Simon J. Ortiz Ortiz, Simon J. - Essay

Simon Ortiz


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Going for the Rain 1976

A Good Journey 1977

Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land (poetry and essays) 1980

From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which is Our America 1981

A Poem Is a Journey 1981

Woven Stone: A 3-in-1 Volume of Poetry and Prose 1991

After and Before the Lightning 1994

Other Major Works

Howbah Indians (short stories) 1978

The People Shall Continue (juvenile literature) 1978

Song, Poetry, Language: Expression and Perception (essays) 1978

Blue and Red (juvenile literature) 1982

The Importance of Childhood (essay) 1982

Fightin': New and Collected Stories (short stories) 1983

Harold Jaffe (review date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Speaking Memory," in The Nation, April 3, 1982, pp. 406-08.

[In the following review, Jaffe praises the politics and poetics of Ortiz's two collections, Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land and From Sand Creek.]

Although he has been publishing fine poetry since the mid-1960s, Simon Ortiz, an Acoma Pueblo born in 1941, was until recently read mainly by other American Indian writers and by a handful of small-press addicts. Ortiz's audience widened somewhat after Harper and Row published Going for the Rain in 1976. Here is a representative exchange from that volume:

Q. "What would you say that the main theme of your poetry is?"

A. "… to recognize the relationships I share with everything. "

American Indians have always known a good deal about relationships, communion; more than others, their relationships have been forcibly severed. Ortiz's fundamental theme concerns these sacred relationships—and their violations. Although his poems are usually about American Indians, the audience addressed in his work includes the poor, the dispossessed and untranquilized middle class of various hues.

Both new volumes of poetry are testimonials: Fight Back to the revolt of the Pueblos (along with mestizos, mulatoes, Navahos and Apaches) against the Spanish colonialists in 1680; From Sand Creek marks the 1864 massacre of 133 Arapahoes and Cheyennes, nearly all women and children, in southeastern Colorado.

From Sand Creek is the more cohesive volume of the two. It contains forty-two poems on consecutive recto pages, with the same number of brief prose passages on the facing versos. The prose often introduces a theme or an image that is taken up in the corresponding poem or elsewhere in the volume. Most of the poems contain details about a Veterans Administration hospital in Fort Lyons, Colorado, where their narrator is a patient in 1974 and 1975.

What does the V.A. hospital have to do with Sand Creek? A good deal, really. According to Ortiz's accompanying note, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes who were camped on a bend of Sand Creek thought they were at peace with the whites. President Lincoln himself had presented Black Kettle, one of the guiding elders, with an American flag, which, the Indians were told, would protect them from attack. The flag was flying above Black Kettle's lodge on that cold November dawn when Colonel Chivington and more than 700 volunteers and troops from nearby Fort Lyons swooped down on the 600 Indians and wiped them out.

One-hundred-odd years later, the patients in the V.A. hospital in Fort Lyons include many young American Indians who, like their...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

Kenneth Lincoln (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Now Day Indi'ns," in Native American Renaissance, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 183-221.

[In the following excerpt, Lincoln describes how Ortiz's poetry is built upon the traditions of his people and how it looks to the future of these traditions.]

In a southwest land of ancient syllables and stone monuments—Lukachukai Mountains, Ocotillo Wells, Chuksa Mountains, Many Farms—Simon Ortiz writes poems to teach his children, Rainy Dawn and Raho Nez, the old, time-trusted regards and ways of home. He says in A Good Journey, "Like myself, the source of these narratives is my home." What his father taught him of names, values,...

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Andrew Wiget (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon Ortiz, Boise State University Press, 1986, 54 p.

[In the following excerpt, Wiget provides a detailed analysis of the structure and content of Going for the Rain, A Good Journey, Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land and From Sand Creek.]


… For Ortiz language is an energy, which has its own economy and circulation in the life of the community, an idea very common in oral cultures from ancient Israel to the Arctic. In this larger sense of language, all that lives and has breath also has language. As Ortiz speaks of it, language is not an exclusive attribute of human beings but a "spiritual...

(The entire section is 7754 words.)

Simon Ortiz with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Story Never Ends: An Interview with Simon Otiz," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 211-229.

[In the following excerpt, Ortiz speaks of the influence his past has had on his poetry.]

[Joseph Bruchac]: What was your childhood like?

[Simon Ortiz]: I grew up at Acoma Pueblo homeland in the small village of McCartys. And I grew up pretty normally as an Indian child. There were conditions, social and economic conditions, that resulted in our community being pretty poor. People, years and years ago, generations back, made their living by farming, but by the turn of the...

(The entire section is 5751 words.)

Simon Ortiz (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Language We Know," in I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of Nebraska Press, 1987, 185-94.

[In the following excerpt, Ortiz discusses the importance of language in his work, and how straddling two culturesNative and Anglo-Americanaffects his poetry.]

I don't remember a world without language. From the time of my earliest childhood, there was language. Always language, and imagination, speculation, utters of sound. Words, beginnings of words. What would I be without language? My existence has been determined by language, not only the spoken but the...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)

Andrea-Bess Baxter (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of Woven Stone, in Western American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 162-63.

[In the following review, Baxter approvingly assesses the poetry and prose of Woven Stone—a volume containing Ortiz's first three collections.]

It is a testament to Simon Ortiz's influential career that Woven Stone has been published: three of his books, long out of print, have now been collected into one volume. For those of you who have searched in vain for Going For The Rain (1976), A Good Journey (1977), and Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land (1980), look no further. Reprinted in their...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Gary Soto (review date 1994-95)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of After and Before the Lightning in Hungry Mind Review, Winter, 1994-95, pp. 56-7.

[In the following review, Soto comments favorably on the poetry of After and Before the Lightning, but remarks that the volume's prose is occasionally flawed.]

We are earthbound in this journal-like compilation of poems and poetic prose, [After and Before the Lightning] which begins on November 18 and ends on March 21 of an unnamed winter.

In his preface Ortiz states, "I felt like I was putting together a map of where I was in the cosmos," an ambitious calling indeed. Whenever a word like "cosmos" arises, a reader becomes...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of After and Before the Lightning in World Literature Today, Spring, 1995, p. 409.

[In the following review, Berner calls After and Before the Lightning Ortiz's "most powerful achievement to date."]

The Acoma poet Simon Ortiz spent the winter of 1985-86—the date can be determined by his reference to the Challenger disaster of January 1986—as a visiting professor at Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. That year and the profound culture shock which he experienced, caused less by his dealings with the Lakota Sioux of the reservation than by the awesome Dakota prairie and its frightening weather,...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Gingerich, Willard. "The Old Voices of Acoma: Simon Ortiz's Mythic Indigenism." Southwest Review (Winter 1979): 18-30.

Discussion of writing derived from native sources, and how Ortiz's work benefits from the weight of tradition and history.

Gleason, Judith. "Reclaiming the Valley of the Shadows." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1984): 21-71.

Includes lengthy reviews of Ortiz's A Good Journey and From Sand Creek, which Gleason discusses in terms of myth, history, and contemporary Native American Life.


(The entire section is 207 words.)