The themes of colonialism, the nuclear age, technology, the environment, the Native American resistance, and cultural alienation are heard clearly in the work of Simon Ortiz. Ortiz has produced numerous volumes of poetry, ventured into short fiction, served in the U.S. Army, taught creative writing and American Indian literature, and won several awards and fellowships. Ortiz and his work speak as the voice of an Acoma Pueblo from a distinct culture yet dramatize human issues common to all.
Mirroring the speech rhythms of the Native American oral tradition, Ortiz’s verse is plain yet musical. As a spokesperson for the Native American culture, Ortiz uses language as a tool of resistance, just as he says indigenous peoples always have as they struggle to maintain their identities when they are acculturated into a dominating society. His literature is an effective combination of political and social awareness, embodiment of cultural ritual and values, and a vehicle of spiritual expression.
Nuclear themes in Ortiz’s poems such as “It Was That Indian” depict the capitalistic exploitation that brought uranium mines and processing plants—and radioactive contamination—to Native American lands. Ortiz depicts the land as sacred, with technology as an enemy that threatens to separate humans from their spiritual connection with nature and the environment. His From Sand Creek stands as a statement against oppression and racism. Other themes in Ortiz’s works include loss of identity and alienation. In “Woman Singing,” Ortiz portrays the lasting “drunk Indian” stereotype, an unfortunate reminder of the destruction and alienation that alcohol has caused since the Europeans introduced Native Americans to the poison three centuries ago.
The literature of Ortiz embodies themes and qualities unique to Native American culture and is also universal, speaking for America and humanity. Akin to the oral tradition of his culture, his poetry authenticates the Native American struggle against colonization, alienation, and oppression as this distinct group struggles to maintain identity within a broader humanity.