A World Carved from Words: The First Navajo Poet Laureate
By Natalie DiazOctober 20, 2014
ON JANUARY 7, 2014, my Institute of American Indian Arts MFA poetry student, Paige Buffington, and I met Luci Tapahonso, the first-ever poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, at her home in Santa Fe. We talked with her about what the poet laureateship means to her.
NATALIE DIAZ: Luci, you are the first-ever poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. What a fitting honor for you and the work you have done. With the appointments of more poet laureates across our country, this phrase is becoming a little more common, at least in the language of writers and readers. What do the words "poet laureate" mean to you?
LUCI TAPAHONSO: It is an honor. Laureate is like laurels, and I really love flowers, so I like the idea of what that image evokes: a laurel, which is an honor already. In this case it is a prize of words.
In Navajo, the idea of words or language is really our origin. We were created by words, and we survived by words. Everything that comprises a Navajo person is based on words — your clan, where you come from, how the world was created.
They say that when the world was first created, the holy people thought about it, then organized their thoughts, and then their thoughts were expressed in words. As they spoke, the Navajo idea of the world or universe was created.
There’s a beautiful song and a beautiful story about the San Francisco Peaks, one of our sacred mountains. They said there was a group of holy people coming from that area south of Flagstaff, and at that time it was all flat. These holy people were like mist beings. They were luminescent. The way they described them, they were figures, and you could see them glitter and sparkle. They were walking and talking and singing. The land they were walking on was responding to them. The land was listening to them. They were singing together in harmony, and it was so beautiful. It was just them and the land, and the song was so beautiful that the land began to undulate in front of them. The mountains rose up in response to their singing. The mountains were created in response to the songs that the holy people were singing. That’s one of the reasons the San Francisco Peaks are one of our sacred mountains.
There are a lot of stories like that, about how words have power that can create and heal. Also destroy. After something is said, the people who heard it will always remember it. You have to think about the words you say.
For me to think about the laureate is like that same idea of honor, how people use words, words that aren’t really mine, that are from our language, from our history. It is not even really me, you know — it is everything that people over the generations and over the centuries have deemed beautiful. And beautiful has a different connotation than aesthetics.
Most poet laureates are named for a city or state, or for the United States even, because they live there or were born there, but you are poet laureate for an entire nation of people, your people. It’s a much different connection that you have to the people you have been named poet laureate for, the people that make up your nation, your tribe, your extended family. How do you see or understand your relationship to words or language in the context of having been named the first-ever poet laureate of the Navajo Nation versus the relationship others might have to, say, their city, or their state?
I think it’s primarily different in regard to the ancestors and the land. I see it as a reflection of the resilience of the people, what people have gone through, and our adaptability and survival. The stories that I write and share with people are really the reflections of what has been deemed important, from different periods, so when I think about what it represents, first it represents the history and the ancestry. It also represents the way people live today and how that shows how language works. There have been a lot of changes … People have moved into positions that our ancestors, my parents, couldn’t even have imagined. Yet at the base of it, it seems to me, through the medium of poetry, people are still really proud of being Navajo. Being Diné means something. [Note: Many people in the Navajo Nation refer to themselves as “Diné.” The term “Navajo” actually comes to us via Spanish and Tewa.] No matter what your experiences are, or no matter how much one is physically removed, culturally removed, or removed because of language — like if you are not a fluent speaker — the idea of identity is strong. This is what is important about it.
I see the position as one that, you know, it’s the first position, so I really feel the weight of that responsibility. When I go places and people invite me because I am the poet laureate, sometimes they have completely different ideas of what it is to be a Navajo or what is poetry … It’s important to do as much as I can to publicize the ideas of language, the importance of family, the importance of history, and also the importance of changes that have happened, that are happening now. Always political issues come up, issues of the environment, issues of education, of poverty, drug use, alcoholism. All of those things are a part of it, too. You can’t just concentrate on poetry like maybe some other people could, because I am really representing, as you say, a whole nation.
The idea of poetry in our Navajo world, speaking — Ya’ jił’tí’i’gí’ — Diníbizaad — is related to the whole — one’s whole life, the whole community. It’s not separated the way poetry is in Western society.
I try to accept as many invitations as I can with the idea that probably people have not met another Navajo before. They don’t really have any idea except maybe the stereotypical kinds of ideas of American Indians. For whoever comes behind me in the next two years, I want to establish what the position entails, and that is a challenge.
I think it is really interesting, as you say, the connectedness throughout the many different communities within the nation. I am wondering about that dynamic and how it affects your relationship to your fellow laureates, because there are many poet laureates now within states, within cities. Do you feel a connectedness to the other poet laureates? Do you feel like you are on your own to focus on your community or do you feel a connection to some of the other poet laureates in the state or in other states, or even, for example, Natasha Trethewey, as the US poet laureate? I think this is something everybody is trying to figure out — how the poet laureates operate and how they connect in the bigger picture.
I think we all connect in our passion for promoting and making sure people understand how important poetry is in our communities and our states and our nations. Poetry is an overlooked and underrated kind of art. I think what we have in common is really the passion for that, and the importance of it, and we try to involve communities and segments of the community that may not really be involved in it. We promote poetry in the schools, community centers, and libraries, but then also just going out and doing poetry workshops, at chapter houses, at high schools, at women’s shelters, or the prisons, where people might not necessarily have the same kind of luck or the fervent connection that we do to poetry. I think the one thing we poet laureates have in common is that passion and that connection. I think everybody has that connection, too, whether you are from Kansas or Wisconsin or wherever — they have connection to their own land, to their own geography, and to their own state. We all have that connection.
I think you have double duty, because as we expand the number of poet laureates, I think there is a certain admission we are making, that poetry needs to be actively revitalized. Continually, we’re saying, "Hey, you need to keep this in the forefront," and like you say, "share poetry with more people." But you also have another level of relationship and respect for language, your Diné language, and all the things your language entails. One of the things we have been talking about in our poetry classes at IAIA is how every word has a story in it, a history in it, it has lies in it, has secrets, and all in a single word. Yet you have more than just the English words for these things. Is there a new conversation to be started then, especially with your appointment as the poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, because it’s not only revitalizing poetry, but it is reminding us of the importance of revitalizing our native languages and all the histories and stories that are carried in them? I am wondering how you navigate that or how you think about that.
It is very complex because, I’ll be honest, everywhere I go I end up talking about history. You have to be schooled or knowledgeable in your own history, in our own history, but also Western history, and how those coincide and how they conflict. You can’t really talk about poetry being important in schools, at least for me, without talking about how Western education has impacted our language and our communities, and how it has fragmented families and our ways of raising children. They have changed.
I can’t really “just” talk about poetry in schools or how important poetry is without, as a Navajo person, my talking about my own experience going to school and not knowing how to talk English — therefore being silenced. I couldn’t speak unless I spoke English, and since I couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t say anything. Even that being the case, and even being in boarding school, when I learned to read, that was, in a way, a salvation for me because by learning how to read, I could read stories. By recognizing that this is a story, and it involves people, and there are dilemmas, and how people feel about each other — because I was already familiar with stories from my own childhood, I found a connection there in being able to read.
My real breakthrough came when I began learning poetics and the history of poetry in terms of Western forms of poetry, and those were really complex and difficult to learn. I made the connection when I was at a Blessing Way ceremony, and the medicine man and other people were singing. The medicine man was praying. The prayer he was saying I had heard many times, but each time it is really beautiful because it evokes all these images. He said it as it was said in the beginning, and it has never changed. If it changes, the ceremony is upset. He has to keep all of it exactly the way he learned it in all his years of apprenticeship. It struck me that if I visualized what he was saying it indeed had form. There was repetition. I realized that what I already had inside me was older than all the ceremony books. From then on, I was really eager, and I didn’t dismiss all of these classic Western poets because I felt like, “I already know this. I just know it in me, I don’t even have to have books.” That was the breakthrough for me.
It’s amazing to hear you say that, because I see my native and Diné students, such as Paige, reading your work and learning from your work. It is really something to see what is being passed through your work and what the students have access to now because of what you have been able to put on the page.
Going back to stories, and that was the quote when I visited your class at University of New Mexico that really screwed into me, after all the conversation, you said, "In the end, poetry is sitting around the table over meat and potatoes telling stories and sharing." In some ways, your role as a poet laureate is to be a storyteller within the community but also to move outside of the community. As you said, it is an honor, but it’s such a large task that you have taken on with the honor of being a poet laureate. Having the courage to tell those stories, to recognize the importance of them, to continue carrying them. This is the first time I have thought of the poet laureate as a storyteller, when I consider you.
I think, at its essence, poetry is storytelling, especially when you think about it in Navajo. Like when you go to a funeral, people always stand up, and they talk about how the person had an impact on their life. They will be kind of crying, and everybody listens. When they start talking, the way they talk just falls into a rhythm. It’s not normal talking. It’s almost like reciting — like reciting a story that in its telling becomes a poem. What the person talking is doing is — though the person has passed on — they are bringing them back. In a way this is a summation of their life, but they are also adding to what you already know about that person that you might not have known before — that person’s memory or the story of that person’s life — because you can only know in your relationship one or two aspects, whether they were your auntie, uncle, or your grandparents, you knew them in that role. But when other people stand up and talk about them, especially people who are related to you but you may not be close to, or people they went to school with, they give you a whole different dimension. Over the afternoon people are talking about this person, and at the same time they are eating, so that that person can have a good journey to the next world. They are eating to give that person strength. So in their eating and their telling, they add to all of these dimensions of this person. So you begin to learn more about this person, and in the learning of it your love for them grows more. It becomes more, becomes stronger, and it adds to the way you remember that person. It really is at the heart — I feel like telling stories is a part of everything.
Is there is an added dimension or responsibility in your teaching now, do you think, because you know people are looking to you as the poet laureate? Maybe even within the nation. How do you consider that role when you’re speaking to other Navajo listeners and members of the Navajo community, students even, versus talking to a non-native or non-Navajo audience?
I share with them my experiences. I try to get in as much as I can, because you don’t have a lot of time. I rely on what I was taught. The way and the care with which I was raised, and the affection, the investment that people made in me. One thing that really helps, and I always tease people in my department and my students, because every time you meet people, and especially when you talk to a group of people in Navajo, it’s like a mandate that you tell your clan and say where you’re from. And you end by saying, “This is the way I am a Navajo woman or a Navajo man. This is how I am a Navajo.” You outline all your ancestors, your history, your grandparents, and by their clans you can tell where they are from, and then you say where you’re from. Simply by repeating that in Navajo — when I am standing before a group — when I say the clans of my ancestors and who my grandparents and my parents are, it is almost like they come to me. They come forth, and it’s like, by saying those words in Navajo, it’s almost like a hug or an embrace, and I really appreciate that. It grounds me wherever I am, and it makes me feel like I am not by myself. I know I’m not by myself by saying those words in Navajo. By saying them, it makes me think of the land and of all of those stories of the land.
Also by the way people talk to me. You know they call me shi yazhí, shí’ awéé, my little one, my baby, my beloved. By saying that, that’s what it brings forth. To me that is lifesaving, because it makes me remember. Also by wearing jewelry, the jewelry that my parents gave me, or by dressing the way that my ancestors did, wearing traditional clothes — that, too, is really important to me when I do things in public. It reminds me, even though I might be by myself on the stage, it really reminds me of my relatives, my ancestors, and what they gave me.
Every year more knowledge is unveiled or revealed. As I get older, I realize and remember things, and people tell me stories. It’s one of the best things. Sometimes after I do a reading, I go have coffee, and people will say, “You know that poem that you read about this and that?” I will say, “Yeah.” Then they will say, “I heard a story like that, except in that story …” and then they will start telling me their story. The more you tell stories, the more people will tell you their stories, and it just adds to the knowledge.
I feel like you invoke stories, because when I heard you read — the first time I heard you read was at the IAIA inaugural MFA reading — the only thing I wanted to do afterward was write. It’s almost like my stories wanted to have a conversation with your stories.
It makes you remember things.
I love that you said it’s like a revealing, that a knowledge or wisdom is revealed. It’s not even necessarily something given, but that it’s already there. It’s like you said, it’s been in you.
But only by age can you know that. So I really don’t mind getting old. You just get stronger and better. It’s really wonderful. So I don’t mind it at all.
Do you recommend it?
Yes, I recommend getting old. [Laughter]
So that brings me to wonder, too, about younger Native writers, but also younger Diné writers. I think it’s a very important acknowledgement of our poetic traditions that the Navajo Nation has a poet laureate, and more importantly that the first of these is you. What do you see the poet laureate of the Navajo Nation representing or meaning to native writers? How does this appointment help represent poetry and language within the nation? Do you feel that it has impacted these things in any way or will it impact them in any way?
I think that it will. I am just at this point planning my spring, and so this poet laureate appointment came out of nowhere. It was just kind of like, “Yeah, you’ve been selected.” I didn’t know that there was such a thing or that it was even in the works. All of a sudden I was told. They told me, and I said, “Well, do I get a horse or something? Or what about a crown?” [Laughter]
What I was told I was supposed to do was very general. What I am working on now is going to different parts of the country and trying to set up some number of things that I can do while I am there. Also going out to the rez — it’s a huge place and it takes about an hour to get here and there, like being in the Western Agency and working in the schools there and doing different things. What I do depends on the age group. With elementary and kindergarten students, what I do is tell them stories. I have all these stories that I used to tell my kids and that people told me when I was a child. That involves a whole different way of presenting.
I still introduce myself in Navajo except maybe I draw pictures of Shiprock, of the mountains, and what it looks like, that kind of thing. Then I tell them a story that involves all of these noises, about something that might seem kind of scary, and in the end it isn’t even scary. It turns out that it was a monster, but it was a baby monster that wears diapers. It’s a whole different dynamic, but people can understand that.
It depends on the age group how you impact them, but I think the thing is that in the end they realize how much fun it can be and what it means to them. I have them do writing exercises like write about when you went with your grandma: What’s the longest trip you ever took? Or, when you take a trip with your grandparents, what do you always do? They will say, “We always have to go to the flea market. And they take a long time, because they have to drink coffee.” They tell me things like that, and I tell them to write about that. They tell wonderful stories about how their grandparents always keep blankets in their car, and they always have stuff for lunch, and sometimes they get hungry, and they will pull off the road, under a tree, and spread out their blanket and have a little picnic there. And they let them play there and run around, and after a while they’ll say, “Okay, let’s go now.” They all get back in, and they go on. That’s the kind of stuff you don’t think can be a poem or a story, but it is, and it can be published. It’s so much fun for me because they say wonderful things.
Then in high school and junior high there’s always the anguish of “so and so doesn’t like me.” I tell them how important poetry is, whether it makes you cry or makes you happy, how important their writing can be. Then I show them things in my books and read them some of my stories. They will say, “Wow! And that’s in a book.” And I will say, “See? You can do that too, and I’m from Shiprock.”
It is beautiful and exciting to hear you talk about the kids and how they are coming to story, how you’re sharing the thing that first brought you to poetry, which is the story. Story is maybe the heartbeat of every poem. Lately, outside of our communities, and in English definitely, there are many discussions around the question "Is poetry dead?" Someone claims, "Poetry is dead." Someone else defends, "Poetry is not dead." People are making strange and maybe energy-wasting arguments in the media over why poetry is dead or creating lists of people who prove it’s not dead. Taking into consideration your description of language and poetry and story in Navajo, and knowing that much of a poet’s work is on language, how do you see the state of poetry in the Navajo nation?
I think it’s really vibrant. Probably in the last 20 years there has been an explosion of writers. Don’t you think? Here in Santa Fe, at the Indian School, there is a Championship Slam Poetry group. They travel all over the country. There are performance groups all over different parts of the Navajo nation. There’s also a Language Bowl, where they enter competitions of storytelling and singing and poetry all the way from kindergarten to high school. They practice all year for it, and they win. Poetry is really being revived, not just in English but in Navajo too. There are also these wonderful immersion schools where kids are fluent in Navajo and English. They read and write in Navajo and English. When I was in school you couldn’t do that.
There are a lot of good writers. The more writers are publishing, and the more they are out in the communities, the more inspiration there is.
The poetry I write is reflective of my own experience in my own time. The poetry that somebody in their 20s or 30s writes is of their own experience, in their own time. All those experiences are needed. When you read them, you see yourself. That’s really true. Do you know how that wasn’t even possible for so many of our grandparents and our parents? There wasn’t even the slightest connection of what they learned to their own experiences.
I think you are giving people a connection, a way to come to their culture and identity and their stories and their land, especially because we have so many points of disconnection — if you don’t live on the rez, or if you are moving on and off, or if you are of mixed blood, or if you don’t know the language. Sometimes we have a bad habit of focusing on the points of disconnection, but when I come to your books, I feel you are inviting everybody back to these pieces of identity, to these stories. Everybody can find their place there, and it might just simply be their immediate place cross-legged on the floor or around the table listening to you. Poetry is such a unifying place, and it feels like a physical place to me. Every one of your poems feels like, "You can come sit here, and I am going to tell you something." And then, like we say, your story comes, and right away a story is revealed in me. It is compelling how you can pass some of that on to people through a piece of paper. What a beautiful thing, for me especially because my work is in fighting for my native language, to see how you have held your language close, how you have put it forward, and to see all the things that it continues to do, how it invites people. Not only does this work strengthen what’s already there, but it also says, "Hey, you can come here. This is who you are." You are giving them a place to come back to, not just a home but a way home.
It has been great to see Paige and our Diné students read your work, to watch it impact them. In terms of the younger Navajo or Diné poets, some of whom are my favorite peer poets (for example Sherwin Bitsui, Orlando White, and also considering some of the more established Diné poets such as Laura Tohi) the language to me is what is so electric and compelling. Not even necessarily depending on the fluency, but I feel that in these poets’ and your work, language becomes — and I am always struck by this idea — language becomes as important as when it was first spoken. Of course I can’t read Diné, but even in the translations or in the English-first poems, I feel that the poems honor every single word and every single sound that those words make. It makes me remember and sometimes even realize for the first time what is important to me. As I do my Mojave language work in my Fort Mojave community, and especially when I write my poems in English or Spanish, I want to know what the words I use meant when they first became words, because I don’t want to waste them. I don’t ever want to empty them of the things they have carried through time. I feel like I shouldn’t even rush over them; I want every word to count.
To be respectful.
Yes, to be respectful. From the way it feels in my mouth, to the way it feels in my ear, to the way I arrange them on the page. These values and this respect is what I see my students learning not only from the culture and the language but from writers like you who have carried yourself out into the world and onto the page. How do you feel about these reverberations through this younger group of Diné poets, the group in their 20s and 30s who are carving their own new ways and also learning from you along the way? What do you think about those poets and the language in those poet’s hands?
As I said, it really reflects their experience. Sometimes when I listen to poetry from kids who are in high school or in college, I really have to figure out and find my way in their work. Because it is just a whole different way — well, not really a different way, but the expressions they use, the way they arrange their words, the rhythms of their words, and even their English are different. I have to find my way, but I always appreciate that there is always a reference to their being Navajo, whatever the experience might be for them. They always begin with that.
Also, I recognize and it reminds me of the anger that exists or the anger that people discover as they are growing up and learning to become adults and beginning to realize this is the world they are going to be living in for the rest of their lives. Maybe as a teenager or a child you don’t really think about that, because your world is pretty insular and for the most part you are secure. You are not really concerned beyond what is in your own environment, but as you begin to grow up, you begin to learn about how other people see you or what the history has been of your family or your nation, or you see other kinds of injustices. You see people being killed or treated badly because they are black or Mexican or because they are Navajo, and it makes you so mad. You just want to explode, it makes you so mad. I can remember that. A lot of my early work is that kind of venting and that kind of outrage that is really necessary as part of finding your place in the world and coming to terms — you don’t really ever come to terms with it — but you can learn about it and maybe not accept it, not be a part of it. You begin to see what you can do to remedy it in your own way.
We all have people in our lives who could have done wonderful things had they not been sidetracked by alcohol or by drugs, by violence or by gangs. You think about how, as a child, as a baby, everybody had their first laugh ceremonies, and you had all of these wonderful things for this beautiful baby. Then, somewhere, something gradually happened. Pretty soon this beautiful kid is angry and sullen and breaking into houses, and you wonder, “How could this happen? How did that happen?” Those are the things that make our lives. That’s what we experience. So poetry can’t all be about beauty. It is a balance. Part of healing or being able to acknowledge that and realize how to understand its impact, how those things can impact so many people, poetry has to do with that too. A lot of what I write deals with those kinds of incidents: how in one split second a decision can ruin your life. The idea is to be able to write and talk about those things in a way that people begin to recognize that or can say, “I’ve been there too,” or, “I didn’t realize the impact of what I did or the path I was on.” Because our families are really huge and we are close to so many people — we are related to people we don’t even know. [Laughing]
I will get a call that so and so is in the hospital — I may not even know this person but they are related to me — and even if I don’t know them, I will go to visit. Then their situation becomes mine, and I worry about them.
I have a large family, and it seems like every week something else is going on. You either have to go to them or offer your assistance. That’s just the way our lives are. We are not like American families where it’s just their own community — it is really broad and we have responsibilities. You cannot ignore it. You have to be involved in it. You have to be there. I am always ready for anything.
One of the things that has really been painful to my family is that my father and a lot of our relatives worked in the uranium mines. To this day, they are struggling with cancer. My sweet niece, my sister’s daughter, is chronically ill, all of the time. It’s just heartbreaking. She’s a beautiful, really intelligent young mother. She has young children. She is in the hospital again. We know it is because my father worked in the uranium mines. The number of illnesses and deaths that have resulted from this experience, when my father and all of those men who worked in that uranium mine were not even told. People could have warned them. They could have told them.
That’s the way our lives are — a lot of non-native people don’t understand that — that constant low-level pain you always have. Yet somehow, because of our resilience, and because people still do really love to tell stories — there is Yei bi chéés every night at home. You can still go back there and stand out there in the cold, freezing, and listen to them sing. They sing and tell stories about the ways the world was created. That is where poetry can be the most powerful. In writing about it, it helps me. Once you put it on paper, and really think about it, and put it in the best way that it can be told, then it is there. Part of your pain and sadness is put there. You always still have it. Physically, [the paper] takes it. There is a part of it that lessens a little bit but you never forget it.
My father used to tell me that, but I never knew what he meant by it. He used to say, when the adults were talking — in Navajo they don’t send the kids out of the room when the adults are talking, but you have to be quiet — about all the things that had happened to our relatives. They would be crying. Just tears. It was so sad to see to the adults in our family heartbroken. I remember my father saying, “We will never forget that person, how they died. Every time we talk about it, we remember it. As time goes on and we talk about it, we will remember how sad it was, but each time we tell it, that hurt becomes replaced with our loving memory of them. Pretty soon the edges of it, which are really painful, begin to blur and fade away. Then what you have is the memory and the love and the presence of what that person was like. You still know how they died and what happened to them, but as time goes on, it’s not as jarring.” The way he said it in Navajo was really beautiful. He didn’t use as many words as I did.
I was thinking, “How can that be because it is always going to be like this? You can’t change what happened to this person.” But as I got older, I realized that it was true. To me that is a distinctly Navajo way of dealing with grief. So there’s that too.
You come into this realization. As a young person, I was out there with AIM [The American Indian Movement], running around. I went to Wounded Knee. I did all kinds of stuff when I was in my 20s. I was really mad. I was really angry, like everybody was. Going to college and becoming educated, I realized the way that I could really change and make some kind of impact was through teaching, and by writing. So I understand that — that angst, that fever — in the way that young people write. I completely understand it. It’s just the way that people have to express themselves.
The ways you talk about story have always stuck with me. It’s made me think very small. For me, every word that I learn is a story, because the Mojave language has not been spoken outside of a few elders who still hold it and speak it. Every time that I learn a new word or a new way of expressing something or new story it seems so big to me. And it is true what you say. When I learn the most is when I sit and listen, like when you sat those children down and told them stories, I also want to sit at the table and learn. The word "poetry" sometimes stumps me because it can seem to pull us outside the reasons we came to storytelling and the things that drew us here. But to hear you talk about starting with the younger kids — to pass them your stories since stories are what brought us all here — that’s hopeful.
There are still children sitting around the table with their grandparents so that will continue.
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