contemporaries who had been inspired by the modernist characteristics they perceived in Native American poems. Nevertheless, The Path on the Rainbow was the first collection to bring the literary accomplishments of Native American oral poets to the attention of the larger reading public.

Following Curtis and Cronyn, two anthologists working in the 1940’s brought out responsibly edited general collections of Native American poetry and prose. Margot Astrov’s The Winged Serpent (1946), reprinted as American Indian Prose and Poetry (1962), included some contextual notes to the texts and fragments she reprinted, as well as a reliable bibliography and helpful introduction. Astrov was the first to reprint the “House Made of Dawn” song from the Night Chant, and it was probably in her collection that Momaday found the poem he placed at the heart of his novel. In 1951, A. Grove Day published The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians. Grove Day’s book also reprints poems from ethnological and other publications but incorporates them into an extensive discussion of the literary, cultural, and historical backgrounds that form the context for the lyrics; the book is not so much an anthology as it is a scholarly introduction incorporating many texts as examples. This collection has the most comprehensive bibliography of sources for translated poem texts. A later collection of American Indian poetry is John Bierhorst’s The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indians (1983).

From the beginnings of such studies, translators, editors, and scholars have been in general agreement that lyric texts from Native American cultures correspond to poetry in English, whereas narrative texts are basically prose productions. In the 1960’s, two linguistics specialists challenged this view by offering conceptualizations of Native American narratives as essentially poetic in nature. Dennis Tedlock and Dell Hymes, using different approaches and materials, initiated discussion of an aesthetic and linguistic discourse that they call ethnopoetics.

Tedlock, a field researcher, collected and translated texts from a number of poet-storytellers. The basis for his theory of ethnopoetics, and the illustrative translations, came out of his work with Zuñi storytellers in New Mexico. Tedlock’s theory of poetry holds that phonetic components of language, such as pitch, pause, and stress, define the poetic line. He identifies patterning of these elements in Zuñi narratives and asserts that these tales must actually be regarded as narrative poems comparable to ballads or epics in other traditions. The explanation and examples of his theory are worked out in the introduction and texts he compiled in Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuñi Indians (1972). The texts themselves are printed in Zuñi and English, with typographical cues such as capitals, superscripts, subscripts, and italics to indicate performance elements of pause, pitch, and stress.

Hymes’s ethnopoetics theory derives from work with written texts. Hymes worked with texts collected by linguists working with peoples of the Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia), notably the collections of Melville Jacobs. The ethnopoetic theory he developed from these works sees poetic patterning in rhetorical configurations of repetition, parallel, and chiasmus at the level of word, phrase, line, and plot element. This analysis led to reconfiguring printed versions of the stories to look less like prose and more like poetry, with parallel elements set off by line divisions and indentation. Many narrative texts that Hymes restructured in this way came to have an apparently dramatic structure, which he sometimes indicates by notations of act and scene divisions. Hymes did not publish an anthology of texts but printed examples of ethnopoetic renderings of stories in his major work “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics (1981).

Modern written poetry

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By contrast with the long and rich history of oral poetry, written poetry by Native Americans is of relatively recent date. Two nineteenth century poets are noted by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff in her introductory book American Indian Literatures (1990): John Rollin Ridge and Pauline Johnson. These two poets wrote conventional nineteenth century verse; they were followed in the first half of the twentieth century by writers such as Alexander Posey, who primarily produced fiction, satire, humor, and nonfiction and who wrote little if any poetry. After World War II, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a Native American Renaissance in literature began to take place; it continued in the 1970’s and 1980’s with a virtual explosion of poetry by young Native American writers.

Nora Marks Dauenhauer

Nora Marks Dauenhauer occupies a unique place among late twentieth century Native American poets. A fluent speaker of Tlingit, Dauenhauer is one of few poets who translate from the classical Native American languages. She undertook a massive project to publish significant works on Tlingit oral literature by the few remaining performers of that literature. She has written and edited many works on Tlingit language and literature, including Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives (1987); Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (1990), featuring a dual-language presentation that makes use of a free-verse format to suggest speech performance; and Haa kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories (1994). Dauenhauer’s own poetry reflects an interest in formal experimentation as well as preoccupations of traditional Native American life; “Tlingit Concrete Poem,” for example, uses the conventions of concrete poetry as well as mixing Tlingit and English in a visual pun. Her major collections include The Droning Shaman (1990) and Live Woven with Song (2000).

Duane Niatum

Another notable poet from the Pacific Northwest is Duane Niatum, who has published several collections, including Songs for the Harvester of Dreams (1981) and The Crooked Beak of Love (2000). Niatum also edited the most representative collection of contemporary American Indian poetry, Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century Native American Poetry (1986), which remained in print through 1999.

N. Scott Momaday

Although most widely noted as a writer of prose, fiction, and nonfiction, Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday began his career as a poet. His major collection, The Gourd Dancer (1976), shows a variety of influences: the post-Symbolist poetics that intrigued his mentor and friend Yvor Winters; American Romanticism and anti-Romanticism of the nineteenth century, especially in the work of Emily Dickinson, whom Momaday admires greatly; and oral traditions of both Native American and Euroamerican culture. His poetry finds a place in the meditative-contemplative tradition of Western literature. His complex and highly wrought poem “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” displays characteristics typical of much of Momaday’s work: a speaker, positioned before some visible object or vista, who silently contemplates the enigma of phenomena as they appear before him. Momaday’s philosophical position in such poems resembles that of Wallace Stevens: Both poets assert the absolute cleavage between knowing mind and intractable external reality, and both affirm the power of the imagination to create coherence and significance beyond the nihilism of the mind-world abyss. Explicitly in interviews, and by implication in his writings, Momaday has expressed admiration for what he sees as the Native American sense of continuity and familiarity with nature; unlike the Romantic Western vision, Momaday says, American Indian philosophy does not see an unbridgeable chasm between mind and matter. His second novel, The Ancient Child (1990), an uneven work that contains some of his poetry published elsewhere, explores the possibility of undoing the split and restoring the old continuity with the natural world.

Laguna and Acoma

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The Keresan-speaking pueblos of Laguna and Acoma in New Mexico, and their environs, have been home to four of the most productive younger Native American poets. Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, Paula Gunn Allen, and Carol Lee Sanchez all have family or childhood roots in the area.

Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko’s best-known work, the novel Ceremony (1977), appeared a few years after her poetry collection Laguna Woman (1974); some of the poems from that volume as well as new works were incorporated into the later mixed-genre book Storyteller (1981). Although her theoretical emphasis is on narrative forms and she has spoken extensively on the process of storytelling and its function in maintaining identity and community, Silko’s poems often tend to be brief first-person lyrics relying on natural imagery to convey deep personal emotion. An exception is “Storytelling,” which captures in its free-verse rhythms the give-and-take of storytelling in the communal situation as well as the sense of ancient myth that stands behind and lends coherence to chaotic present reality.

Simon Ortiz

Simon Ortiz, from the pueblo of Acoma, is unusual in living close to the landscape that inspires him and has informed his sense of generations of continuity with the land. His poetry is often sacramental in its reverence for the mysterious power of the particular place and in its outrage at desecrations perpetrated by materialism and commercialism; yet he reaches out, as in the collection titled From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America (1981), to embrace a vision of Indian (as distinct from tribal) identity and common purpose. Both this collection and his After and Before the Lightning (1994) interweave prose narrative and poetry, the latter to relate his experiences during a winter on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

Paula Gunn Allen

Paula Gunn Allen, born in New Mexico, maintained her continuity with land and landscape in imagination from the perspective of urban academia. Allen was outspoken in an ongoing project of reclaiming feminist thought from what she saw as middle-class Anglo values; in poems such as “Madonna of the Hills,” she sets out to recover and celebrate the strength of women and to subvert facile judgments of victimization and superficial categories of beauty. Allen’s major collections of poetry include Skins and Bones: Poems, 1979-1987 (1988) and Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems, 1962-1995 (1997). She also published fiction and criticism.

Carol Lee Sanchez

Carol Lee Sanchez, of Laguna and Lebanese American heritage, is Allen’s cousin. The poems of her Conversations from the Nightmare (1975), She) Poems (1995), and From Spirit to Matter: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1996 (1997) make highly experimental use of traditional Pueblo and Indian material; “Open Dream Sequence” expresses the nightmare distortions of surrealist art, while “Tribal Chant” explores the question of dual identity in a synthesis of Spanish and English. Like Momaday, Wendy Rose, and Joy Harjo, Sanchez is a visual artist as well as a poet.

Ojibwa and Chippewa

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Louise Erdrich and Gerald R. Vizenor, Ojibwa poets, both have roots in the woodlands area of the Great Lakes, though Erdrich belongs to the displaced Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota.

Louise Erdrich

Widely recognized for her series of North Dakota novels as well as collaborations with her husband, Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich published the poetry collections Jacklight (1984) and Baptism of Desire (1990). Both collections expand her exploration in her fiction of the clashes and dissonances brought about by membership in and loyalty to both Euroamerican and Native American traditions. The two books contain retellings of oral tales featuring the folk hero Potchikoo. The poignant poem series “The Butcher’s Wife” in Jacklight explores the delicacy of feeling and violent passions of ordinary, unremarkable people. In Baptism of Desire, Erdrich celebrates, in a series of poems based on popular hagiographies, the Catholic folk beliefs that provide much of the comedy of her novels; other poems in this collection express her continuing fascination with various occult symbol systems. Critics note her interest in exploring the tension between Christian and Anishinaabe belief systems, no doubt due to her own experiences as a person of mixed heritage. In 2003, she published Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, which contains her earlier poetry collections plus new poems, including a section “Original Fire,” in which she focuses on relationships.

Gerald R. Vizenor

Gerald R. Vizenor is one of the most prolific of American Indian authors, producing journalism, fiction, criticism, screenplays, and autobiography as well as poetry. He has lived in Asia for extended periods, first in Japan with the armed forces and then as a visiting professor in the People’s Republic of China, and has incorporated into his work an appreciation for Asian literatures, particularly the very short Japanese form of haiku. Seventeen Chirps (1964, 1968) and Slight Abrasions (1966) are collections of Vizenor’s haiku; appreciation of the imagistic compression of haiku also informs Vizenor’s reworking in Summer in the Spring (1981) of Densmore’s translations of Chippewa lyrics. In 1984, much of Vizenor’s poetry was collected in Matsushima: Pine Islands.

Other Native American poets

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Joy Harjo, Carter Revard, and Linda Hogan are joined by a common heritage in Oklahoma, the old Indian Territory.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, a distant relation of Creek writer Alexander Posey, is a musician as well as a painter and poet. Her poetry seeks an organic synthesis of visual and sound effects in what is often a dreamlike sense of metamorphosis and dissolution of cognitive boundaries. “Rainy Dawn,” from her major collection In Mad Love and War (1990), is one of several prose vignettes in the volume; like many of her poems, it is dedicated to a family member. Later, she wrote two more collections of poetry: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994) and A Map to the Next World (2000). Harjo, like many other poets, has combined her poetry with performing arts. She performs her work and plays saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice, which was originally envisioned as a musical vehicle to enhance her poetry but has become something more. In one of her later poems, she says, “All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.” This sums up her theme dealing with politics. Her poetry goes beyond strictly Native American concerns; she explores the common American experience of immigration.

Both Harjo and Hogan, who is from a Chickasaw family, confront difficult social and political questions in their work. Harjo’s elegy “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash,” dedicated to a young Native American woman apparently murdered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bears witness to ongoing persecution of those who work on behalf of the dispossessed.

Linda Hogan

Linda Hogan’s poems frequently take up themes of poverty, deprivation, and injustice. In Daughters, I Love You (1981), reprinted in Eclipse (1983), she offers a series of meditations on the evil and destruction of the nuclear culture. Her fourth collection of poetry, Seeing Through the Sun (1985), is more diverse, as she deals with mixed-blood heritage, human strengths and weaknesses, use of the land, urban life, feminism, and environmentalism. She attempts to synthesize all life in these poems—herself and others, humans and their environment. In 1988, she produced another volume of poems, Savings, that deals with the flight of many Native Americans to the cities, where they led frustrated and desperate lives. The Book of Medicines (1993) focuses on Hogan’s belief that women need to be the primary caretakers of the environment. The poems act as therapeutic prayers to enable humans to clean up and restore their planet. Both Hogan and Harjo offer social criticism through the first-person lyric.

Carter Revard

Osage poet Carter Revard, like Momaday, has won academic as well as literary honors. A professor and former Rhodes scholar, he has published fiction, autobiography, and criticism as well as poetry. Also like Momaday a compelling storyteller and enthusiastic raconteur, Revard is often at his best, as in “My Right Hand Don’t Leave Me No More,” when celebrating memories of his rambunctious, energetic family. Having grown up in the Dust Bowl Oklahoma of the Great Depression, Revard chronicles his experiences from a childhood of poverty to his status as a respected scholar of medieval literature, using both forms and allusions ranging from Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse to tribal chants in such collections as An Eagle Nation (1993) and Winning the Dust Bowl (2001).

Wendy Rose

Wendy Rose and Maurice Kenny express the distinctive sensibility of urban experience. Rose’s tribal background is Hopi and Miwok, but her life has been lived in the urban centers of the West Coast. Trained as an anthropologist, she has written from both sides of the studier-and-studied divide of Western scholarship; her poem “Academic Squaw” (from the collection Academic Squaw: Reports to the World from the Ivory Tower, 1977) is an acerbic look at the academic world from the point of view of the object of study. One of Rose’s most noted collections is The Halfbreed Chronicles, and Other Poems (1985); the title section contains a series of poems in which the personas of circus freaks, concentration camp survivors, and other victims offer stinging critiques of Western culture. Rose also produced Lost Copper (1986), in which her poems, or songs as some called them, reaffirmed her connection with the earth. In 1993, she issued Going to War with All My Relations: New and Selected Poems, and in 1994, Bone Dance: New and Selected Poems, 1965-1993, a major collection of selections from her previous collections and new poems. One critic said her poetry is able to “enhance our awareness of the human complexity of our social and moral dilemmas.”

Maurice Kenny

Rose’s sometime collaborator Maurice Kenny is Mohawk and an award-winning poet, fiction writer, playwright, editor, and longtime resident of New York City. Kenny has been a publisher, directing the Strawberry Press; his poetry reflects some of the main currents in experimental literature in the mid-twentieth century, especially an affinity with the Beat generation. The opening lines from his “Wild Strawberry” carry resonances of Allen Ginsberg: “And I rode the Greyhound bus down to Brooklyn/ where I sit now eating woody strawberries/ grown on the backs of Mexican farmers.” Kenny’s work comprises both short and long poems. A book-length poem, Tekonwatonti, Molly Brant, 1735-1795: Poems of War (1992), chronicles the experiences of the sister of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant during the French and Indian War; she led her people in cooperation with the British, believing it the best way to preserve their Mohawk land and way of life. Kenny’s many collections include The Mama Poems (1984) and Between Two Rivers: Selected Poems, 1956-1984 (1987). Kenny’s major poems and prose were collected in 1995 in On Second Thought, edited by Joseph Bruchac.

Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac, with an Abenaki, Slovak, and English heritage, was raised in the Adirondack foothills in New York. He is not only a well-known editor and chronicler of Native American literature but also a poet, a children’s author, and a teller of traditional Native American tales. Like other poets, he has written and performed songs with his own musical group, the Dawn Land Singers. Collections of his poems include Flow (1975), The Good Message of Handsome Lake (1979), Near the Mountains (1987), and No Borders (1999). In an attempt to understand poets and their poetry, Bruchac interviewed Native American poets and put the results together in Survival This Way (1987). He edited Returning the Gift (1994), a book that contains poetry and prose from the first Native American National Writers’ Festival, and Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion (1995), an anthology of works by thirty-five Native American writers.

Ofelia Zepeda

Ofelia Zepeda, a professor of linguistics, was born and raised near the Tohono O’odham (Papago) and Pima reservations in Arizona. She not only is the foremost authority in Tohono O’odham, having created the first grammar for the language, but also teaches many Native Americans strategies for preserving their vanishing languages. She has published several bilingual collections of her own poetry in English and Tohono O’odham, the most important of which is Ocean Power (1995), dealing with the importance of the desert climate to people who live in the arid Southwest. In this collection, she reflects on her life, the natural environment of the Arizona-Mexico border region, the seasons, the meeting of old and new, the past and the present, and the human and natural worlds. The closing poems take as their subject the sea, and the Tohono O’odham’s past relationship with the sea. Much of the poetry is in the Tohono O’odham language, with English translations provided. Zepeda has also edited poetry collections, including When It Rains, Papago and Pima Poetry = Mat hekid o ju: ’O’odham Ha-Cegǐtodag (1982), a collection of Papago and Pima poetry.

Sherman Alexie

Perhaps one of the most visible Native American writers to mainstream audiences is a Spokane/Cur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie, who grew up on an Indian reservation in Washington State. Soon after he was graduated from college, Alexie published two of his poetry collections: The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems (1992) and I Would Steal Horses (1992). He shares with other contemporary Native American poets a love of performing his work, so he occasionally does readings and standup performances with musician Jim Boyd, a Colville Indian. Alexie is known for his humor as well as his performance ability. He and Boyd recorded an album, Reservation Blues, that contains songs from a novel of the same name that Alexie published in 1995. In June, 1998, Alexie competed in his first World Heavyweight Poetry Bout, in which he defeated world champion Jimmy Santiago Baca. Because of his poetry, short stories, novels, and screenwriting skills, in 1999, The New Yorker recognized Alexie as one of the top writers of the twentieth century. His collection of mixed poetry and prose One Stick Song (2000) reveals many of his skills: his ability to handle multiple perspectives and complex psychological subject matter, sense of humor, facility with vivid scene setting, and sweet sarcasm. Alexie gives voice to the feelings of many Native Americans combating society’s negative perceptions of them, and the emotions here range from dark humor to anger to grief. His formula “Poetry = Anger Imagination” is expressed throughout this collection and reflects the experiences and emotions of many Native Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Defining Native American

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Native Americans or American Indians (the terms themselves are misleading) are no monolithic group: Although contemporary Native American poets are sometimes friends, colleagues, and collaborators, they do not form a distinctive school of poetry. Their formal allegiances are largely to experimental modes, although the first-person free-verse lyric tends to predominate, even in such apparently public modes as satire. Two major motifs can be identified as characteristic: on one hand, an abiding sense of continuity with the land (as distinguished from landscape), and on the other, a pervasive social consciousness stemming from the historical and personal experience of injustice. Ties to land, and meaning derived from survival within a given natural environment, are explicit in the works of poets such as Dauenhauer, Ortiz, and Silko; even urban poets such as Kenny and Rose look to severance from land as the precipitating injustice in their critique of contemporary civilization. Furthermore, in one way or another, each of these poets is engaged with the difficulties and delights of being at once an inheritor of ancient cultural riches and a mediator between worlds of affluence and deprivation. Each is committed to tribal and Indian heritage and sees that heritage as a source of strength for not only Native American people but also the world.


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Erdrich, Heid E., and Laura Tohe, eds. Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. Foreword by Winona LaDuke. An anthology of short fiction, poetry, and essays, in which forty-nine women record their experiences as members of Native Americans communities. Includes brief biographies of the contributors and information about their tribes.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. The author, who also has written on traditional American poets such as Emily Dickinson, covers the topics of audience, community, “Talking Indian,” telling stories, and “Toward a Native Poetics of Contested Spaces.”

Harjo, Joy. The Spiral of Memory: Interviews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Harjo has a unique poetic voice that speaks of her experiences as Native American, woman, and Westerner in today’s society. This book collects interviews with her over the years, covering her art, her origins, and the confrontation of Anglo and Native American civilizations.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Lincoln examines contemporary poetry by way of ethnicity and gender. He tries to explain American as well as Native American literature, spirituality, and culture.

Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. An essential research tool for study of Native American literature. Includes not only a broad overview of the history and scope of Native American literature but also studies of individual authors and works. Includes excellent resources for further research.

Porter, Joy, and Kenneth M. Roemer, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Contains seventeen scholarly essays on a wide range of subjects, including several that focus specifically on poetry and poets. Biobibliographies of forty authors. Time line and maps. An invaluable resource and guide.

Rader, Dean, and Janice Gould, eds. Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary American Indian Poetry. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003. A collection of critical essays on the genre. Includes Native American and nonnative authors, men and women, recognized experts and newcomers, using various critical and theoretical approaches. Subjects of the essays range from form and structures of poetry to self-definition or the identity of an entire community.

Ramsey, Jarold, and Lori Burlingame, eds. In Beauty I Walk: The Literary Roots of Native American Writing. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. An anthology that places traditional oral selections beside modern works by Native Americans to demonstrate how present-day writers both use and reject the earlier tradition.

Rosen, Kenneth, ed. Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by Native Americans. New York: Arcade, 1993. Rosen has collected two hundred poems by twenty-one Native Americans, representing many tribes: Laguna, Sioux, Cheyenne, Pueblo, Chippewa, Oneida, Seneca/Seminole, Mohawk, and Blackfoot.

Rothberg, Jerome, ed. Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. The author, who also has written on ethnopoetics, has assembled a large collection of poetry, exceeding four hundred pages. Selected poets include Leslie Marmon Silko.

Swann, Brian, ed. Native American Songs and Poems: An Anthology. New York: Dover, 1997. A good cross-section of Native American songs and poetry. The poems range from lullabies to works by contemporary modern authors, both male and female.

Wilson, Norma. The Nature of Native American Poetry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. A collection of appealing and accessible essays that introduce and celebrate the poetry of modern Native American writers. Wilson draws from contemporary criticism, tribal history and folklore, interviews with writers, and the poetry itself. She places Native American poetry in a global and historical context.

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