When Luci Tapahonso was 17, her English teacher told her to stop writing the way she was writing. It was 1970, in Shiprock, New Mexico, and Tapahonso knew what was happening outside of the Navajo Nation: civil rights, Indian self-determination, and protests against the Vietnam War. She wove these topics into her essays and poems.
“I wouldn’t have argued with an adult, so I’m sure I was respectful,” says Tapahonso, who sits in her Santa Fe kitchen, the late-afternoon sun flooding in through the windows behind her. It’s early spring, at the end of a full year spent in a quiet house. “I probably said I’d think about what she said. But I went on writing what I wanted to write.”
Tapahonso, 67, published her first book, One More Shiprock Night (Tejas Art Press, 1978), just a few years later when she was an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. She started off pursuing a degree in journalism but changed her major after she took a creative writing elective with Leslie Marmon Silko, a young author from Laguna Pueblo who had just published her first novel, Ceremony (1977).
Silko was happy with the class’s first poems, Tapahonso says. “She was just kind of gushing,” Tapahonso says. “It was really embarrassing for me. Because I was really shy.”
Tapahonso incorporates the Navajo language, traditions, and perspectives into her writing, as well as her teaching because, for her, these concepts are inextricably linked. Attempting to separate who she is as a Navajo woman from who she is as a poet is impossible.
In “Old Salt Woman,” from her sixth book of poetry, A Radiant Curve (2008), she writes:
’Áłk’idąą jiní, at the beginning of Navajo time, ’Áshiih
’Asdząąn Sání journeyed to Huerfano Mesa near the shallow river.
They said First Baby was healthy, but her cooing was not a song
of joy or wonder. Since a baby does not know sorrow,
Old Salt Woman was called. They said the colors
of laughter, of light effervescence traveled with her …
The Navajo words have a whispery quality, and the spaces between them can be as important as the words themselves. Especially if you read them out loud. If your brain is moving too fast, you instinctively slow down to adapt to her rhythm.
“I think part of that might be related to knowing Navajo first. I think it comes from the sense of how Navajo people speak. So, my parents would talk to us? Tell us things?” she says, some sentences turning up at the end, more invitation than question. “You could tell by the tone in their voice what they were going to tell you about.”
“If your children have grown up and done well, then other families will say to the parents, ‘You must have really talked to your children.’ So, talking-to is not really scolding, but sharing? Guiding, mentoring. What is it called in literary terms?” she asks of the silences, and then answers herself. “The pacing. It shows that you understand that what you’re sharing is something that can’t be taken back.”
Tapahonso interviews National Book Award-winning poet Arthur Sze in a livestream event for Collected Works Bookstore on Wednesday, April 14.
Tapahonso is petite, with salt-and-pepper hair that falls in waves past her shoulders. She wears black exercise pants and a matching top. Her fingernails are painted the same vivid pink as Lupita’s collar, the 8-year-old dark brown chihuahua that sleeps in her lap. Tapahonso’s rather urbane sense of style gently belies her childhood on a farm, outside of Shiprock, one of 11 children. She was born in the middle, in 1953.
“We had chickens, turkeys, and sheep. We grew our food. We didn’t have electricity or running water,” she says. She visited the harsh realities of farm life in “Holy Twins,” a poem in A Radiant Curve.
Ours was a play-filled childhood; irrigation ditches ran deep
during summers. We played in the water and dirt, then inscribed
ABCs and numbers onto the smooth ground. Our cat Polly died
of rabies; then all the pets had to be shot, some in the rib cage
as they thrashed in panic. There was a pink bruise
on my forehead from pressing against the wall. We couldn’t figure
Out how such a thing could happen …
Tapahonso spoke Navajo until she started kindergarten, where her native language was forbidden, and English was required. Her parents taught her the alphabet in English, how to count, and a few important words, but she wasn’t fluent.
“For us Navajos, that meant we stayed quiet,” she says. “I knew, like, ‘what’ and ‘no.’ If you don’t know the language, you don’t have anything to contribute. The teachers would get upset that we weren’t participating.”
When she was in the first grade, her teacher told her parents that Tapahonso’s talent for music and art wouldn’t be properly nurtured in public school. So, she went off to the Navajo Methodist Mission, a boarding school in Farmington, about 30 miles from home. There, Tapahonso learned excellent study skills, but her parents were busy on the farm, and they didn’t visit much. She knew they loved her, but she was lonely. She spent a lot of time writing in her journal.
“I went [back] to public high school,” she says. “I told my parents I needed a social life.”
Tapahonso met Glojean Todacheene her junior year, and they became good friends. Todacheene says they made a funny pair back then because Todacheene is tall and Tapahonso is small — and she was outspoken whereas Tapahonso channeled so many of her opinions into her writing. She guffaws as she remembers their English teacher reprimanding Tapahonso for the political content of her essays.
“Sometimes, in the education system, you have teachers who encourage you or teachers who distract you from what your future is going to be like. They like Indians being quiet and stoic. But it was the ’70s, right?” says Todacheene, who became an elementary school principal. “And here, all of a sudden, we were coming forward and questioning, asking, challenging. I smiled, later on, when Luci became poet laureate [of the Navajo Nation], making her books and traveling all over the world. She was willing to challenge herself. I stayed on the Nation. Luci broke barriers. She’s the one who left and ventured out.”
The guidance of home
Tapahonso taught at UNM in the 1980s, which is when she met and married her husband, Robert Martin (Cherokee). Among her students was Levi Romero, who currently serves as New Mexico’s first poet laureate. He was an architecture student when he took an introductory poetry workshop with Tapahonso, but he’d been writing, somewhat secretly, since junior high school. Like Leslie Marmon Silko did for her, Tapahonso encouraged him to take his writing seriously.
“Luci’s poetry was the closest thing that I’d read that felt like it was a voice coming from somebody in my family, my community, and the way that they told stories,” he says. “There were other poets that I was reading that were inspiring as well, but it was the way she used language and story in her work that really created a foundation for my own writing.”
Tapahonso and Martin moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in the late 1980s. She taught at the University of Kansas, where she was surprised to find that most of her students were Anglo.
“I was a Navajo person teaching English to them. My grade-school teachers [most of whom were White] would roll over in their graves to think this is what I’m doing,” she says. “I always integrated some kind of Navajo, because I can’t teach without the guidance of my home. I would introduce myself in Navajo. Eventually, when I could create my own classes, they were really based on Navajo theory and philosophy.”
Amy Fatzinger met Tapahonso in 2000 as a graduate student in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. Tapahonso mentored her through her master’s degree and doctorate. Now on the faculty, Fatzinger teaches a graduate course that was originally designed by Tapahonso, called Ancient and Contemporary Voices. When Fatzinger took the course, Tapahonso encouraged students to think about language’s positive and negative potential.
“That’s something that has stuck with me, that ‘the sacred begins at the tip of my tongue,’ ” Fatzinger says, quoting a phrase Tapahonso has said about the power and responsibility of speech. “I challenge my students to reflect on that. It’s not about writing whatever you want out of a sense of creative license, but actively thinking about using language as a force for good in the world.”
Making sense of the days
Last spring, when Tapahonso had to stop going home to Shiprock, she got a little depressed. She’s missed feast days and birthdays, as well as the opportunity to say goodbye to friends and relatives who have died of COVID-19. Although most of her immediate family remains healthy, the virus wreaked havoc on the Navajo Nation. According to the Navajo Department of Health website, as of April 4 there have been 30,172 positive cases of coronavirus, and 1,258 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.
She lifted her spirits by making masks and sending them to the hospital there. “I felt a little bit like that was something I could do. I gave them to friends and relatives, too. They have such beautiful fabrics. I got all caught up in the fabrics.”
Tapahonso retired from teaching in 2016, after serving as the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation from 2013 to 2015. Tapahonso typically went to Shiprock a couple of times a month. She also traveled for literary engagements and hosted receptions for writers and artists with Martin, who has been president of the Institute of American Indian Arts since 2007. Together, they have five children and nine grandchildren, who regularly filled the house on weekends. Now, although she continues to do readings and other literary activities on Zoom, life is far less hectic.
She spends her mornings weaving. Her office looks out to a front yard, xeriscaped in brown gravel, and views of the mountains. It’s getting increasingly harder to tear herself away from the loom-induced reverie. “I tell myself, only three hours, and then I’ll spend four hours writing,” she says. Most afternoons, she’s able to turn to her journal, where all her poems start. She writes her memories, her idle thoughts. Ideas turn into narratives. It’s how she makes sense of her days.
“I like a Number 3 pencil. It’s connected to when I first learned to write — that scratching sound. And it has to be good paper. So, a poem begins like that, and I just kind of carry it around, and it runs through and I’m thinking about it, and I go back, say it out loud, just keep adding to it.”
Only when she’s close to finishing a poem does she type it into the computer that sits on her desk, next to her loom. She’s almost finished with the small gray, black, and red weaving that’s strung there. She appreciates the act of weaving for the way each move is connected to what comes before and after, the same as in poetry. Weaving is also part meditation and part prayer, because “the whole concept represents the Navajo cosmos.”
She explains that the top of the loom is the sky, and the bottom is Mother Earth. The right side of the loom is female, and the left side is male. The loom’s vertical posts are lightning beams, and the weft — the yarn you weave back and forth — represents rain. “It’s really involved,” she says, her voice picking up volume and speed as it does when she gets excited. “When one is weaving, that’s kind of what you’re understanding. Each part is related to whatever is going on. I can look at the weaving and know what’s going on at a certain time.” Her voice drops when she points to an area of somewhat patchy gray wool. “I was here when I got some bad news about a relative who has COVID.”
She heads back to the kitchen, where she sits quietly for a moment. Then she speaks for several minutes. “While I was weaving, I was thinking about how I really wanted to go see my family. It was overwhelming. I remembered that when I was a child, my oldest brother was shot after a basketball game. It was in December, in the 1960s. I remembered that the police came to our house. We knew something awful happened, because no one came to our house in the middle of the night, way out in the boonies. My parents left to the hospital, and me and my sisters stayed awake. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
“At daybreak, my relatives that lived a few miles away, and relatives that lived 40 miles from Shiprock, were at our house. I don’t know how they found out. We didn’t have phones. Some of them rode on horseback a long way to our house. I guess that was the first time I really experienced death.”
Navajo tradition requires all funeral arrangements to be made and carried out within four days. Families come together to make sure everything happens in its proper way and time. The pandemic has meant finding out someone died on Facebook, or via text. Relatives can’t come over.
“This has changed the way we grieve,” she says.
Tapahonso met the writer and musician Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) when they were undergraduates at UNM. Harjo says that she and Tapahonso have traveled through life “side by side as we have created books of poetry and stories, performed and traveled, raised our children. Now we have grandchildren. She’s an embodiment of what it means to be a fully realized Native woman artist.”
In “The Holy Twins,” Tapahonso writes “Childhood losses run deep, even though we are grandparents now.”
The memory is an invisible cage
of anguished sobs, gunshots, yelping howls, canine rib cages
exploding. Sometimes we reminisce and notice that the bruises
of grief have turned pale liked smoothed-over scars. The initial deep
hurt was the start, we found, of how love could die …
The sun is beginning to set. Tapahonso is sure that soon she’ll be able to get back to Shiprock. She and her husband are fully vaccinated, but she’s still leery. Maybe in a few more weeks. She’s waiting for the world to feel just a little safer, she says as she scratches Lupita’s head. The little dog lets out a low, satisfied rumble.
Looking back to her first class with Silko, Tapahonso says that if her writing has changed over time, it’s because her life has changed, too. “When I was first writing, it was like searching — an exploration of how to write poems and learning about poetics, but also learning about my own life. What kind of parent I was going to be, what kind of daughter. What my responsibilities were. Now, it’s, like, understanding. I can understand why I made decisions the way I did when I was younger. At the time, it was maybe difficult or confusing. But now I see it was the right thing to do. It’s almost, like, developing more compassion. For yourself, but also for others.” ◀