Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

May 4, 2021

Blue horses on a red mile, Ortiz and Tapahonso

Blue horses on a red mile, Ortiz and Tapahonso

Searching through my files, a stellar glimmer of the past appears, the beauty and clarity of the poetry of Simon Ortiz and Luci Tapahonso. Written in October of 2005, I share it because of the breathtaking beauty of their poetry and power of their words.

Brenda Norrell
Censored News

There are some things that are irreplaceable, like water; and some things that cannot be changed, such as time. But when it comes to transmuting the land and air, scents and sounds of their homelands into verse, Simon Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo, and Luci Tapahonso, Navajo, are master alchemists.

Their sense of place, rooted in their homelands of Acoma Pueblo and the Navajo Nation, are tasted, felt and breathed. Ortiz and Tapahonso have cheated time and place, in their ability to transport readers by verse.

From the uranium mines of Laguna Pueblo to the pickup truck views of the Shiprock fair and on to the streets of Gallup, New Mexico, the poetry of Ortiz and Tapahonso is a going home visit for those who have lived close to this land. For those who have not been here, their verses are the promise of what is yet to come, the description of new friends and old family.

There are road trips too, with Ortiz on the backroads through the continent, and Tapahonso eating chiles in Albuquerque. At times they arrive in the same place in their verses, like in the Navajos’ Chuska Mountains, with the white-barked aspens and their interconnecting roots. They pass in verse again at times, when the scent of roasting chiles takes them back to feast days on Acoma Pueblo. Again, their verses speak of Grandmother Spider, Coyote and the weavers and tricksters of life.

With birthings and passings, their poetry marks passages and seasons, hard times and good times and the people along the way.

Thank goodness, says Ortiz, “Indians are everywhere.”

Both Ortiz and Tapahonso are published poets and university professors, Ortiz on faculty at the University of Toronto in Canada and Tapahonso at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

But it is their voices, carrying the voices of their land and their people, that endear them to readers and mark their place as premiere American Indian poets of the Twentieth Century.

Ortiz, too, is a revolutionary in principle and passion. When the Zapatistas of Acteal, Chiapas, were slaughtered in 1998, Ortiz joined protesters in Tucson, Ariz., in a memorial march, carrying tiny white crosses which bore the names of the victims of Mayans massacred by paramilitary forces.

“It is not just a Mayan struggle in defense of land and culture, it is also our struggle for a human way of life,” Ortiz said. “It is a life and death matter for us to speak and act for ourselves.

“The same language they speak when they fight for their language, their culture and their land is the same language we speak when we fight for our lives," Ortiz said at the memorial.

When the names of each Mayan victim were read, the crowd sounded out,

"Presente!" (Present!)

Joining Comandante Marcos and others, Ortiz’ commentary on the importance of the Zapatistas movement is included in the book, “Questions & Swords, Folktales of the Zapatista Revolution.”

Writing of wind visions and the horizons, Ortiz has risen to international fame. His numerous books of poetry and short stories include “Woven Stone,” “From Sand Creek: Rising In This Heart Which Is Our America” and “After and Before the Lightning.”

While teaching at universities across the western United States, including the Institute of American Indian Arts, Ortiz’ verses reflected Indians everywhere, including those who died in the New Mexico uranium mines and Vietnam. There is the highway culture of the west, the “Top of the World, Real Indian Village,” with its reptiles, moccasins and five-cent postcards.

Tapahonso captures the flavor of Navajo life, from the flapping sounds of the fry bread, to the simmering mutton stew. She shares her memories of a grandmother who broke horses and those in the family who have passed on.

"At Zuni, they say it rains when a good person dies …”

With the sight of the old dog and rain clouds, Tapahonso is home in Shiprock and she returns to the center of life.

"As we talk, laugh and eat, I see that I am myself once again.”

Going home, and taking the lovers of poetic verse with her, is what Tapahonso does best. She grew up in Shiprock and later, while teaching in Kansas, she returned to write of the scents, tastes and memories.

In her mother’s kitchen, she remembers the Navajo, Zen-like, philosophy of preparing food.

“Think about good things when preparing meals,” she says. “It is much more than physical nourishment. The way the cook, or cooks, think and feel become a part of the meal. Food that is prepared with careful thought, contentment, and good memories tastes so good and nurtures the mind and spirit, as well as the body. Once my mother chased me out of the kitchen because it is disheartening to think of eating something cooked by an angry person.”

Tapahonso, now the mother of five, grew up in a family of 11 children and Navajo was her first language. After gaining her bachelors and masters degree in English at the University of New Mexico, she taught at UNM and later at the University of Kansas before joining the faculty at the University of Arizona.

Tapahonso says it was the storytelling and singing of Navajo traditional ways that encouraged her poetic voice and vision. There is, however, the contemporary with the traditional.

In poetic verse, Tapahonso writes of down-and-out, done-me-wrong love affairs. There was “Raisin Eyes,” the rodeo rider who Ella is gonna leave someday. Ella, however, has already paid for Raisin Eyes’ Tony Lama boots.

“These Navajo cowboys with raisin eyes and pointed boots are just bad news but it's hard to remember that all the time,” Tapahonso says in the ode to “Raisin Eyes.”

Hills Brothers coffee is her uncle’s favorite and as she pours a cup for him, his voice is the voice of Navajo uncles. “I drink a hot coffee and it sure does it for me.”

But in “Pay up or else,” Tapahonso tells of another reality for Navajos.

“Vincent Watchman was shot; in the head February 12; because he owed 97c at a Thriftway gas station. While he lay dead, the anglo gas boy said; I only meant to shoot out his car tires and scare him.”

Tapahonso says that the shooter fired two poor shots -- one in the head, one in the rear window. The police cited him for shooting a firearm within city limits. It wasn’t company policy to shoot those who overflow at self-serve pumps, she explains in the poem.

“… while we realized our lives weren't worth a dollar; and a 24-year-old Ganado man never used; the $3 worth of gas he paid for.”

Tapahonso’s books of poetry include “One More Shiprock Night” and “Seasonal Woman,” “A Breeze Swept Through,” “Sáanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing” and “Blue Horses Rush In.”

Both Ortiz and Tapahonso write of Coyote. They know he is there, ahead, and know to say the prayer for safe passage.

Ortiz writes, “I smile at his tracks which are not fresh; except in memory and say a brief prayer; for good luck for him and for me and thanks.”

“The horizons are still mine,” says Ortiz.

Article and photo copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News.

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