Simon J. Ortiz 1941–
Native American poet, short story writer, essayist, and children's author.
Ortiz is a highly respected Acoma Pueblo writer, recognized for his poetry infused with an awareness of Native American history, mythology, philosophy, and social concerns. The simple and direct language of Ortiz's poems reflects the oral storytelling tradition of his people, and typically offers the point of view of an observer, contrasting Indian and contemporary American lifestyles. Deeply grounded in his Native American heritage and identity, Ortiz often writes with an ironic or sorrowful tone as he comments on the racial, ideological, and material concerns of the late twentieth century. He tempers this mood in many of his poems, however, with his sustained humor, clarity, and optimism.
Born near Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Acoma Pueblo homeland, Ortiz grew up in an artistic family, attending the Bureau of Indian Affairs day school and St. Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe. After high school he worked in the uranium fields near Grants, New Mexico—an experience he drew upon for his book Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land (1980). After serving in the U. S. Army, Ortiz earned his B. A. from the University of New Mexico and a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing in 1969 from the nationally acclaimed Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. His first full-length collection of poems, Going for the Rain, appeared in 1976. He married Marlene Foster in 1981, and his three children, to whom he dedicates many of his poems, were born in the 1980s—a period during which Ortiz taught creative writing and American Indian literature at a number of American colleges and universities. Since 1982 he has served as consulting editor of the Pueblo of Acoma Press.
Ortiz's first published collection, Going for the Rain, is significant for its emphasis on ritual in everyday life, its cyclical structure, and the appearance of the traditional cultural hero of several Native American tribes, Coyote. A humorous, powerful, and versatile figure, Coyote functions for Ortiz as both narrator and subject in many of his poems, and as an embodiment and lover of the natural world or as a symbol of survival. In A Good Journey
(1977), Ortiz writes extensively on the history of the Acoma Pueblo while addressing contemporary social and environmental issues. In several of the collection's poems, Ortiz relates the effects of the modern American lifestyle upon Indian consciousness. The poems of From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America (1981) recount Ortiz's personal experience as a patient in 1974-1975 in a Colorado Veterans Administration hospital and detail the 1864 massacre of Arapaho and Cheyenne people near Sand Creek by the U. S. Army. Although the book chronicles a history of violated trust, Ortiz manages to remain optimistic about the possibilities of his people reconnecting with the land and their heritage in the work. A similar theme informs Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land. In this collection Ortiz records the personal and social transformations that occurred when railroads were built and uranium mines opened near the homeland of the Acoma Pueblo. Again Ortiz concludes the volume optimistically by predicting that a balance between human and environmental necessities will be successfully achieved. After and Before the Lightning (1994) is a journal-like collection of poems and poetic prose in which Ortiz records his stay on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In these pieces, the poet focuses on the land and the Lakota people, paying tribute to both for their endurance.
Critical reaction to Ortiz's poetry since the publication of Going for the Rain in the mid-1970s has been overwhelmingly positive. Some have applauded his groundedness, accessibility, and emphasis on the intersection between contemporary life, tradition, and history. Though the basis of his work is his personal and family life, most observers have noted that he typically relates these elements to larger social and political concerns, a quality that strengthens his writing by affording it a universal significance. Instead of being wholly consumed by his own individual struggles, some critics have noted that he grafts his concerns onto the larger body of historical issues, environmental concerns, and modern efforts toward political justice.