The Poem

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

“Travels in the South” is a three-part poem in free verse, its sections divided by geographical location: “East Texas,” “The Creek Nation East of the Mississippi,” and “Crossing the Georgia Border into Florida.” As the title suggests, Simon J. Ortiz, a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe of American Indians, takes readers on an emotionally charged journey through several southern states beginning with an early morning departure from the Coushatta people in Alabama and ending in a state park in Florida. Using first person throughout, he skillfully situates these travels within the context of the narrator’s heritage, culture, family, and community.

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The first part, “East Texas,” establishes a warm connection with the Coushatta people who feed and emotionally nourish the narrator on this leg of his journey. While the poem begins here, readers sense that his travels actually began earlier and that this locale is merely where he begins his tale, which is, in essence, a quest to find Native American people. It thus constitutes the narrator’s search for identity. A humbling stop at the Huntsville State Penitentiary and a talk with the American Indian prisoners there completes his Alabama trip. When Ortiz turns his attention to Texas, the tone shifts; in fact, the narrator admits he does not want to be in Dallas, Texas, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation official cannot even say how many American Indians live in the city. Witnessing much suffering, including a jobless Navajo and “an Apache woman crying for her lost life,” the traveler moves on to Lake Caddo, named, according to the park ranger, for “some Indian tribe.” There, much to his delight, he happens upon two seventy-year-old black women with whom he spends the rest of the day fishing and laughing.

Part 2, “The Creek Nation East of the Mississippi,” begins at a hot dog stand in Pensacola, Florida, where the narrator asks for the names of local Native Americans. The vendor directs him just across the state border to Chief Alvin McGee’s home in Atmore, Alabama, where he is surprised and heartened to recognize McGee as the same American Indian he had seen in pictures in old history books. While the venerable chief reminisces about famous local American Indian leaders and laments the devastating losses indigenous communities have experienced over the years, the two men watch the election news on television. When George Wallace is once again elected governor of the state, they clearly sense another loss for Native Americans as well as other people of color. Attempting to lift the old man’s spirits, the narrator urges, “please don’t worry about Wallace, don’t worry.” His words ring hollow, for as he travels on to his next destination, he hears a radio broadcast about the National Guard killing college students at Kent State University and must pull off the road despite, or perhaps because of, a sign that says “NO STOPPING EXCEPT IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.” Tired and depressed, the traveler begins to ponder the demoralizing results of his search for identity and community in a hostile country.

The final section, “Crossing the Georgia Border into Florida,” chronicles several difficulties in Atlanta, Georgia, where the young narrator’s long hair and dark skin elicit nervous glances and discriminatory practices from local white people. Reeling from such injustice, he empathizes with African Americans who experience abuses regularly but lack the opportunity to move on, which contrasts with his mobility when the American Indian meeting at the Dinkler Plaza ends. Settling finally at a campsite in a Florida state park “noted for the Indians/ that don’t live here anymore,” he seeks respite in nature. The poem concludes with a surprisingly apt image: The traveler offers crumbs of bread—“white, and kind of stale”—to the squirrels and birds. When they refuse such tasteless and paltry handouts, he understands why.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

“Travels in the South” is a poem about recovery. It centers on one man’s efforts to reclaim his Native American heritage by retracing the steps of his ancestors in the South. Sadly, the reader learns that many American Indians are merely a nameless memory in the minds of white people who now claim the land for their state parks and recreation areas. The American Indians that he does manage to locate still struggle to exist amid hostility. Yet Ortiz retrieves the tribal names—Coushatta, Caddo, Creek, Navajo, Apache, Acoma—and in doing so reclaims for himself an important part of his identity. Language, specifically the power of naming, becomes the catalyst for the poem’s powerful message: Native American survival today depends upon a strong link with the past. Herein lies continuance.

By using names from both the past and the present, Ortiz creates a paradoxical mix of traditional Native American and what he calls “Mericano” culture. Each section of the poem and thus each mile of his journey unearths these surprising linguistic juxtapositions. He finds that the dominant culture is killing his people. Instead of living in harmony with the land, they are prisoners in the “State Pen” or unemployed welders in Dallas. He learns of an elder’s whereabouts when he buys a hot dog and a beer, and, as they watch television together, they see their civil rights steadily erode. Significantly, however, at each stage of his journey, the narrator is sustained by the rising of the sun and by the language and wisdom of his elders. Two old black women, in a symbolic gesture, teach him about the stubbornness and perseverance of turtles and thus about his and all oppressed cultures’ need for resistance and persistence. As he receives a traditional blessing from Chief McGee, he remembers his grandfather and “the mountains, the land from where [the narrator] came.”

A final, illuminating mix of the old and new occurs in the third section when the narrator, a modern American youth wearing the styles of the 1970’s, worries about the potential harassment he might encounter in the deep South because of his long hair. This concern calls to mind his grandfather, named “Tall One” by the Acoma, who also had long hair. Thus, while Ortiz merges the “Mericano” and Native American cultures, it is not with a sense of despair but rather a conviction that the traditions and heritage provide security in the present and an empowering solidarity with all oppressed peoples.

Ortiz saves the most meaningful situation, which illustrates the chasm between the old ways and the new, for the end of the last section in which the narrator’s “brothers,” the squirrel and red bird, refuse the crumbs of white bread he offers, a symbolic rendering of the “too little, too late” offerings of white society. The American Indian beliefs that animals are relatives and that their presence in life offers messages humans would do well to heed are instructive: Their refusal suggests that the narrator, too, should decline the “leftovers” of mainstream culture and thereby defy the tacit degradation accompanying such gestures.

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Themes