Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
Simon Joseph Ortiz grew up in the town known as McCartys, New Mexico, but known as Deetseyamah to the people of the Acoma (or Aacqumeh) Pueblo, his community (or hanoh). Both his parents connected him to his culture and his later enthusiasm for describing it. His father, who later worked for the railroad, was a tribal elder and woodcarver, and his mother was a potter and storyteller. Like most of the residents, he spoke the Acoma language at home and English at the McCartys Day School he attended, a place that Ortiz describes as carrying out a national policy designed to “sever ties to culture, family, and tribe,” and to “make us into American white people.” In spite of this, Ortiz recalls that “it was exciting, however, to go to school,” and that “reading was fun” because he “loved language and stories.”
In 1954, when Ortiz was in the fifth grade, his family moved to Skull Valley in Arizona, where his father was employed by the Santa Fe Railway, and Ortiz became aware of a world beyond his local community. He contrasted his family’s lives with the lives of the family he read about in the Dick and Jane readers. He and his younger sister and brothers were the only Native Americans at the school, and his curiosity about the other students led him to “read voraciously just about anything I could get my hands on,” authors ranging from H. G. Wells to Mark Twain. His first publication, a Mother’s Day poem, appeared in the Skull Valley School newspaper.
At the St. Catherine’s Indian School in Sante Fe, Ortiz was encouraged by nuns to read beyond the minimal grade requirements, and he began to keep a diary, which led to his lifelong habit of writing in a personal journal. Ortiz continued to write poetry and began to compose “brief, cursory passages” of description, character sketches, plot outlines, and other elements of fiction. When he transferred to Albuquerque Indian School closer to his family’s home, Ortiz registered for a program in vocational training to “become employable,” but at Grants High, an integrated school, he began to take his writing more seriously, seeing himself “as a writer later in life” and becoming “even more of a reader, heavily into recent and current poets and novelists,” an eclectic grouping including Dylan Thomas, Sinclair Lewis, and Flannery O’Connor, as well as “a lot of the American and European classics.”
While he took part in athletics and other school activities, Ortiz emphasizes that he “wanted to read and read and read and think.” As a kind of pivotal point in his development as a writer, he cites a growing “awareness that our Acoma people and culture were in a fateful period in our destiny,” and he resolved to direct himself as a writer to the preservation and presentation of his cultural heritage. His earliest fiction, which he concentrated on more than poetry, was about people struggling with poverty, social discrimination, and ethnic dispersion.
Unsure of how to become a writer, Ortiz went to work for Kerr-McGee, an energy corporation mining uranium, and began to develop characters modeled on the working men he met. The limits of their lives, and the restrictions that constrained members of the Acoma community, fed an anger that had been “seething for years,” and Ortiz began drinking heavily to “exert the independence [he] wanted.” He justified this by using the examples of Ernest Hemingway and Malcolm Lowry: He “believed in their greatness and in drinking as a part of that.” Alcoholism did not prevent Ortiz from entering Fort Lewis College in 1961, serving in the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1965, then attending the University of New Mexico and winning a fellowship in the writing program at the University of Iowa, from which he received a master of fine arts degree in 1969.
His first book of poetry, Naked in the Wind, was published in 1971, and Ortiz worked as a newspaper editor for the National Indian Youth Council from 1970 to 1973. Despite positive early reception of his work, Ortiz experienced many periods of anger and disillusionment often fed by abuse of alcohol. He underwent treatment for alcoholism during 1974-1975 but was able to begin a teaching career at San Diego State University in 1974. He has also taught at the College of Marin, the University of New Mexico, Sinte Gleska University, the University of Toronto, and Arizona State University. Ortiz published Going for the Rain with Harper and Row in 1976, marking his emergence as an important American writer.
Ortiz has three children (Raho Nez, Rainy Dawn, and Sara Marie) and was married to Marlene Foster from 1981 to 1984. He has served as lieutenant governor of the Acoma Pueblo and presented his work at numerous conferences, university readings, and other literary gatherings throughout the North American continent. The strength and resonance of his writing has earned him the kind of respect that has given him the status of a wisdom figure or sage, who, as he says, has worked to make “language familiar and accessible to others, bringing it within their grasp and comprehension.”
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