Monthly Archives: May 2012

Happy (Belated) Birthday Simon Ortiz!

This is another commemoration in a continuing series of posts celebrating the birthdays of important Native authors. I include authors of all forms whether literary, academic, or both (as so many of our finest Native novelists are). If you have any important folks you want to make sure I don’t miss, drop me a line!

This may be the first birthday post that is not an unbroken stream of praise. For Simon Ortiz is a writer who I like much more as a person than as a poet. I often feel bad about this when I read his poetry because I wish I could like his poems as much as I like what he says about his poems. Perhaps it is the simplicity of his poetry that off-puts me; I slip so easily into mazes that a straight line seems somehow like cheating.

Simon Ortiz wearing his signature wild patterned shirt but without his signature spectacles.

Ortiz often says that his role as a poet is to “demystify language.” His language works not only with the things people say (many of his poems are conversations) but with the things the land says. He describes the shape of the land, the creatures within it, as landmarks in a larger universe of stories. It is the universe of the Acoma Indians, the universe Ortiz was raised in and knew through the Acoma language.

Ortiz was born on May 27th 1941. Like many Indian children of his generation, Ortiz was sent to a boarding school for his early education. The struggle to maintain a connection to his tribal stories and language against the strict enforcement of a English is something that resonates in much of his life’s work. Ortiz speaks often of the difficulty of translating Acoma stories and perspectives into the dominant language. Yet the age old cliche of the Indian torn between two worlds doesn’t work here. Like many Indians, Ortiz has found a way to make it work, to continue in English what has always existed for him in Acoma. So as he devoured every book he could get his hands on, he placed the English world/language in a continuum (not a binary) of his Acoma upbringing:

“…when I learned to read and write, I believe I felt those [Acoma] stories continued somehow in the new language and they would never be lost, forgotten, and finally gone. They would always continue.”

Ortiz was certainly a precocious one, nose always in a book and ear always tuned to a story. And as a man after my own heart, he would listen to and absorb the country greats like Hank Williams He could sometimes be found digesting the dictionary word by word. His father often called him “the reporter” because of his incessant need to know and understand the things people said.

This desire, near-obsession, to remember everything, to always connect this present and the ever-coming future to a past, is what gives many of Ortiz’s poems the feel of a journal entry. He is a recorder; his pen presses like a needle into unmarked vinyl preserving every small vibration between him and the world. He not only wants to tell us everything he felt and saw within the poem, he wants to tell us how he wrote the poem. So before we read “The Wisconsin Horse” we learn it is “late at night, lying drunk on the floor, hearing a church bell across the street, remembering that Wisconsin Horse this Spring.”

As much as Ortiz’s poems center on the small experiences of the everyday, there is an unmistakable political intent in his poetry. This is in large part because of Ortiz’s insistence that Indian language and identity are the strongest ways to hold onto Indian land. He studies the microcosms, the conversation at the bar, a trick of light in a canyon, and tells the bigger story of dispossession, loss.

I leave you with the 11th section of a 13-part poem called Many Farms Notes. It was, Ortiz tells us, written on a trip to Many Farms, AZ in the spring of 1973:

“What would you say that the main theme

of your poetry is?”

“To put it as simply as possible,

I say it this way: to recognize

the relationships I share with everything.”

I would like to know well the path

from just east of Black Mountain

to the gray outcropping of Roof Butte

without having to worry

about the shortest way possible.

This poem and everything I quoted from in this post is from the collection Woven Stone, an anthology of three books written by Ortiz and the best place to start acquainting yourself with the poet.


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Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Being Indian

I listen to NPR nearly every morning just to have some background noise as I fry up an egg, toast a tortilla, and put an ice-cube in my tea so I can gulp it down before scrambling to find my keys and a clean pair of socks. Most days the most relevant news for my life is the weather report. But I listen anyway, lampooning the earnest voices, slowly shaking my head, and waiting until I turn on my computer to find the perspectives I actually care about.

This past Wednesday morning, however, I was greeted by a sound quite foreign. It was the word “Cherokee,” as in the Cherokee tribe, as in Indians being discussed on national radio. The whole phrase was “highly contested Cherokee heritage” and it was in reference to Elizabeth Warren, the democratic rival of that handsome devil, Republican Senator Scott Brown. The two are currently locked in a mud-slinging senate race in Massachusetts that has attracted massive media attention and been described at times as “intense,” “Hot! Hot! Hot!” and, more solemnly, “a reflection of the troubled soul of our broken nation.”

Both candidates have taken to accusing the other of ethical missteps, the most recent being that Warren’s characterization as a “minority professor” in the directory at Harvard Law School was a wanton, self-serving lie. Warren claims she self-identified as a minority on account of her Cherokee heritage and with the intention of meeting others with similar backgrounds. Now Brown’s supporters are calling for Warren to release her personnel files and academic applications so they can wave them around and yell about how affirmative action is a total scam.

The scam seems to lie in the fact that the amount of Cherokee blood Warren has coursing through her veins has been quantified as a mere 1/32nd. This constitutes “cheating” in many people’s minds because anyone who has only 1/32 Indian blood couldn’t possibly be a real Cherokee; they are obviously just a ruthless schemer using a flawed system to fuel their own twisted ambition. “CherokeeGate” has thus not only opened the old arguments against affirmative action, it has re-opened the even older debates about what makes a real Indian. As with most cases of Indians in the news, the loudest voices in this controversy have been patently misguided and often racist.

To begin with, anyone who still believes blood quantum is a true measure of identity is living in the 19th century. Blood quantum, the measure by which the government determines one’s degree of Indian ancestry, has got to be one of the most plainly hypocritical logics the American government has ever used to disenfranchise people. At the same time America was using the “one drop” rule to categorize as many people with African ancestry as slaves as possible, they were using a reverse “one drop” rule on Indians in order to categorize them as white in the hopes this would loosen ties to the communally held land settlers desperately wanted.

Yet, if Warren claimed 1/32nd Cherokee heritage and was dark-skinned, I bet the conversation would be a lot different. The problem is Warren just doesn’t look Cherokee enough. Because of her physical appearance, many believe she has not had a genuine minority experience and does not deserve to claim minority status. To some degree, that is correct. As a light-skinned woman whom most people read as of Western-European descent, Warren has probably never experienced outright racism first-hand. Because she is granted white privilege based on her white appearance, however, does not necessarily mean she is just white—this applies not only to Elizabeth Warren but to all light-skinned people with non-European heritage. Though they must be held accountable for their conditional privilege and to the communities they purport to belong to, their decision to connect to their heritage is theirs alone. Nobody gets to decide that for them but their ancestors.

Unfortunately, in defending herself and her choice to list herself as minority professor, Warren has relied on her own reductionist interpretations of Indianness. While she did give a sincere account about the family history she was told and raised on, she has also tried to confirm her Cherokee ancestry by pointing to the high cheekbones of her grandfather. I mean, a part of me gets it. For those of us who do not look Indian enough (which these days requires full-blown regalia or being dead) or those of us who are cut off from our tribal communities, there is a struggle to identify what exactly is Indian about us. That sometimes comes out in misguided generalizations that we know will be understood by the ignorant, Hollywood-fed American public. In many cases those ignorant, Hollywood-based images are some of the only ways we know ourselves what constitutes an authentic Indian.

For me, being Navajo is a political identity based on the fact that I have ancestors that inhabited this land with alternative systems of governance that were then completely destroyed by the settlement of Americans. For Warren, it seems, being Cherokee is not just about her grandfather’s handsome bone structure but a sense of place (from her Oklahoma upbringing) and a family tradition carried down through orally-transmitted stories. Though this is only conjecture on my part and though I do wish Warren had a history of serving and being accountable to the Cherokee people she is so proud to be tied to, I have few problems with somebody who self-identifies as part Indian based on oral history and a connection to land.

There is no single Cherokee experience just as there is no single Indian or American experience. Yet, people who invoke their Indian heritage are disproportionally held to a higher burden of proof. You can tell anyone you are descendent from Swedish royalty without problem, but try being accepted as really Indian, without knowing some sacred rites or sporting dark, brooding looks and you’re out of luck. People who are an estimated 1/33rd Irish, such as President Obama, are not viciously attacked when invoking their heritage. They are not asked to release documents to prove that their trip to Ireland was not an attempt to cheat a system that unfairly grants favors to white people.

It may be true that some people out there have checked the Native American box because they want an “exotic” background that some will see as sexy and some college official will see as good for “diversifying” campus. But I am willing to bet, in fact I am fairly certain, that the vast majority of people who claim to be Indian on their college application, either as students or professors, don’t do so to pull a fast one on the system. They did so because they sincerely count themselves as proud members of their tribes. They did so because anything else would be a betrayal of where they came from and who they stand for. They did so because even if they don’t look the part, they are the Indian that refused to disappear. If you think being an Indian is some golden ticket to success, you have five-hundred years of history to catch up on.

Unfortunately, I never hear about that history and all the other people who worked and struggled to check the Native American box on a college application on NPR. The lack of indigenous presence in the media makes possible the wanton racism that has been expressed around Warren’s Indian identity. I guarantee that if a wider variety of stories about Indians were presented in the mainstream media, beyond the usual “Poor, Drunk Indians Continue to be Tragic” specials we see every five years, it would be a lot harder for people to get away with the casual racism that is leveled at Indians much too often.

In this case, it’s as if conservatives have been storing up all the unoriginal stereotypes of Indians they can think of, just waiting for a chance to unleash them all in one gushing flow of digital racist vomit. On Twitter this was manifested through the trending hashtag #ElizabethWarrenIndianNames which included such zingers as Pocca-hot-mess (a clever variation on the tired Pocca-hot-ass) and Lia-watha. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter at her ever-insightful best wrote a piece called “Elizabeth Warren’s Indian Name: Dances with Lies” which opens with, “Elizabeth Warren, who also goes by her Indian name, ‘Lies on Race Box,’ is in big heap-um trouble.”

If Elizabeth Warren hasn’t been a victim of racialized verbal violence before in her life, she certainly is now. Welcome to the good life.

This article was originally published at Indian Country Today Media Network.


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Whose Stories? Our Stories: Taking Back Diné Identity

The Navajo delegation to Washington D.C. in 1874. Juanita and Manuelito are seated front row center with Manuelito’s son sitting next to them, second from the right. Source:

An indigenous person looking to investigate their past comes up against many strange ironies, greatest among them that the dominant culture, which has tried to eradicate and replace indigenous cultures, has  also been the largest producer of the histories about those cultures. In order to control an indigenous past, conquerors have often found it necessary to control what is accepted as the indigenous past. These sanctioned accounts are whitewashed yarns that talk briefly of injustices committed against the indigenous population, before focusing on the inherent, unavoidable indigenous penchant for tragedy, all the while building up to a cheery, enlightened end in multicultural assimilation.

While this is the history most widely heard, it is certainly not the only history that is told. As Jennifer Nez Denetdale shows in her book Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Chief Manuelito and Juanita, indigenous people, in this case the Navajo, have always maintained through oral history their own version of the past and what it means for the present.

Denetdale came upon the topic for her book after discovering photos of her great-great-great-grandmother Juanita, one of Navajo Chief Manuelito’s four wives but widely reported to be his favorite and constant companion. They appeared to have been taken by George Wharton James, a collector of Navajo textiles and lecturer on Indian cultures of the Southwest. “Like many other white Americans of his generation, James has imposed his own meanings on Juanita’s life and on Navajos in general.” Denetdale argues that photos such as James’ “reinforce reductionist representations while masking the unimaginable historical traumas Navajos have survived.”

In the case of Navajo women, such as Juanita, Jame’s photos enforce the image of a Navajo woman as a weaver. This image fit into the burgeoning arts and crafts market which was emerging in Santa Fe and depended on a strict criteria of Indian authenticity. Although Juanita was never well-known for her weaving abilities, James is quick to classify her as a weaver and shows her exhibiting blankets and surrounded by weaving devices. Photos such as these and ones which show Juanita with Manuelito and children frame her as a traditional mother type who does typical women’s work. They fail to capture Juanita’s skills outside the domestic sphere and the fact that traditional Navajo families are not nuclear nor patriarchal.

While the photos of Juanita’s as well as her role in negotiating with the US government have long been obscured, Manuelito’s life and image have been widely known.  He is the most famous of the Navajos both in his time and still today. Dentedale describes the official American narrative about Manuelito as one that emphasizes the military defeat of a noble leader, an Indian unable to acclimate to reservation life who tragically succumbed to alcoholism. While Manuelito’s descendents’ accounts rely to some degree on American accounts to fill the gaps of their collective memory, few are simply willing to accept the official story  about their people and history as the whole truth.

For Navajos, the most defining characteristic  of Manuelito’s life is his promotion of education as a means of tribal advancement. His name graces the tribal scholarship fund that assist many young Navajos, myself included, in funding college and graduate school. He is known to have said that education was the ladder that would lead the Navajo people to a better life. He is also memorialized as a staunch defender of Navajo people and land not only against the American settlers but also the Mexican slave raiders who targeted Navajo women and children until the early 20th century. This side of Manuelito and Navajo life reflects histories that are never acknowledged in American accounts such as American assistance with slave raiding in an attempt to seize Navajo land and the fact that many Navajos were not trapped in the past but willing to seek new ways to create a future.

Unfortunately, the hugely disruptive events that have torn Navajos from their homeland, known as Diné Bikéyah, have been catastrophic for keeping histories intact. Dentedale experienced this first-hand while conducting her research into precarious and tumultuous lives: “The first response to my queries about our grandparents included a litany  of answers like ‘I don’t know,’ ‘We didn’t ask questions,’ and “We should have listened when we were told stories of our grandmother.’” Many of the relatives she talked to were sent to boarding schools and had few opportunities to unearth memories many wanted to forget.

Memories from before 1868 are especially unstable. In 1863, the Navajo were finally subjugated by  a series of slave raids and attacks on their fields. They were forced to relocate to Bosque Redondo a prison camp far from the Dine homeland where Navajos would remain for five years. The journey to the squalor and disease and starvation that awaited the Navajos there is called The Long Walk.

The Long Walk continues to pervade Navajo stories as the central struggle defining the people’s ability to overcome hardship to reach a place of reconciliation. In the latter half of Reclaiming Dine History, Denetdale explores how this aspect of stories told about the past reflect the first story told by the Navajos, the creation story. In doing so she shows not only how the creation story is a kind of history but also how each time Navajos tell their history they experience again the process of creation. That is why Navajo-based accounts of the Navajo past are so important. They not only tell a fuller picture of what happened but also reinforce the traditions that draw a people together as a tribe.

My own story is an example of how often that does not happen, and how a person descendent from the one of the first four clans that originally classified the first Navajo families in the Southwest can lose touch with all that has drawn those clans together. Such occurrences are rarely by choice and often through trauma.

There is only a single afternoon I can truly count as spending time with my great-grandmother. My mom, my mom’s cousin, and I followed her through the rooms of the house she was staying in as she walked sideways through time. She kept asking where her children, my mom’s dad and his siblings, were though they had grown up and left decades earlier. Though we were introduced several times, I don’t think she even knew who I was. And I knew very little about her– only that she had her first child when she was thirteen or fourteen, that she was very old now and that her hair was still so black I could hardly believe it was real. She died not long after that and we never talked together.

My middle name is Catherine. I was supposedly named for my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when my mother was only four years old. After that, my mother was sent to live with white people, old white people who are not often talked about but who are not described as very nice people, not very nice people at all. It was not until a couple years ago that my mom found some official document with her mother’s name on it. Her name was not Catherine, but there’s no changing mine now.

Our broken, untold histories are a part of us, sometimes more so than the linear and factual narrative. What little we can remember, what we have cobbled together from what we were told and what we told ourselves to get through– that is what becomes real, that is what becomes who we are, what we call ourselves.

This is not to say that we are only our broken memories and fractured past. It is only to say that we must acknowledge the silences and gaps that spot the terrain of our consciousness as a people and resist  Western accounts that fill in what they need to believe and what they want us to believe about ourselves.  Indigenous scholars such as Jennifer Nez Denetdale provide a model for doing so by investigating her own past with the techniques of both the Western academy and the Navajo oral tradition. She is one amongst what I hope is a growing number of Native scholars rising up to uncover the traces of tribal truth and uproot the lies that have grown too long like invasive weeds in our perceptions of the past.

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