Review of Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversation

Erik Bitsui
Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversation
Edited by CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader
North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, 2019
526 pages. $29.95 (Paperback)

Luci Tapahonso says, “It has always been this way.”

Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversation is a new anthology of Native American poets. Along with their poems, each poet explains their creative process in an essay or discusses an influential poem or provides an interview on their craft. The forty-four poets from over thirty tribes demonstrate they are not so different from each other, nor are they different from the readers themselves. As a full-blooded Diné myself, they not only speak for me, but for everyone as a single consciousness examining itself.

A few poets in this Native American anthology deserve special recognition like Deborah A. Miranda (Esselen, Chumash) and Craig Santos Perez (Chamoru). Miranda is a southern sister, and Perez is a fellow Pacific Islander brother; not to mention, two-spirit poets Chip Livingston (Mvskoke) and Julian Talamantez Brolaski (Mescalero and Lipan Apache). Indeed, our Native American family grows beyond borders.

And Luci says, “This is how it has always been.”

Overall this well-rounded collection reads like a dream cast for a heavenly writer’s conference. After poems spill forth from the page, as intimate as a one-on-one conversation, the poets then roll out essays in a workshop-like setting which present readers with insight into their creative processes. Ruby Hansen Murray (Osage) and Michealsun Stonesweat Knapp (Ohlone) both discuss their developments as Native American artists. Jennifer Elise Foerster (Mvskoke) and Gordon Henry Jr. (White Earth Ojibwe) stress unity as well as diversity. Ishmael Angaluuk Hope (Tlingit, Inupiaq) presents a startling manifesto for Native American artists. In her essay, Heid E. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) discusses her experiences as a young impressionable poet surrounded by influential indigenous poets. Like Heid, we find ourselves at a great point in history to have access to these important voices. At this dream writer’s conference, Native American poets teach Native American poetry.

Each poet is aware of indigenous peoples’ miraculous survival thanks to the prayers from elders’ prayers long ago. Although we survived genocide, day-to-day survival as a Native American is not easy. In the remarkable “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways,” Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) narrates a moment in history when young Native Americans attempt to escape an Indian boarding school. In the poem “Indian Mascot, 1959,” Janice Gould (Koyangk’auwi Maidu) discusses an aggravating school event in the shadow of the United States’ attempt to wipe us out. In “She Had to Go,” Chrystos (Menominee) questions if Native Americans are slaves. As I read in bed or in the library or discussed the poems with my wife and kids, I levitated with infuriating anger.

These pages are full of pain but also show examples of perseverance. These poets cover a wide range of emotions with hard-edged words and humor. The work of Adrian C. Louis (Lovelock Paiute), to whom the entire anthology is dedicated, is razor sharp. I'm now a fan. Then there’s LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), who left me livid but laughing at the same time.

And Luci says, “It has always been this way.”

These poets use poetry to claim power and recreate the world for Native American Nations. Diné poet Esther Belin describes the aesthetic of “hozho” and discusses the cosmological present. In “Love Poem,” literary titan Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) describes the land and sky meeting within a Native American consciousness. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (Huron, Metis, Canadian, Luso, and mixed Southeastern Native) heals America’s consciousness with Native knowledge in “America, I Sing You Back.” Fellow Diné poets Orlando White, Sherwin Bitsui, and Bojan Louis continue to create truly extraordinary work. These rez cats are in it for life!

So why tell these stories? Why write? In her craft essay, Suzanne S. Rancourt (Abenaki, Huron) explains that a member of the academy once told her that “Native writing isn’t writing and is not to be pursued”—a dehumanizing statement and a threat of erasure. And yet, in this anthology, Native Americans continue to exist and thrive. We feel emotions like everyone else, and, for many, life is a matter of day to day survival. In “Car Crash,” Celia Bland (Cherokee) describes a common occurrence for any household. As is the case with Molly McGlennen (Anishinaabe), Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley (Onondaga), and Cedar Sigo (Suquamish), who reveal life lessons through their poetry. These are poets who walk the walk and talk the talk of inspirational work. Some Native kid out there will pick up “Perspective” by Laura Da’ (Shawnee) to read how we survive but also keep our traditions alive no matter the incredible odds against us. And Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota) is Layli is Layli. I cannot praise her important work enough. At the end of the day, a family’s feast is filled with food, stories, teasing, joking, and tradition in “The Feed” by M. L. Smoker (Assiniboine-Sioux). Smoker’s real life shows the immenseness of a traditional Native American family.

Elise Paschen (Osage), Kimberly Blaeser (Anishinaabe), C. R. Resetarits (Cherokee-Creek), and Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger (Sicangu Lakota) all welcome their Native American bloodline and share in their discovery of self-awareness. Suzanne S. Rancourt says she didn’t grow up on the rez but continues to study her own history. Diane Glancy (Cherokee) in “Buffalo Medicine” speaks as an eco-conscious Native American voice. In “Creation,” Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) reconstructs the cosmology through her Native consciousness. Tlingit poet Ernestine Hayes also offers a Native awareness to nature in “Land Otter People.” These poets are an inspiring shot in the arm for any writer, Native American or otherwise, because they are global citizens.

Guitar god Tony Iommi suggested aspiring artists research their hero’s influences. Native Voices has its share of colossal poets who walk the earth. Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) uses her command of poetics in “The Woman Hanging From the Thirteenth Floor Window” to reveal life itself. Carter Revard (Osage, Ponca) offers insight into his poetic craft by comparing Native American poets with Europeans. And Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) (who is the very reason why I write today) gives an astounding essay about language and sounds. Every poet in this anthology has inspired me, and I now see who and what inspires them.

Lastly, Ray A. Young Bear (Meskwaki) stresses the importance of writing in one’s own language because “the Creator doesn’t speak English.” Margaret Noodin (Anishinaabe) demonstrates this by explaining in her essay that she first writes in her native language then translates her poetry into English — what a bad ass! Renowned Diné poet, Luci Tapahonso, dg nanouk okpik (Inupiaq-Inuit), and Michael Wasson (Nimiipuu) use their languages with enough elegant results to make their great-grandmothers cry.

When I was a reading teacher at a high school on the Navajo reservation, a friend advised me to add Native American female poets to my curriculum because many Navajo students in rural communities did not know Native American writers have been published, much less that Native American female poets existed. With the help of anthologies like Native Voices, some impressionable ear out there (you, perhaps?) will hear these voices and maybe their lives will be changed. The Native nations held within the pages of Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversation share their minds and leave a trail of their spiritual journey — just as Luci says we have always done.


Editor’s Note: This review has been edited to better reflect the context of the quote from Suzanne S. Rancourt’s craft essay “So Glad You Asked.”


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