Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

June 2, 2020

Navajo Poet Laureate Laura Tohe receives Academy of American Poets Fellowship

Laura Tohe Photo by J Morgan Edwards

Navajo Poet Laureate Laura Tohe receives Academy of American Poets Fellowship

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

Laura Tohe, Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation, is the recipient of a major fellowship award from the Academy of American Poets. She is one of 23 Poets Laureate of states, cities, counties, and the Navajo Nation who will receive the Poets Laureate fellowship this year. And the funds will be used to lead civic poetry programs locally in the year ahead. These initiatives will take place between 2020-2021.

Tohe, who grew up in the Chuska Mountains, on the Navajo Nation in Crystal, New Mexico, shares the joy of life and the Female Rain in the sweet-scented pinyon high county. She also shares the reality of the abuse in boarding schools.

“Our language was beat out of us,” Tohe said. “Boarding school was taking away our voices.”

Tohe, however, struggled and maintained her “Navajo heart and Navajo mind.”

“I wrote in secret for a long time," Tohe said in Tucson in 2007.

Tohe is Sleepy-Rock People clan and born for the Bitter Water People clan. She is the author of Tseyí / Deep in the Rock, University of Arizona Press, 2005, which received the Arizona Book Association’s Glyph Award for Best Poetry and Best Book. She is Professor Emerita with Distinction at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and the current Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation.

Laura Tohe, photo by Brenda Norrell 2007
Speaking in Tucson, Tohe said the beauty, tone, intimacy and connection of language is present in the Dine’ language.

“The medicine men were the first poets,” Tohe said at the Tucson symposium, describing how language and poetry have influenced her life.

Tohe told Indian school stories, like the funny poetic memory of a good-looking chauffeur, driving her and a friend back to Indian school after late classes one afternoon. The poem is, “Sometimes Those Pueblo Men Can Sure be Coyotes,” from her book, “No Parole Today,” from West End Press in Albuquerque.

Tohe also read her poem, “Mennen Skin Bracer,” about the sweet scent of a first boyfriend’s cologne at the Indian school gym, which lingered through the years.

However, in her book, “No Parole Today,” Tohe doesn’t just tell funny stories. Tohe shares a story from her grandmother, Julia Barton, who went to boarding school at Haskell, Kansas. Barton described the jails in the basement where young girls from Mount Taylor were held in that dungeon for a month after they tried to run away. Buckets served as toilets.

“We used to hear them yelling and crying,” Barton told her. “Some of us ran away and were caught. They balled and chained us just like in those old silent movies.”

In the book, “No Parole Today,” and during her address at the symposium, Tohe, bilingual since her early childhood, described how she translated for the little children when she started to school. She described how the children were slapped and punished who did not speak English.

“Joe Babes,” she writes in the poem by the same name, were the students that teachers put in the corners for speaking Indian. Then, after the government decided it was OK, they sang at pow-wows and Indian clubs.

In her poem 'Returning,' Tohe writes:

I’ve been somewhere. My mind struggles to remember the cornfields and fruit trees blooming like a young woman’s body and the place where my brothers built the shade house for our sister’s marriage beneath the slender moon where my mother wove her last blanket.

I walked this empty road before in the month of the big harvest when The People left the canyon with wagons loaded with peaches and corn to take to relatives and to trade with our neighbors who live on the high windy mesas.

I am returning to the red rocks that once cradled us and from whose arms we were torn when death marched in, surrounded us, and slaughtered everything that we loved.

I am the kidnapped one and survived to escape the enemy who feared our graceful lives because we know that Beauty cannot be captured with words or jails." (Full poem.)

As Fellowship winner, Tohe will promote poetry in communities and rural schools on the Navajo Nation through youth writing workshops facilitated by established Diné writers while continuing to support the writing programs, Emerging Navajo Writers and Saad Bee Hozho, at Navajo Tech University and Diné College, further developing poetry workshops, panel discussions and poetry readings for high school and college students.


Laura Tohe is Sleepy-Rock People clan and born for the Bitter Water People clan. Tohe grew up at the in the Chuska Mountains in Crystal, New Mexico, and is the author of Tseyí / Deep in the Rock (University of Arizona Press, 2005), which received the Arizona Book Association’s Glyph Award for Best Poetry and Best Book; No Parole Today (West End Press, 1999), which was named Poetry Book of the Year by the Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers; and Making Friends with Water (Nosila Press, 1986).

Tohe is also the author of Code Talker Stories (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2012) and co-editor of Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002). The Phoenix Symphony commissioned her to write the libretto for Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio, which made its 2008 world premiere as part of the Phoenix Symphony’s sixtieth anniversary. Her recent libretto, Nahasdzaan in the Glittering World, will make its next performance in Grenoble and Havre, France in 2021.

She is the recipient of the Arizona Humanities Dan Schilling Public Scholar Award, the 2019 American Indian Festival of Words Writer’s Award, and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Award. She is Professor Emerita with Distinction at Arizona State University and the current poet laureate of the Navajo Nation.

Arizona State University celebrates Tohe's distinction

Arizona State University said Tohe is one of two Arizona State University professors are now among a prestigious class of poets that have been selected by the Academy of American Poets for fellowships made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Tohe is among 23 individuals serving as poets laureate of states, cities, counties and the Navajo Nation who will be leading civic poetry programs in their respective communities in the coming year. Each fellow will receive $50,000 for a combined total of $1.1 million. The academy will also provide $66,500 to 12 local 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that have agreed to support the fellows’ proposed projects.

Tohe’s project will further her work with students in the Navajo Nation through poetry-writing workshops and programs that focus on the Navajo language, which is listed as vulnerable by UNESCO.

ASU said Tohe had planned to work in person with students on the Navajo Nation homeland but due to the coronavirus outbreak that has hit members of the Navajo Nation particularly hard, she will conduct her workshops through the online video conference platform Zoom with the support of school administration.

Read the full list of 2020 Poets Laureate Fellows.

The Academy of American Poets, through its Poets Laureate Fellowship program, has become the largest financial supporter of poets in the nation. The Mellon Foundation awarded the academy $4.5 million in January of this year to fund the fellowship program through 2022. This year, in response to the global health crisis, the academy launched the #ShelterInPoems initiative, inviting members of the public to select poems of comfort and courage from its online collection to share with others on social media. The academy is also one of seven national organizations that comprise Artist Relief, a multidisciplinary coalition of arts grantmakers and a consortium of foundations collaborating to provide funding to individual poets, writers and artists who are impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

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