Posts Tagged ‘Indigenous’

Sherwin Bitsui, by Geoff Gossett

Sherwin Bitsui is originally from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Currently, he lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is Dine of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan).

He holds a BFA from University of Arizona and an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program.  He is the author of Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press 2009), which won the 2010 American Book Award  from the Before Columbus Foundation.

I corresponded with Sherwin via email, and though both our hectic summers meant some lag time, our conversation was worthwhile.


So, my first question, which I hope opens up several more, is about your linguistic heritage. You grew up on a Navajo Reservation—do you speak Navajo?


There are so many questions about the politics of choosing to write or not write in minority languages, but I’m more interested in the personal decisions involved. Obviously you write in English. Why?

English is my language just as much as Navajo is. Navajo thought resonates through my poems written in English. There is a freedom that I have in composing poems in English because I am not bound to it completely. It’s much easier to break rules in English. I can’t break rules similarly in Navajo because I’m not as competent in writing it as I’d like to be. Navajo is not as noun driven as English nor does it segment reality as easily. Certain words are actually phrases defining a set of actions that relate to the thing or activity that is being referenced. I see English, or language in general, as a medium, much like a painter would view paint or a sculptor would view marble. Politically, English is the language of my tribal nation’s oppressor, but we certainly have to use it come into a new kind of knowing that will help us translate this outer culture into our own and vice versa. Flood Song feels like it’s trying to braid these diverging worldviews together in order to create a middle area that is accessible to both perspectives. On a less political note, I suppose I just enjoy seeing language suffocate as much I enjoy seeing it flower. There is much possibility in there for poetry. Navajo is very beautiful to me. I’m saddened that it has recently become an endangered language. We still have a large number of speakers in our communities. I’m hopeful that we teach the children to be fluid in both cultures, to sense the world as a whole rather than something binary and balkanized. I’m being rather hopeful here aren’t I?  Currently, my understanding of Navajo hasn’t allowed me to see Navajo text as malleable as I’d like it to. It is a poetic language that brings out the sacred in all things. I suppose you can say that about poetry in general. I feel there are levels of speaking that I haven’t mastered. I still have to call my parents from time to time to ask them how one says certain phrases or words. The language is also very complex and dense. It’s a great language to experience the world with.

One of the things I admire is the way you’re able to incorporate “an indigenous eccentricity” without romanticizing the culture, while being totally engaged in contemporary American life, too. Is that a particular challenge you consider when writing?

Not so much. I have no other “place” to look back to but what is underneath my feet and the moment in time that I have been born into. My roots reach beyond the subsequent layers of imagined origins that history writers have given to the Americas. I have a deep connection to Dinétah (Navajoland) and the American Southwest, the landscape is ever present in my imagination, it is my place spiritually, culturally and politically.

I wouldn’t begin to know how to romanticize my culture. I see it from within and never had to “go back” to find it. I spring forth from that life and don’t look at it as “other” or “exotic” the way most people might view it. It’s simply just an aspect of who I am. I do appreciate the beauty of my land and culture. I long for home all the time.

You write, “I map a shrinking map,” which I think is true, perhaps the most succinct possible description of Flood Song. But there’s something about the mapping, I think, that at least slows the shrinking of the map, right?

I can’t help but notice, because of all the facets of new media, how small the world suddenly feels. I grew up in a community that seemed very far from the world literally and historically. My perception of the old and the new all changed quite fast as I traversed these two aspects of time and the languages that are seeded within them. I’m still writing through this map, finding that it is a web that is host to my poems more so than a literal map. I feel the vibration underneath my feet, follow it to its source and capture what poem lay there struggling to be voiced before the dark decides to take it back toward silence.

You started your relationship with the arts as a painter—and you even painted the cover of Flood Song. I was recently talking with Douglas Kearney, who says he tried to employ hip hop mixing techniques into his new book, especially stuff by J Dilla and other producers’ producers. There’s a huge tradition—and I think this is even more true in the UK, where you have poets like George Szirtes and Pascale Petit, who were very successful visual artists before they turned to poetry—of visual arts and poetry interacting. How do painting techniques translate into your own poems? Or do they?

I feel like any creative project I attempt resonates with all essences of what is unspoken within me. I don’t necessarily separate the two spaces, though I do wish I had more skill  and time as a visual artist to say what I want to say with more clearly.  I believe that my poetry attempts, through the oral recitation of the poem, to fill a space much like a film or installation piece would. It’s still poetry, but I want a poem to be a lived experience when the audience leaves afterward.

Images from early drafts of Flood Song used by Reona Brass, a Peepeekisis First Nation artist from Regina, Canada during a performance of hers in Alberta, Canada, home of the Tar Sands, to question the spirit of colonial legislation and language. She also drew from images in Shapeshift in a performance she gave in Bogota, Colombia, to question the freedom of thought in a military state. Reona interpreted the poems through her performances and thus created entirely new pieces out of them. We eventually collaborated in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2005, and created an all day performance/installation piece we called “Dear Reservation.” The installation piece was based on the premise of speaking to our nations’ political realities and boundaried existences. I wrote with graphite on the floor around a pile of rocks for most of the day, while Reona strung barbed wire along the outer walls, nailing them flat in areas, while pushing with her fingers and body: curled wires into two corners of the gallery. We were both bound together by rubber surgical tubing and could not move without somehow affecting the gestures and actions of the other. I wrote story after story, poem after poem on the floor until the words became a dense opaque shape surrounding the pile of rocks. Eventually, at the end of our performance, I moved the rocks to form a crescent shape out of the negative space of the floor and read a section from Flood Song. Reona wrapped a plastic Target bag around her face and placed a fist-sized rock on her neck. She let the weight of rock pull her down and as she gasped for air inside the plastic bag during the duration of my reading. It was a very quiet piece, unsettling perhaps, but it was moment where I felt that poetry and art were entangled and actualized in a new way for me. Reona’s been doing this kind of work for a long time, I was very privileged to have worked with her because I hold her vision and work in such high regard. She taught me a lot about seeing the present in a more poetic way.

Have you ever been interviewed without someone asking something about Sherman Alexie? How are you pigeonholed as an indigenous writer?

If I am pigeonholed, I haven’t felt it yet. I suppose I just don’t give much time to entertaining to the ideas of the reasons behind my work. Shapeshift was published in 2003 to some mixed but mostly positive reactions.  Ultimately the book stayed around and eventually garnered national attention. I just wrote without really reaching for anything other than to be in the moment of the poem and to stand out in the open to wait for it arrive. In retrospect, my books have everything you’d expect from and indigenous poet writing in today’s changing landscape. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all, they were written by a poet from an indigenous community.

Not many Native Writers, especially those from my generation, get through an interview or a question and answer session without being asked about Sherman Alexie or his work. I have a lot of respect for him and enjoy reading his books from time to time. He is unmatched in his ability to break through all sorts of barriers and has been a major influence on my journey as a writer. As a role model for younger Native writers, he’s shown that one can do anything and there are no excuses when it comes to writing. I saw him read at the Taos Poetry Bout in 1998, and I was floored by his energy and ability to transform poetry into something other than what I’d known poetry to be at the time. I don’t think we’ll have anybody quite like him for a very long time, if ever again.

September 2010


Read Full Post »

Víctor Terán

Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán, from Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, gave the following speech at a recent gathering of indigenous writers in that state of Southern Mexico. Terán’s work has appeared widely in English, including work in Poetry, World Literature Today, Agenda, and on the Poetry Translation Centre website.



Víctor Terán with translator David Shook


Makers of literature generally make it in the language they most dominate, generally the language in which they breastfed, their mother tongue; that’s why the question What language do you think in when you write? would be facetious if it weren’t the case that a numberless quantity of writers in “indigenous languages” pretend to write in their mother tongues to win fellowships and prizes. Does this dishonest practice, belonging to opportunists, help or hurt indigenous languages? At first I thought that if this perverse practice didn’t help indigenous languages, neither did it damage them, given that they’ve managed to survive—for more than five hundred years—the national politics of destruction & discrimination that our governments have used to “incorporate” us into a monocultural system they call “civilization” or “modernity.”

Still, today I note with some preoccupation how indigenous languages experience an accelerated process of degeneration & extinction because of the lack of policy that encourages their permanence and development, & because of the exclusive use of Spanish in schools (those called bilingual aren’t as they should be) & in means of communication. The phenomena of homogenization between Spanish & the indigenous languages that make us talk & think according to the logic of the Spanish language & not that of our indigenous tongues (in addition to corrupt practices), like the soapbox discourse of evangelical pastors, the orators of community radio stations, and the literary output of these dishonest writers, leads me to affirm that those in this last group are indeed agents of destruction of our languages.

When, in 1990, the few professionals that wrote in our indigenous languages began a process of empowerment with the support of intellectuals from the left, like the late writer Carlos  Montemayor, we never imagined this perverse practice would so surge. The efforts of the Encuentros Nacionales (in Ciudad Victoria, San Cristobal de las Casas, Ixmiquilpan, Texcoco, and Mexico), begun in 1992, & the establishment of the Association of Writers from Indigenous Languages in 1993, lead to the development of literature grants for indigenous languages from FONCA, the establishment of the House of the Writers from Indigenous Languages, & prizes like the Nezahualcoyotl and the continental Song of America. These achievements now benefit opportunists more than those who actually write in indigenous languages.

Who are these opportunist writers? Those that write their literature in Spanish & then translate (with or without help) the original into the indigenous language they speak. What’s the problem with that? some will ask, acknowledging that translation is a universal practice, both valid & necessary. I respond that there would be no problem if the translation were based on the grammatical structure of the indigenous language, but this, unfortunately, is not the case. How can they translate correctly without mastering the syntax of their indigenous language? If they had mastered it, they wouldn’t write in Spanish in the first case, but in their own language. So the upheaval is severe, as the writers collaborate in the degradation & destruction of the language of their ancestors.

Do these writers understand the destructive role they play for indigenous languages? I’d like to think that they don’t, I suppose it’s because of the dearth of opportunities for personal development within our nation, people are bewildered, then forced to get what they can by whatever means possible, in this case the literary grants  & prizes that do exist; & to guarantee receipt of said stimuli, they pervert their work by writing as clearly & finely as they can in Spanish, to the pleasure of the assessors of our cultural institutions, who are frequently disconnected from the realities of indigenous literature, & whose jaws drop upon reading the incredible Spanish versions, thinking the indigenous language originals say the same thing in the same manner.

What happens when these works make their way back to speakers of their respective indigenous languages? I have seen how they ignore the work with a smile on their lips, after reading the first few pages, & how they quickly forget the act, without comment or discussion, I suppose because these works represent nothing of life in the villages. What they don’t see is the prejudice of the next generations, who, noting how such prize-winning writers write, attempt to write similarly, disgracing their literary careers & the language of their ancestors.

Without fear of mistake I can say that over fifty percent of those who call themselves indigenous writers are fakers. How can this infamous practice be stopped when we live in a degraded national culture of competitions & corruption? I suppose there’s no way, but what is possible is that those who continue creating indigenous literature as an effective instrument of fortification & renovation of our languages invest in the discovery, formation, & expression of new writers in indigenous lamguages, & fight to make effective the laws that dictate “including within educational planning & programs” assignments like the reading & writing of our languages, our history, & the culture of the original nations of our country. It’s urgent that we bring this teaching to the curriculum of our public schools, with school programs at every level of basic education.

Indigenous languages represent the same life as the Mexican culture, to corrupt them because of vanity & materialism is to play irresponsibly with our destruction. The future of indigenous languages will depend on the conscienceness & love that we all have to preserve them, we must lift them up & not rest, we must appeal to the highest—& not the lowest—levels of indigenous literatures.

In spite of the adversarial conditions we face, our languages will find the way forward in this chaotic & changing world. We indigenous writers have much to do to ensure this happens: we place at the forefront honesty, creativity, quality, & innovation in the literary genres we develop, & everything else will come. Without honest literature & without education there’s no future for our languages.

Encuentro de escritores zapotecos, 15 – 18 July 2010
Centro de Artes de San Agustin, Etla, Oaxaca

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

Read Full Post »

Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, Ámbar Past, w. Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom and Xpetra Ernandos (Cinco Puntos Press) $26.95

Incantations is a surprising and necessary publication in contemporary world poetry, stunning in its execution. Jerome Rothenberg contextualizes it well:

There has to my mind never been a project quite like this: a collective body of poetry—and women’s poetry at that—coming directly out of an indigenous culture and gathered as a deliberate work of poetry and art by the women themselves.

The first edition of this collection, in Spanish and Tzotzil (Maya) appeared in 1998, presented at Mexico City’s Tamayo museum, the collected efforts of 23 years of labor by the Taller Leñateros, a collective of Mayan women poets, traditional healers, artists, and songwriters. Past’s introduction describes the project’s genesis well, providing biographical sketches of many of the women involved, its political context—having been lauded by Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, the state of the indigenous populations of Mexico, the social status of indigenous women, and more. This narrative writing shines with a passionate knowledge. If anything, it’s lacking only more information: perhaps a brief and basic linguistic sketch of Tzotzil and a contextualization within the larger indigenous poetry traditions of Mexico.

Her second essay, “She of the Great Writing, She of the Glyphs,” in which she sets out to introduce Mayan culture and poetics, is less impressive. Though equally anecdotal, the essay wanders slowly through the abstract ideological conceptions of Mayan poetry and spells, as received by their respective poets in dreams and visions from “the great book.” While certainly worth noting, her presentation often primitivizes their poetics beyond what I imagine that Past herself intends for her essay to do. Perhaps this dissapointment—which is an admittedly small one, considering the quality and uniqueness of the project—comes from its simultaneous engagement with oral histories and folk ethnographies. That allowed, it also presents the poetry as in a vacuum, which seems unfair considering the thriving Isthmus Zapotec poetry of Southern Mexico, for example.

The screenprints contained within the book are as important and impressive as the poems and spells, but are also lacking in broader context. Though Past mentions the amate making tradition of Puebla and even discusses ancient Mayan books destroyed by the Spanish (in one of my favorite sections), it would be interesting to be able to, even casually, place the included artwork alongside other contemporary indigenous artists, from Guerrero Nahuatl brothers Juan and Marcial Camilo to Isthmus Zapotec Soid Pastrana. That aside, they accompany the poetry fabulously, and are a great addition to the book.

The poetry itself has some of the cadences of Classical Nahuatl poetry, places a strong influence on the natural world, and is often written in direct address to the religious figures of the contemporary Mayan women (though, as Past points out, not all of the project’s poets practice traditional religions). Though the book does a good job of respecting indigenous culture, without resorting to neoliberal hyper-defense, it fails to include a single en-face Tzotzil-English poem, which, even with no knowledge of Tzotzil orthography, would be visually interesting.

Antonia Moshán Culej’s poem “Before Felling a Tree” exemplifies the Mayan women’s respect for and connectedness with nature:

Don’t kill me, don’t fall on me.
Sacred Tree, Sacred Pine
It’s because I am in need
that I cut you down….

Give me your firewood, your kindling,
your torchlight so I can see what I’m eating, Kajval.
Give me your heat to bake my tortillas, to boil my beans.
Give me the beams to build my house
and pillars to support the thatch, the vines, the mud.

Kaxil, Godmother:
I’m going to split your wood, your arms, your legs,
your face, your head.
I’m going to chop you down with my ax,
with my machete.
Don’t scold me, don’t drip your tears on me.
I don’t want to cut you down, but it’s cold….

Many of the poems collected here concern family life and community interaction, most often in address to religious figures to whom the poets recount their daily lives in forms of exaltation or petition. Poet Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’ writes about her family’s new house in her poem “So the New House Won’t Eat Us”:

We are going to live here,
We are going to sit here.
We are going to shit here.
We are going to pee here.
beneath your flowering face,
each day, beneath your flowery eyes….

We are going to sleep here.
We are going to rest here.
We are going to sin here
and make love.

And almost echoing the Bible’s wisdom books, she continues:

The neighbors claim we are rich, Kajval,
but we have no treasures.
Close the mouths of the envious
so they can’t gossip about us….

Protect us from being eaten by a vine of a stick.
Save us from being devoured by the new thatch
or the shiny nails.

But then she ends the poem with a distinctly Mayan practice:

We offer you gifts, Kaxil.
Something for the red envy that bites our hearts:

A little pig, Kajval,
so the new house
won’t eat the people in it.

Like Peter Everwine’s use of the word “cunt” in his versions of the Classical Nahuatl, here Ni”s “shit” comes as a delightfully appropriate surprise, a reminder that we cannot afford to allow exoticism to shade our perceptions of the Maya.

Rather than further analyze the poems and spells of the Taller Leñateros, I prefer to end with a strong recommendation to those interested in contemporary poetry to read this book, and Xpetra Ernándes short poem “To the Soul of Corn”:

Come back from where the raccoon took you,
from where the grackle ate you,

from the mole’s tunnel,
the weevil’s mouth,

the gopher’s hole,
the worm’s house, the rat’s den,

where the water washed you out,
where you drowned inside the Earth.

You never saw daylight.
You didn’t grow like the other corn.

Come back from where you are lost,
gather together all your souls of corn.

We are making your fiesta.
We give you food and song.

We serve you
worm-eaten corns and beans.

Sing and be happy,
with guitar and rattle.


Read Full Post »