If you want to crush a person, strike that person first in the mouth. The U.S. government knew this when, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it rounded up native children and transported them to boarding schools across the country. One of the most important steps of the government’s systematic program of “civilization” and assimilation began: Native children were not allowed to speak their languages. When they returned home to tribal lands (and many did not return home), they no longer spoke their heritage languages. The tongues that once connected them to their parents’ and grandparents’ wisdom and values—stories, warnings, jokes, expressions of affection, songs—were severed.
The motto of Captain Richard Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, was “kill the Indian and save the man.” What he meant was that all traces of what made an “Indian” an “Indian” should be eradicated. Had Pratt and the government succeeded, our languages—our physical bodies too—would be gone. Learning and speaking one’s native language is an emotional and political act. Each time a poet brings a native language onto the white space of the page, into the white space of the academies and institutions of poetry, it is an emotional and political act. Across the nation, across the globe, natives are working to revive, rebuild, and recover their languages within their own communities—this is not only the work I do, but it is also the work of several of the poets featured in this essay. An effort to legitimize our languages outside of our families and communities, to claim them publicly, to share their beauty publicly, to prove they are equal to if not greater than English, to place our languages in the very white space where they have been silenced and excluded is an intentional and careful choice. The stakes of bringing our languages to the page are made even greater by the fact that, originally, many native languages were not written but oral. Ofelia Zepeda, a Tohono O’odham poet, teacher, language activist, and cofounder of the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of the Arizona, says, “I write in O’odham because I can.” It is true. We can, and we must.
On many occasions, after readings at which I am the only native reader in the lineup, and especially if I am the only person of color in the lineup, the things said to me are different from those said to my nonnative colleagues. The most common response I hear directed toward my colleagues is, “Good reading,” whereas I am told, “That was a good performance.” Performance, of course, is a loaded word for many reasons, not the least of which is the association the word has with the red- and blackface depictions presented in our culture as recently as the new Adam Sandler movie, scheduled for release in December. It is as if, for certain audience members, my identity as a native person overpowers my identity as a writer. While my nonnative, white colleagues are heard and even critiqued as writers who employ skill to craft a poem and deliver it to an audience, it’s as if I am looked at as having relied on some innate part of my native identity. In certain eyes, I didn’t toil over my poem, I simply performed my nativeness.
Native poets also encounter this perception when they incorporate native language into their poems. Rather than its presence being understood as a craft choice, a language choice, a verb choice—it is all of these things and so much more—it is perceived as something less than craft and expertise. Poems that employ native language are often viewed by the academy, or audience members educated by the academy, as something more along the lines of folk art, something that has arisen out of that still “wild,” “uneducated,” “naked” part of us that hasn’t fully assimilated.
We are often regarded as dead people frozen in museum time—our languages, too, are interpreted and misunderstood as something ancient and not alive, something primitive and therefore undeveloped, therefore lesser. As Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota poet and language learner whose first book is forthcoming from Graywolf Press, says, “People interpret my work, no matter what the content, according to their own ideas of who I am, where I’m coming from, what they think I’m all about. This is why, for example, I am often asked to visit and share my work in anthropology, cultural studies, or political science classes as opposed to poetry classes.” For many, we exist as museum exhibits, our poems in both our native languages and in English become artifacts, each page like a petroglyph in the mind of an English-only reader.
I’ve often heard from workshop students who read English-only poems that the presence of a language other than English in poetry excludes them. They cannot understand why a poet would write in a language that excludes her audience. These students, many of whom move on to teach or judge prizes or screen grant applications, have assumed (or been taught) that they are the only audience. For them, there is no audience beyond English-only speaking readers and listeners—it is unfathomable and confusing for these English-only speakers to imagine a native audience, a native people who want and need to hear poetry, natives who can understand and access poetry.
Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui writes in both English and Diné bizaad, and when asked about writing a poem entirely or partly in his native language, he replied, “I enjoy the meeting of languages in space that I’ve created. The exchange enhances the tone of the work and I hope, even if certain words are not translated, a reader might perhaps get a sense of what is being articulated. If not, I am totally cool with just sharing the beauty of my language with people who may have never heard a language that has been spoken for millennia on this continent. As a native person, I feel I need to keep imagining the world in my language. My language leads me to another time and opens up doors between all spaces. I am free here.”
A language that has been spoken for millennia. A language that has been evolving and growing and carrying knowledge and history for millennia. A language that is still alive—it is spoken, lied in, loved in, dreamed in, written in. It undoubtedly holds more than American English. Yet, when native languages such as Bitsui’s come to the page, they are often viewed through the lens of anthropology—not as art, not as poetry. If I had a buffalo nickel for every time someone told me my voice was like a drum, or my poems were like a chant they heard once when they visited a Pueblo reservation (I’m not Pueblo), I could buy the Washington Redskins. Margaret Noodin, a poet and teacher of Anishinaabemowin, is often asked if what she is reading is a poem or song lyrics, “As if,” she says, “there is a difference that places one above the other.”
There is a reason why many natives come to poetry, and not because, as I’ve heard on occasion, we speak in poetry. Not because we were born with poetry in our mouths and eagles in our hearts. We come to poetry for the same reasons nonnatives come to poetry: because of the role it has played throughout history and our lifetimes—it is a place to remember what has been done to us and to others, to remind those who have done those things to us, to challenge the world, to elegize our loved ones, and it’s also a place to be hopeful and grateful—a space that simultaneously encompasses the past, present, and future. Yes, poetry is a fitting place to bring our languages.
As Zepeda says, we write in the language because we can. If we can, then we must. Emerging poet Michael Wasson, Nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation, has been energized and inspired by the language work of poets like Bitsui and Joan Naviyuk Kane. He is part of another generation who is learning the freedom of the page. He says, “I can drag all these stories and utterances, poems and lyrics, to the door of the poetry world, knock, leave them there with some instructions and a note that says, ‘Here are some songs to listen to. I made them myself, from the bones of the living and the dead. My living. My dead. Yes, they come from a world before and during America.’”
“I have begun to understand that the Inupiaq language itself is a form of resilience, that poems are a form of resilience,” explains Kane, Inupiaq poet and language learner. “By writing in both Inupiaq and English, I am trying at some psychological level to reconcile and resolve the importance of words, how all words make us Inuit.” And yes, all poetry, including native language poetry, is an act of resiliency—we write to say this world is astonishing and irrational. What we have done, what has been done to us, what and how we have endured, when put on the page, cannot be erased. Poetry is proof that we have not been annihilated. Poetry is proof that we are filled with wonder and gratitude.
Native poetry is a crafted, honed, learned art, requiring skill. It is a choice made with great consideration—to use the white space that once silenced us as a platform to speak loudly. Sherwin Bitsui, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Margaret Noodin, Michael Wasson, and Ofelia Zepeda are five of the most exciting Native American poets writing today. They are language speakers, and teachers, and learners, and they are poets who I believe are demanding that our languages live both on the page and off the page.
This essay originally appeared in the fall-winter 2015 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2015 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member online.