Navajo Nation names Tapahonso Poet Laureate

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In April, the Navajo Nation announced the tribe’s first Poet Laureate. Luci Tapahonso will be formally introduced to the public at Navajo Technical College’s May 17 commencement in Crownpoint, NM.

Born in 1953 in Shiprock, Tapahonso received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of New Mexico, where today she teaches in the English and American Indian Studies departments.

Tapahonso has won a string of awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, the New Mexico Eminent Scholar award by the New Mexico Commission of Higher Education, and the Southwestern Association of Indian Affairs Literature Fellowship.

Her work is conversational, vivid, and infused with history. Two of her books, A Radiant Curve and Sáanii Dahataał: The Women Are Singing, are well-worn favorites from my own bookshelf. (A Radiant Curve also includes a CD which has come along with me on many a car trip)—and it was a delight to interview Tapahonso last week, and to hear her quiet, lilting voice and shy laughter. What follows is an excerpt of that interview:

LP: You write in the preface to The Women are Singing about the love Navajo people have for stories and how conversations, laughing, teasing, and stories of ancestors strengthen people. Can you talk more about that combination of song, prayer, and poetry?

LT: It’s very much kind of an ordinary part of Navajo life, and it always has been—so that common recognition, common link of telling stories is easily recognizable among ourselves. And it’s intergenerational, so that even if a child doesn’t speak yet, or maybe a child doesn’t speak Navajo fluently, it’s very accommodating and welcoming in that it invites everybody into the circle of belonging, because you’re with family, or because you’re with friends. It’s very much a validation of a person’s place within a network of family or relatives, or friends.

It’s always been a part of Navajo life and [storytelling] has remained constant. This connection we have to stories and to memory and to place and family serves as the link that really keeps us together. It’s very valuable. And I think, in ordinary life, you don’t think very much about it. But as a writer, I’ve observed that it’s something that we utilize a lot because it’s just kind of the way we were brought up. It’s intimate and it’s very caring.

LP: Even though I don’t speak Navajo, I really like that your poetry has Navajo words in it, and I was wondering how speaking Navajo is important to your work and to how you think and communicate.

LT: I’ve been asked this before and it makes me realize that because I’ve always had two languages. One is kind of like my basic life language, and then the other is my functioning-in-this-world language, in the American world, language. It’s hard for me to say that certain things happen because of this, or that the influence is this or something has a particular outcome because of the two languages, because I’ve always had the two of them. So I can’t say what it’d be like to not have them. Do you know what I mean?

I do know (laughs), it’s kind of funny, a story I can tell you about this.

I went to the dentist a few weeks ago, and they had to do some drilling on my teeth to put a cap on. They gave me some of the anesthesia to numb that area, so that they could work on it. I was real quiet when they did that—I’m not really a big talker anyway. After they did that, the dentist and his assistant were both sitting beside me and the dentist said, ‘How are you doing, Luci?’

And I didn’t realize (laughs) the way that I responded, I responded in a really loud voice and my accent was really heavy (laughs). It was so funny, I was like, ‘Whose voice is that?’

I sounded just like my father when he talked English. He always talked English loudly because he thought that people wouldn’t understand him (laughs). He talked Navajo more than he talked English and then of course, he had a real heavy accent. So that happened. I couldn’t believe it! I know the dentist kind of got startled—I was startled, too! I was like, ‘Whoa! What was that?’ It was really funny. I think I kind of startled everybody.

I was telling my husband about it; I was kind of laughing. And then he said, ‘When you’re dreaming, or you have a nightmare, that’s the voice…you don’t ever talk English.’ I talk in my sleep, and he said I always talk Navajo. When I have a dream, I’ll be responding, saying things, in Navajo.

It was so funny when that happened. I guess it was under the influence of that painkiller; it touched some kind of primal part of my brain that normally in my life, in my teaching, that sort of thing, I don’t use. You just kind of know you can switch between the two.

But when I’m with my family and my sisters and children, then it’s almost like I know that there’s a change in the way that I speak and think. It’s more me than the professional me, or the person that goes about business everyday.

It’s really interesting. But I thought that was so funny, the way I responded to the dentist (laughs). It was like a whole different person all of a sudden. I came in I was just being my usual quiet self. (laughs)

I was telling my sisters, we were just laughing: “Oh just like daddy!”

(Laughs) I don’t know if that answers your question, (laughs) or made it more confusing…

LP: Also in The Women are Singing you write about how for you—residing at that time away from your homeland—“writing is the means for returning, rejuvenation, and for restoring our spirits to the state of hohzo or beauty which is the basis of Navajo philosophy.” Can you explain more about that state of beauty?

LT: Hohzo is a way of looking at the world. The goal is primarily to live in a good way, in a way that’s balancd. To not do anything overboard or exaggerated or excessive.

It really refers to every part of one’s life. It’s a way of looking at life that considers that there is a sacred way to do everything, that there is a ritual to everything. It refers to the way you get dressed, the way you cook, the way you arrange your house, the way you talk to people, almost everything. It’s a way of thinking about life that keeps things in order and keeps things from being chaotic.

And it’s a way of life that was first prescribed by the holy people. In the beginning of the Navajo world, it was First Man and First Woman and they raised White Shell Girl, who grew up to be Changing Woman—she’s our primary deity. When they raised her as a child, they put into place a lot of these ways. These ways of life were set down for her, and then we as her children were instructed or encouraged to live like she did because she was a holy person

In fact, we call ourselves Diné, that’s our Navajo name for ourselves. But it really derives from the world diyin, which is the holy or sacred. In our name, it’s telling us that we’re sacred.

It’s really complex, but then there are other parts of it, if you can break it down into various things. Like, you’re probably aware, we always celebrate a baby’s first laugh….

LP: I am because I read your book, A Radiant Curve!

LT: Yeah, so there are things for every part of every stage of a person’s life. When you break it down, by those different stages, it’s a little bit easier to understand what it means—than it is to talk about it in theory.

LP: Can you talk about how writing connects you to home?

LT: I think it’s mostly telling stories and remembering, retelling the stories that might be of my family or my friends or my relatives. Retelling them sort of makes them present in your life. I think memory is really powerful like that, because you can honor people and acknowledge people and grieve for people, through telling stories and through sharing memories of them.

That’s really, when you think about it, the only way we have survived as a people and that our language has survived, and our culture has survived. Because it’s only recently that our language became written. Everything we know about ourselves, all of the principles that we base our lives on are only so because people remembered them and they shared them with each other. And they really instilled those kinds of values in us over the generations. It was just through that—through stories and songs, memories and prayers, without really anything being written down—it’s a complete system of philosophy and belief. They say that a person can’t know everything about Navajo philosophies. The knowledge is really vast. So that’s why like, medicine people only specialize in one or two ceremonial prayers. And really learn everything there is to know about particular prayers and ceremonies. They can’t know everything about all of them because it’s just too complex.

LP: What big changes have you seen since you were a child growing up on the Navajo reservation?

LT: Oh, there’s been so much! For one thing, a change in communication. We didn’t have phones or electricity where we were growing up—I don’t know how people got word around to each other so fast. But a lot of times, word would spread really fast. My relatives are still over in the mountains, and it’s a difference of maybe 40 or 50 miles…

But now, everybody can pick up the cell phone and just talk.

That’s convenient. That’s really the main difference as well as the change in the economy.  When I was growing up, my parents had a self-sustaining livelihood. We lived on a farm. And now, the economy is really different. People have to have a paying wage job, and more people are becoming educated than when I was a child. They’re all positive. I think that all culture changes, too. You can actually go online now and learn Navajo. Really drastic changes have occurred.

Even so, I still think that many of these changes have changed our culture for the better in that they strengthened it. We now have Navajo-based curriculum in a lot of the schools. A lot of Navajo literature and Navajo history is being emphasized. I think in way, it really strengthens, reinforces, our culture in a different kind of way by using education and politics and government.

At UNM, where I teach, I see the number of Navajo students who come in who speak fluent Navajo. And that’s because they were in immersion schools on the rez.

LP: A lot of your poetry is about family and love and moments of memory. And also history. Like your poems, “In 1864” and “That American Flag.” What an amazing and powerful way to share history with people. How do you decide what to write?

LT: I’m not really sure myself. But I know a lot of what I do write about is not separate from my community’s history, or my family’s history. I was raised to consider myself first as part of the group, as part of my family, my family’s family, or being a Navajo. So when I was growing up, I was always told: ‘Remember you’re a Navajo.’ Or when I was told not to do something, they would say…a person doesn’t speak like that, or a person doesn’t say things like that. In saying that, they’re saying that a person who is part of our group, or a person like us, doesn’t say things like that.

In discipline or correction, there is this Navajo way of doing that that says because you’re part of this group….you shouldn’t be doing that, because you’re a part of this family, or because you’re a Navajo.

I still do think of myself as part of the group. When I’m writing,  I don’t see my writing or what I do, as separate from my family, or my parents, or my relatives. That’s one reason I think there’s always a subtle, or underlying connection to history, and culture and the larger Navajo sensibility.

LP:  When I read some of your stories—about family or ceremonies—I wonder what your family thinks about your work.

LT: I know they know I’m a writer, but I don’t really know—I know they appreciate it because they come to my readings—but you know, when people hear you read a story, what’s really wonderful is whether or not you’re a part of my family or not, it always generates more stories. You know? So it’s sort of like a catalyst for people to remember, and then share their own stories, that have been triggered by the story that I read.  Or that they read in my books.

So it’s really wonderful in that way because then people feel free, even if they don’t know me, to share stories with me. So I really like that. Because people will say, ‘You know that story you wrote about this and that? It really reminds me of a story that my aunt or my mom told me.” And then they tell me the story. And then we settle into a little session of telling stories.

I think people are grateful. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback from Navajo people. I think I probably have from different literary reviews, but I’m not really concerned about that. (laughs) I don’t really write for them. (laughs) It’s kind of interesting, people always critiquing my work, saying, ‘By writing this, I mean that…’ It doesn’t really matter to me.

LP: Do you have any advice for young writers, particularly Native writers, who may want to feel connected to their homelands?

LT: I think that, the main thing is to remember that this is our history, and it’s really our culture. Probably more than any other people, we’re connected with our stories and our family histories. It’s really the way that we have survived.

I always encourage my students, whether or not they’re Native, to be grateful for their families and the very circumstances that their people have endured. Because it’s really true then. All of us are only here because of people praying for us. No matter who our ancestors are, there is suffering that has occurred and they have undergone really hard circumstances in order for us to have the kind of life that we have.

I think that Native people are more connected to that kind of thinking and appreciation, maybe more than other people are, because we still have the land, and we still have the relationship to the land that is really nurturing for our spirits, and our histories. I think that’s kind of difficult when your roots are across the ocean, or you can’t ever see it, or you don’t have that really literal and visceral connection with the land that we have.

That’s what I always tell my students: To acknowledge and appreciate their own histories and their grandparents, and to think about the language that was theirs, the language they were born into. I think that’s really important.

LP: Anything else you’d like to say?

LT: I’m just very humbled by the honor, and it really makes me miss my parents. I know that, in some way, they probably had a hand in this. They were my encouragement. There’s nobody like a mother and father who can really appreciate your accomplishments, and they take pride in it, probably more than anybody else. I’m grateful for the time and all the teachings and efforts they put into my and my siblings upbringings.

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