The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 519 words.)