The first comprehensive anthology of Native American poetry in 30 years gathers 21 writers from nations across the U.S. to carve out a shared space beyond boundaries, where relationships to identity, history, and language are turned inside out, reimagined, and invented anew. “These poems create a place, somewhere we could go,” editor and poet Heid E. Erdrich writes in the introduction to New Poets of Native Nations. “The place of this poetry feels like a familiar country … More than 566 Native nations exist in the U.S. and yet ‘Native American poetry’ does not really exist. Our poetry might be hundreds of distinct tribal and cultural poetries as well as American poetry.”
All the writers in New Poets of Native Nations published their first books after the year 2000. Erdrich — who is Ojibwe, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the sister of novelist Louise Erdrich — marveled at the shifting landscape of Native literature during a phone call from her home in Minneapolis. “I definitely think there are a few more Native people out there than there were in the late 20th century. In that way, it’s very similar to what’s happened in all of American literature.” She pointed to the growing number of Indians entering academia. “When I graduated from high school in 1982, there were only 11 Native PhDs in the entire country.” Now, she said, “To have so many Native PhDs in a poetry anthology is kind of a mark of what has happened in the last 30 years.”
The poems in the book probe the contradictions and wounds of contemporary Native life, exploding earlier tropes of indigenous literature. In Tommy Pico’s “Nature Poem,” he writes, “I can’t write a nature poem/bc it’s fodder for the noble savage/narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face,/I say to my audience.” The Kumeyaay poet continues: “I can’t write a nature poem bc that conversation happens in the Hall of/South American Peoples in the American Museum of Natural History,” brashly and semi-ironically situating an entire genre of poetry in the colonized historical past. In a long digression, he explains cultural appropriation to a non-Native reader:
Look, I’m sure you really do just want to wear those dream catcher earrings. They’re beautiful. I’m sure you don’t mean any harm, I’m sure you don’t really think abt us at all. I’m sure you don’t understand the concept of off limits. But what if by not wearing a headdress in yr music video or changing yr damn mascot and perhaps shouldering the .05% of personal annoyance for the twenty minutes it lasts, the 103 young ppl who tried to kill themselves on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation over the past four months wanted to live 50% more
Erdrich said of the anthology’s writers, “There are people who have language recovery as part of their poetry, and they’re responding to traditional forms sometimes in that. I think history is a core, both personal and tribal, something people might be responding to, the stories of their people. And then of course there are typical responses to several centuries of cheating and dialogue between the U.S. and Native nations.”
In Layli Long Soldier’s long poem “38,” she recounts the execution of trader Andrew Myrick during the Sioux Uprising of 1862. Myrick had deprived the Dakota people of a line of credit when they were starving, saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” Long Soldier writes,
When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.
There’s irony in their poem.
There was no text.
“Real” poems do not “really” require words.
I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue; a revealing moment.
But, on second thought, the particular words “Let them eat grass,” click the gears of the poem into place.
So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work.
In the poem, Long Soldier — an Oglala Lakota writer and Santa Fe resident whose first collection, Whereas, was nominated for a 2017 National Book Award — uses historical violence to interrogate the mechanics of language and the act of writing itself. Elsewhere, Hawaiian poet Brandy Na-lani McDougall delves comically into the smear of cannibalism in “On Cooking Captain Cook.” The poet gives a multitude of Hawaiian accounts of Cook’s fate, including the opinions of “the blonde-haired concierge/at the Grand Kihei” and the “owner of the Hoola-Hoola Bar.” She writes,
My anthropology professor, long researching
ancient cultures, will offer explanations
from his latest book:
The white-skinned men seemed gods
to those without metal or written words.
by eating him they meant to become him.
But if you ask my tūtū
while she waters her orchids and protea
she will invite you in
to eat, to eat.
Other poems tackle the slippage between the ways in which history is written by the mainstream culture and remembered by Indians. Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma member Laura Da’, who teaches public school, writes of the way Anglo aggressors are made passive through the language of historical placards in her poem “Passive Voice”:
I wonder if these
sixth graders will recollect,
on summer vacation,
as they stretch their legs
on the way home
from Yellowstone or Yosemite
and the byway’s historical marker
beckons them to the
site of an Indian village—
Where trouble was brewing.
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter.
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred.
Where most were women and children.
In her introduction, Erdrich singles out the creative writing curriculum and mentorship experiences offered at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts as one of several driving forces behind increased visibility and opportunities for 21st-century Native poets. As she started to recognize the wave of new writers coming out of IAIA, she said, “I began to understand the kind of importance of creating a writing community, a literary community, for better or for worse, through one institute. It’s not the same thing as a school of writing — sometimes it’s limiting if everybody goes to the same institution — they all write the same way — but I don’t think that’s happened at all, and I’m really glad about that. These writers are so different from one another, and it was a thrill to me to really have distinct voices.”
Some poems in New Voices of Native Nations do not touch on Native issues at all. Cedar Sigo (Suquamish) references a Crystal Waters concert in Atlantic City; M.L. Smoker (Assiniboine, Sioux) details “the spring time faces of mountains” in Heart Butte, Montana. Pico’s crowded poetic landscapes contain more pop-culture references — to Beyoncé, the sitcom New Girl, and Hot Cheetos — than allusions to his own Native identity. These voices create distinct individual stamps, and yet many preoccupations are shared among them, in wildly different language and forms, some experimental, some traditional. Erdrich said she chose poets not based on their stylistic diversity, but on their geographic locations, aiming for as broad a representation as possible of what Native poetry looks like in the new century. “I really made choices based on what year someone was published, when their first book came out, and where they were from, so that we had representation across the map.”
She emphasized the poets’ increasing disregard for the expectations of mainstream readers, as well as a new willingness among those same non-Native readers to read outside their comfort zones. “That’s a lot of what draws me to the literature of the past 30 years, and specifically the first 18 of the century, is that there’s a freedom to write on the terms of your own cultural specificity at a level that does not concern itself with a non-Native audience. The fact that these poets can write well enough that a non-Native audience also can join and value their work, it’s really remarkable,” she said.
The poems are free from the boundaries — achieved via marginalization — that have limited Native expression. Erdrich said, “There’s a defiance of the idea that Native American poetry has to sound like what anybody expects a Native American poet to sound like." ◀
New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich, is published by Graywolf Press.