The Works of 10 Contemporary Native American Poets

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November is Native American Heritage Month — and we’re celebrating with a selection of poems from contemporary Native American writers. Joy Harjo, whose writing is featured below, once wrote: “The literature of the aboriginal people of North America defines America. It is not exotic. The concerns are particular, yet often universal.” These poets explore these universalities, as well as historical concerns and the issues facing Native Americans in the contemporary world.

Photo credit: Chase Jarvis

Sherman Alexie, “Pachyderm”

Until he became an elephant, Sheldon referred to his left hand as “my hand” and to his right hand as “my brother’s hand.” Sheldon’s father, Arnold, was paraplegic. His wheelchair was alive with eagle feathers and beads and otter pelts. In Vietnam, in 1971, Arnold’s lower spine was shattered by a sniper’s bullet. Above the wound, he was a fancy dancer. Below the wound, he was not. His wife became pregnant with Sheldon and Pete while Arnold was away at war. Biologically speaking, the twins were not Arnold’s. Biologically speaking, Arnold was a different Arnold than he’d been before. But, without ever acknowledging the truth, Arnold raised the boys as if they shared his biology. Above the wound, Arnold is a good man. Below the wound, he is also a good man. Sometimes, out of love for Sheldon and Sheldon’s grief, Arnold pretended that his wheelchair was an elephant.

From The Best American Poetry about the writing of “Pachyderm”:

Lying in a university town hotel, unable to sleep, I watched a National Geographic documentary about elephants. There was a scene if a mother elephant coming upon a dead elephant’s bones. The mother elephant carefully touched the bones with her trunk. She seemed to be mourning the loss of another elephant. It was devastating. Then, a few days later, I watched a CNN story about an Iraqi War veteran who’d lost both of his legs to an improvised explosive device. He was confident in his ability to rehab successfully, but I also detected an undercurrent of anger. So, while I was working on a novel the mourning elephant and wounded soldier merged in my mind. And that’s where “Pachyderm” had its origins.

Read the poem. Visit Sherman Alexie’s website.

Joy Harjo, “Deer Dancer”

The woman inside the woman who was to dance naked in the bar of misfits blew deer magic. Henry jack, who could not survive a sober day, thought she was Buffalo Calf Woman come back, passed out, his head by the toilet. All night he dreamed a dream he could not say. The next day he borrowed money, went home, and sent back the money I lent. Now that’s a miracle. Some people see vision in a burned tortilla, some in the face of a woman.

From an interview with Harjo on The Rumpus:

As a poet, I was present at the beginning of the multicultural literary movement in the mid-’70s. There was great resistance in the academy. There still is. I was told that a voice against my hire in a major university believed that multicultural literature was a sham. This was in 2000. A colleague in my first university hired in the mid-’80s sauntered into my office and called me a primitive poet. And anything of indigenous/aboriginal origin often falls away into the “disappeared” or “exotic other” category. Some of us emerge despite the difficulties. Poetry is always diversifying. That is the nature of art. There will always be stalwarts of Euro or even other classical traditions, who dismiss any version or branch. This is true in Muscogean dance traditions, jazz, or any other form.

Read the poem. Visit Joy Harjo’s website.

Orlando White, “Quietus”

The zero is not a circle; it’s an empty clock. And the clock is an o which rolls to the other side of the page. But the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.

From Red Hen Press:

In Bone Light, Orlando White’s debut volume, he explores the English language from a Diné (Navajo) perspective. He invites us to imagine that we, as a people?all people in this imaginary country called the United States — are speaking an Indigenous language and that the English language exists merely as a remnant of the colonial past.

Read the poem. Visit Orlando White’s website.

Leslie Silko, “Poem for Myself and Mei: Concerning Abortion, Chinle to Fort Defiance April 1973”

Wide fancy meadows warm green and butterflies are yellow mustard flowers spilling out of the mountain There were horses near the highway at Ganado And the white one scratching his ass on a tree

From an interview with Leslie:

When one grows up in the Pueblo community, in the Pueblo tribe the people are communal people, it is an egalitarian communal society. The education of the children is done within the community, this is in the old times before the coming of the Europeans. Each adult works with every child, children belong to everybody and the way of teaching is to tell stories. All information, scientific, technological, historical, religious, is put into narrative form. It is easier to remember that way. So when I began writing when I was at the University of New Mexico, the professor would say now you write your poetry or write a story, write what you know they always tell us. All I knew was my growing up at Laguna, recallings of some other stories that I had been told as a child.

Read the poem.

Esther Belin, “Night Travel”

The dark roads take me back to my childhood riding in the camper of daddy’s truck headed home. My brother, sister and I would be put to sleep in the camper and sometime in the darkness of the day daddy would clime into the cab with mom carrying a thermos full of coffee and some Pendleton blankets And they would pray before daddy started the truck for journey mercies.

Read the poem. Visit Esther Belin’s website.

Photo credit: Joe Theige

Phillip Carroll Morgan, “Council Fire”

i am looking at the chairs empty of the friends that shared my fire friday night traces of their vigor and clear images of their being linger here still

Read the poem.

Sherwin Bitsui, “[They inherit a packet of earth]”

They inherit a packet of earth hear its coins clank in a tin box

push them aside reap thick strands of night from thinning black hair.

From a 2013 interview with Indian Country Today:

Indian Country Today: What does poetry express for Native communities, how is it a vehicle for Native expression? Bitsui: Certainly in our cultural climate we’re witnessing—we’re present in the era where a lot of our languages are going, are disappearing. And I think poetry is one way that we could find a moment where some of those languages surface and regenerate a poem in English. Or maybe confront the English language. Certainly there are those possibilities. And there’s an important one. Certainly in my work I embed Navajo words, and in the opening poem in Flood Song is the Navajo word for water, and it’s repeated seven times. And the Navajo would understand it. But also the sound of it, the sound of water. [The word] makes the sound of dripping water splashing. The audience member who might not understand it literally can appreciate the sound of another language, and maybe it will help illuminate the language that they have never actually heard with the complexity that it is.

Read the poem.

Sara Marie Ortiz, “Aspect Ratio”

There is a distinct likelihood of my seeing him again. And soon. He still owes me money. And I still owe him something I don’t have a name for. We owe one another more than we feel we’ve the blood for most days, something like an apology for our blood, and memories, and dreams, and our bloody dream memories that we began dreaming before birth; little infinite language of this.

Read Ortiz’s 2013 essay Song:

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fully my mother and father’s daughter in every sense of that turn of phrase. But I thought I was Mexican until I was a teenager. I’d been told my whole life that I was a daughter of the Acoma people, given and told my Acoma name in Keres, at and since birth. I attended ceremony at the Pueblo regularly and I knew (at least cursorily) who my father was, and what his name meant in the realm of Indigenous arts and letters. I am born of the eagle clan, but not for them. When my name is called out at ceremony, I know myself as an eagle child, but mostly only in that context. I cannot serve within Pueblo government because I am a woman. And I am not a fully functioning member of Acoma society because my mother is not Acoma.

Read and listen to the poem. Visit Sara Marie Ortiz’s website.

dg nanouk okpik, “Split Bone”

foraging death in a another body, mixing with black blood, I become a carrion beetle, bones outside.

A figure shaped like an inverted heart stiffly mingling between body blue inuas spirits.

Read the poem. Visit dg nanouk okpik’s website.

nila northSun, “Walmart”

it is finally there just on the other side of the freeway located on our tribal land our poverty is over

Love at Gunpoint and A Snake In Her Mouth: Poems 1974-96 are recommended.

Read the poem.