Luci Tapahonso | An Afternoon with the Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation || Radcliffe Institute


-I am Kristiana Kahakauwila
and I’m a fellow here, the Lisa Goldberg Fellow
at the Radcliffe Institute. And it’s a delight
and great gift to be able to introduce Luci
Tapahonso the inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. I’d like to begin by honoring
the Wampanoag, Massachusetts, and other area tribes on whose
land we gather this afternoon. I first came to Luci’s
writing a couple of years ago when I was
looking for examples of communal storytelling of how
community’s or family’s talk story time, as we
Hawaiians might put it, could be translated
onto the page. When I discovered
Luci’s books, I found the intimacy of that
talk story time recreated in the written line. The act of reading, usually
done individually, silently, felt, with Luci’s writing,
to be communal and raucous, as if the entire household of
relatives was there speaking, and I, the reader, were
inside the hogan with them. And if in her writing
I was surrounded by the voices of her community,
her husband and daughters, her grandchildren and
parents, her grandmother and great grandmother
and sisters and brothers, I also had such a sense
of Luci’s writerly voice– the clarity of it, these
clean, straightforward lines, and words that conveyed
to me not just happening– the fact of a moment– but
its visceral experience and meaning, as well. Indeed, when Luci discusses her
relationship with storytelling, she highlights the
power of words. In an interview with
Mojave poet Natalie Diaz, Luci said, “In Navajo, the
idea of words or language is really our origin. We were created by words,
and we survived by words. Everything that
comprises a Navajo person is based on words– your
clan, where you come from, how the world was created.” She goes on, “They say that when
the world was first created, the holy people
thought about it, then organized their thoughts,
and then their thoughts were expressed in words. As they spoke, the Navajo
idea of the world or universe was created.” Certainly the language of
Luci’s poems and stories begets universes– those of Shiprock,
New Mexico and Lawrence, Kansas, of her lifetime
and lifetimes long ago. She suggests, also,
universes of emotion, from the sly humor
and two-stepping meter of In Praise of Texas to
the wistful ode to her brothers in These Long Drives. To read Luci’s
poems is to tumble into a multitude of
universes all connected by her use of language and a
deep sense of the aliveness of the Navajo people. Luci Tapahonso is descended
from Bitter Water Clan on her father’s side and Salt
Water Clan on her mother’s. She was born in
Shiprock, New Mexico and grew up in a
family of 11 children. Her first language is
Navajo, though as she told us yesterday, her parents taught
her English numbers and letters prior to her starting school
at the Navajo Methodist Mission, a boarding
school in Farmington, some 30 miles from Shiprock. She began her career
as a reporter, and in an interview with the
Los Angeles Review of Books said of those more
youthful days that she was, “Out there with aim,
running around.” In 1976 she enrolled
at the University of New Mexico where she
earned her BA and MA and became a
professor of English, Women’s Studies, and
American Indian Studies. She would go on to teach
at the University of Kansas where she was key in
establishing the Indigenous Studies graduate
studies program, and at the University
of Arizona in Tucson. Today she has returned
to the University of New Mexico as a professor
and the director of their MFA program in Creative Writing. Her first book was
published in 1981, a year after she
graduated with her BA– that we all could be so lucky. Since then she has published
five more collections of poetry and short stories as
well as three children’s books. Her numerous awards
and recognitions include a Lifetime
Achievement Award from the Native Writer’s
Circle of the Americas, Storyteller of the
Year by the Word Craft Circle of Native Writers,
and the Region Book Award from the Mountain and
Plains Booksellers Association. She has also served on
the Board of Trustees in the National Museum
of the American Indian and is a juror for the
Poetry Society of America. In 2013 when she was named
inaugural poet of the Navajo Nation, she, in
speaking of this honor, hearkened back to the
idea of community. For me, she said, “To
think about the laureate is like that same idea of
honor– how people use words, words that aren’t really mine,
that are from our language, from our history– is not
even really me, you know. It is everything that
people over the generations and over the centuries
have deemed beautiful.” Luci Tapahonso. Thank you so much. It’s very much an honor. [SPEAKING NAVAJO] Good afternoon. I’m very honored
to be here, and I want to express my gratitude
to Shelley and Paul and Ellen, both Ellens, and
everyone else who has been instrumental in my visit here. And I want to say thank you
to my grandson, my son, Damon. He’s been a really
good Indian guide. I want to begin this
afternoon by reading a poem for my intelligent and
lovely granddaughter, Brianna. She arrived yesterday, and I
haven’t seen her since January, so it’s really nice
to be with her. This is called [NAVAJO]. For Brianna [NAVAJO]. Thank you. She was born on a bright fall
afternoon, already chubby and quivering with wetness. She gasped for air and for
her mother’s warm body. Her name is She Who
Brings Happiness because upon being carried,
she instinctively settles into the warmth
of your shoulder and neck. She nestles like a little bird
into the contours of your body. All you can say
is, she’s so sweet. I don’t know what to do. And we smile, beaming
with pleasure. She sleeps even breaths
and milky sighs just below your ear. Other times she
snuggles into you and watches with
bright, dark eyes. It feels so much like
the trust we have somehow forgotten over the years. All you can do is kiss
her warm forehead and say, she’s so sweet. I don’t know what to do. Sometimes when I haven’t seen
her for a day or even a week, she runs to me, her arms
straight out for balance, and hugs my legs. “My gamma,” she
murmurs into my skirt. Then she holds her
arms up and says, “ah, ah,” and I pick her up. She snuggles into me, sighing. Then I tell her, [NAVAJO]. My little one, my
daughter’s child, what happiness you are to me. She cries a little like the
infant she no longer is. And I hold her like the sweet
surprise she will always be. We sit like that a
while, then she hums. I take the hint and sing the old
lullaby her great grandmother sang to the child I once was. [SINGING] She shifts on my lap
saying, star, star. We turn to the twinkling
Christmas lights still up in July and sing
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. She falls asleep and I hand
her to her mother, saying, she’s so sweet. I don’t know what to do. Now each time she
toddles into the room, we turn around and say,
[NAVAJO]– you want some juice? How about milk? She Who Brings Happiness
smiles and climbs onto the nearest lap. As she snuggles comfortably into
the circle around the table, we murmur, she’s so sweet. We don’t know what to do. Thank you. Brianna is now on a
congressional internship in DC. And she still is so sweet. I just love having family
with me when I travel and have these kinds of events. It’s just so comforting,
and I’m not as nervous as I might be otherwise. This is a poem called– it’s not
really a poem, it’s a letter. A couple of years ago,
NPR asked me to take part in a series which was
called State of the Reunion, and they asked a
number of writers from across the country to write
letters to their hometowns. So it was perfect for me. So this is a letter that I
wrote to Shiprock, my hometown. Dear Shiprock, my home, my
land, my mother, [NAVAJO]. I introduce myself again as a
[NAVAJO] from the Mesa farms. I am from Shiprock,
the huge rock formation whose name
translates into tall leader, or the rock with wings. [SPEAKING NAVAJO] Shiprock, I am one of
your thousands of children who will always honor your
dark blue silhouette that is surrounded by flat land, the
shallow San Juan River, fields, orchards, and
irrigation ditches. Remember me? I grew up on First Lane on a
seemingly nondescript farm, but we were taught that we were
wealthy because of our fields and animals. Oh, Shiprock, as a tall
leader you remain resolute, towering into the
empty New Mexico sky. You are the echo of a time
when eagles spoke to us and nurtured us. Long ago you brought
us here, rescuing us from a whirl of horrendous
floods and Roman monsters. We nestle, then, in
the V of your huge, golden wings, secure in that
warm, instinctual place, secure here in that warm,
instinctual cradle now known as [NAVAJO]. Our Navajo memories treasure
that smooth [INAUDIBLE] long ago, and the soft landing
near the thin, clear river. Our name became
[NAVAJO], people of water in honor of the river that
would ensure our livelihood. Thus to be from Shiprock,
to be a [NAVAJO] is to know ourselves as
ancient and resilient. We strive daily to embody the
ways of [NAVAJO]– kindness, strength, compassion– and
to remember all living things understand kinship. Each morning the holy
ones arrive at sunrise with blessing songs. Then at dusk they enfold
us in gentle blankets of brilliant colors wrought from
the mountain, sunlight, fields, and stars. Shiprock [NAVAJO]. To say your name
recalls old stories, treasured memories of family,
relatives, and friends. Your names are replete with
hugs, tears, and laughter. [NAVAJO] The days are crisp
and cold again. The Navajo new year has begun. The blending of fall
and winter calls forth the ceremonies of [NAVAJO],
grandfathers of the holy ones. They pray and sing in
the frost-filled nights. They dance again
for our renewal– the plants, animals,
fields, and our good health. Once again they
sing the old stories and the blessings
of our ancestors within the watchful
view of Shiprock. Thank you [NAVAJO] Shiprock,
for your enduring presence and the lasting
reminder that we are cared for and looked after no
matter where we may travel. Yours sincerely, Luci Tapahonso. Thank you. Earlier today, or
maybe it was yesterday, I talked about poetry
and form and how much I love form, writing in a
Western, traditional form. When I was in school, when
I was an undergraduate, I was studying poetry– or
maybe in graduate school– and I was really
daunted and put off by having to learn and
memorize Western poetry, poetry from Europe, that
originated in Europe. And I just couldn’t understand
the language, the form. I just couldn’t understand it. And so I knew that
I had to learn it like I was getting a grade. And I remember talking to
my mother, and I told her, I don’t know what I’m
going to do because it’s really hard for me. I said, it’s already
kind of hard to always be writing in English,
but to understand old English is really hard. And she just listened to
me and she said, well, whenever you can– this is
when I was in Albuquerque– she said, come home and let’s
arrange a prayer for you. She said, because
maybe that’s what you need is just to come
home and have some prayers and listen to some songs. And let us just all get
together for you to help you. And she didn’t really
have an understanding of what I meant except that
I was having a hard time. So they did, they arranged
for a ceremony for me, and had the medicine man
tell all my relatives and everything. And so I came back and I think
it lasted 2 nights, maybe 3 nights, so we
stayed up all night. And as part of that, when the
medicine man says the prayer, you have to repeat after him. So it’s really kind of strenuous
if you’re not used to it. But overall, there’s,
like, I don’t know, 40 or 50 people that
gathered for you, and they’re all praying and
they’re all there for you. And so I remember when
I was repeating things after the medicine man,
I just had my eyes closed and I was repeating after him. Then when he was
singing and praying, I had my eyes closed
and I was thinking his voice is really rhythmic. It’s poetic, he’s
repeating things. In Navajo you repeat
things four times. I was just thinking
about that, and then I thought, what if that
was written down? And as I was listening
to his voice, I could visualize in my
mind what it looked like. And then I realized it looked
like a fixed form poem. And I thought, oh. And it was all in Navajo. And he was praying things
that were– we don’t even know the beginning
of them, but it was the exact same
as my ancestors and my parents, that
had been prayed for them and given to them, and then
it was being done for me. And there was all these
people who loved me and wanted only the best for me. It was such a liberation. I can’t tell you
how grateful I was. So then I went back and I saw
it with a new appreciation because I knew that this form
that I was trying to study– my knowledge and my
prayers and my words were older than what
I was trying to learn. So then it was a breeze. I just had to
understand the concept and see how it
was related to me. After that, then I really
appreciated everything I did because I could see it
through the lenses of a Navajo person. Not as a person that’s
foreign to the language, but to understand
that they, too, loved and appreciated language. They, too, memorize those
words, and we have them today. So anyway, then after
that, I was writing sonnets and villanelles. And my favor is a sestina,
which I’m going to read now. A sestina, as you may know,
is called a song of sixes. It uses six words in
their particular order, has six stanzas. There are six words that
appear at the end of each line. Then it ends with a
three-line stanza, which three of the
words are in the center and the other three are
at the end of the line. And then what made
it even better was I was able to use
Navajo and English. This was made for me. This is called [NAVAJO],
and the meaning becomes clear at the end. Sometimes this guy
just makes me laugh. Just as easily he
can make me see red, like when he tries to run off
as if he thirsts for freedom. Anyway, he needs me
like a dog needs a pack. Besides, he loves
my crew cab truck. When he first
noticed my jewelry, I became the woman for him. Not only that, but
because I’m a Dine woman, his life revolves around me. Now he recognizes my
laugh from a distance. Sometimes we go for
rides in the truck down winding river
road as the sky fills with purple and red streaks. To the south, people walk along
the rialto, their dog’s noses bent to the ground. The dogs are
excited and thirsty. A Diet Coke is enough
to quench my thirst. In the southwest, the
quintessential pleasures for women are a faithful car,
good music, and good stories. We’re not dogged by having
to drive hundreds of miles. We just reminisce, laugh,
and sometimes sing. During trips north to Shiprock,
dust turns everything red as the vast Salt River
Canyon welcomes my truck. It is, as we used to
say, we keep on trucking through whatever
may come our way. Our thirst for stories
and laughter never ceases. Once I read that and
animals make life complete, but a woman like me
needs more than that, I thought, and laughed. Then I remembered the
cats, rabbits, chickens, and dogs of my childhood. How Lobo, Snazzy and Tlog’i
didn’t seem like dogs. They listened ever alert while
lying under Daddy’s truck. They probably
never really slept. Sometimes they even seemed to
laugh when we spoke English. But back to this other guy. He thirsts to be near me
even when I’m driving. Move over, I say. A women needs space
and no distractions. Sit on your side before
red lights come flashing. I’ll be handcuffed
and read my rights, and you won’t even care. Act like a dog and look
out the window, I scold. He knows when a
woman means business. He moves slowly over to
the passenger side door and looks at me, his dark, shiny
eyes thirsty for affection. He gets that same look
when I laugh unexpectedly, and he doesn’t laugh when I talk
English, like those res dogs. But those dogs instilled
in me a thirst for a sleek, little dog– [NAVAJO]– who
loves trucks and lives only to make his mom a happy woman. Thank you. This is about my little dog. His name was Max [INAUDIBLE]. He was a Miniature Pinscher,
and he stuck with me for the whole 12
years of his life. He was my little buddy, and he
used to go to readings with me. And I would hold him, and
then when I was signing books, he would sit on my lap. He was my little
guy, and now we still have his little brother, Buddy. He’s really my husband’s dog. So Max could really
understand Navajo. Buddy, not really, but we
always say that Buddy’s name is Buddy [? Martin ?]. Because his breed, a
Miniature Pinscher, originated in Germany, so we
gave him a little German name, I think. So let’s see. So I want to just read
a couple of things. I want to read this poem
about a trip to Italy, and it’s called
Festival of the Onion. Fall mornings in Umbria
are veiled with dew. Roosters awaken the dawn. I hadn’t heard that wake
up call since childhood. And there is coffee that
makes one happy to be alive. Delicate tiny cups filled
with the dark essence that means Italia. To drink this is to start the
day murmuring, graci, graci. From the balcony
where we eat breakfast we see olive groves cling to the
gentle hills in the distance. Transparent clouds pause
and rest on the rises. I breath the crisp air
and thank the holy ones. Later, arias drift
from a home nearby. The cobblestone lanes
are narrow and shiny from centuries of use. Tiny roads weave between
the old houses and castles. Walls are worn smooth
from the handiwork of families over the ages. The round corners and
slight indentations convey the tenderness of home
and long ago grandparents. One evening we attended an
onion festival in Camerino. It was like a miniature
Shiprock fair without the dusk and mutton. Parking was tight,
but by some miracle our host, Gaetano,
squeezed his little car into a space even
smaller than his car. I say miracle because
the actual maneuver was a blur of loud
arguing between our driver and concerned passers
by– furious gestures mixed with spontaneous
groans and sighs. All this within 5 minutes,
then calmness reigned again. We had spent the
afternoon at Assisi. It became clear that St. Francis
had extended his compassion to Gaetano, who was received as
if he were the mayor everywhere we went. At this point, I’m
no longer panicked at the ordinary
Italian conversation. The first time the whole
table erupted into loud chaos, it seemed that a great
wrong had been uncovered. I was alarmed yet grateful
for the Dine inclination for sustained
silent observation. After everything
reached a fever pitch, calmness instantly descended. It was then I realized that
they were only figuring out the tip for the group’s meal. At Camerino we wound
our way to the plaza where large tents bustled with
music, lights, and sizzling meat, and huge pans
of onions cooked in every way imaginable
and unimaginable. The onion was the star
and we mere celebrants. That was the night we
lost Scott Momaday. We left Spello and planned
to sit together at one table as Gaetano negotiated
for a table of 13. The rest wandered out loud
where Dr. Momaday was. We call Carmen and Emma’s
cell phones to no avail. The drive from
Spello was a matter of maneuvering in the
moonlight through dark fields and rolling hills of olives,
grapes, and fig trees. The narrow streets and
parking lots were searched. Finally there they were,
strolling towards us, all smile and casual greetings. Where were you, several
voices demanded. We thought you were lost. For Gaetano Prampolini,
to lose Scott Momaday would be the end of everything. Again there was a loud
eruption of questions, interrupted explanations,
demands, and defenses. Throughout all this,
Scott listened, leaning on his new walnut cane. He didn’t look lost at all. But then, can a
man be lost if he is accompanied by three women? With the lost party
in place, we sat down to revel in the joys of
the onion as the night sky over Camerino filled with smoke,
music, laughter, and wine. We ate gratefully reunited,
savoring all varieties of roasted meats, succulent
potatoes, flavorful vegetables, and crusty breads. We happily paid tribute with
every bite and each story to the tangy, even sweet,
presence of the onion. Thank you. This is like choosing
between my children. I want to read a poem. This is called [NAVAJO], and
it means they are married or they are together. I want to read
this for my husband who is the President of
Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe. And he has a really
busy schedule, too, so we planned to come
together, but he just came back from traveling and is
leaving again soon. In Navajo, the state of
relationships is interesting. I really did my own
research into this. The end of the poem
gives you the meaning. So anyway, [NAVAJO], and I’ll
talk a little bit about it. It’s not a grand thing after
all– just that warm comfort and murmuring good
night before I sink into that dark quiet that
exists when we’re together. Otherwise when I’m traveling,
the same good night on the phone, and
I listen intently. For what, I’m not sure. Have a light on for
safety, drift off to sleep half listening, a
little noise and I’m sitting up in bed surveying
the room– sometimes even the entire block
from the hotel window. I rush to the phone
and double check. Should I dial 0 or 8911? I check the locks again,
then lie back down, afraid to sleep yet
wanting to sleep, knowing that fatigue will
be obvious in the morning. I’ve had so much practice. When we’re together, locking
doors doesn’t occur to me. Local crime seems
to be far away. Never mind that we are
in the heart of the city. I insist upon complete
darkness, and what I am sure of is that if I turn over,
your warm chest or arms with surround me. That should I awaken, confused
as to where I am once again, you will reach for me knowing
exactly how to reassure me. And when we drink
coffee together in this bright California
morning, mountains towering around us, I move
closer to knowing what the creator meant by [NAVAJO]. They are sitting beside each
other in a house of beauty. So they are sitting beside each
other inside a house of beauty. So when people are courting
or when they’re just dating, they say [NAVAJO], and that
means you can’t do that. When you literally
translate it, it means, like, they’re holding
onto each other and kind of maybe stumbling or
dragging each other around. Like you’re so in love, you’re
just hanging on to each other and you can barely walk. But you can’t do that
unless– [NAVAJO]– you can’t really do that– I
mean, the description of it. You have to be outside. So it’s like in the
moonlight, under the trees, behind buildings, whatever. It’s like you’re
outside, and then as you’re becoming more
serious, the relationship begins to move
towards the interior. So when you’re going
together, it means outside, but then when you’re married
and you’re settled in together, that’s when you’re indoors. So it’s just interesting
how relationships are described in different ways. So that’s what I was
thinking about when I was– that occurred to me
as I was writing this poem, that that was how relationships
are characterized. I really like thinking
about what Navajo words mean and where they originated,
all the different parts of it. It’s so descriptive and so
visual and so emotion-driven that it has a whole
different concept than the word in English. So for instance, this next
poem is called [NAVAJO] and it refers to what we would
normally just call tortillas. When the weather is nice
we sit under the trees with covered bowls of
warm dough and make bread on grills set over
glowing ashes. More often we sit in
my mother’s kitchen and take turns placing
flattened circles of dough on the hot griddle. The stack of bread alternately
grows, then shrinks, depending on how many
people are around. These days I drive home
in the darkened evening to a quiet house. The cats greet me with
a glance and a yawn. They look repeatedly
at their food bowls. They want canned food. It seems like everyone
wants something from me, I complain while
filling their bowls. Dexter Dudley Begay
purrs in response. I wish for beans or a warm stew,
but then I just wash my hands and line up ingredients as I
learned to do in home economics long ago. Never start cooking without
everything being in order, Mrs. Bowman preached. I mix the dough and cover
it, then let it sit a while. I change clothes,
turn on lights, and fix a glass of ice water. Then I search the
refrigerator for something to accompany the [NAVAJO]. It goes with everything
and anything, my inner Martha
Stewart reassures me. The process is simple– take
a few handfuls of flour, preferably Blue Bird or Navajo
Pride, toss with a bit of salt and a palm full of
baking powder, mix well. Ponder the next ingredient
a while, but then go ahead and add two finger tips
of lard– not too much, just enough to help the texture. Mix very well, then pour in 1
and 1/2 cups of very hot water and mix quickly. Mix until the dough forms a soft
ball and the remaining flour lifts away from the
sides of the ball. Rub olive oil on a griddle
and heat until very warm. Then take a ball of dough
and slap it into a disk. Stretch it gently while,
slapping it back and forth from hand to hand. After a few minutes,
a rhythm emerges from the soft muffled slapping
combined with the pauses to lay the dough on the griddle. Flip it over. It’s removal from the hot grill
and it’s quick replacement. Soon the kitchen warms and the
fresh scent of [NAVAJO] drifts through the house. The cats are now
sleeping circles of fur. The door opens. My husband comes in smiling. He’s savoring [NAVAJO]
and melting butter. And then this is what the
word means– [NAVAJO]– here, as in [NAVAJO]. That’s what we say
to kids– here, now go run along, go
play, after you give them a little piece of dough. [NAVAJO] for you. [NAVAJO] I made this for you. [NAVAJO] Here, I made this for you. [NAVAJO] I slapped this
dough into shape for you. [NAVAJO] This warm circle of
dough is spread out for you. [NAVAJO] There–
[NAVAJO] Is it good? I want to read this poem. I want to read a villanelle,
which is also fixed form. This is called
Near to the Water. And a villanelle is
a poem of 19 lines and it has a rhyme
scheme of ABA, and then it has a
quatrain at the end, and it has repeating lines. Near to the water means
near to the water. [NAVAJO] is the name
near to the water. [NAVAJO] is where
my father’s from. [NAVAJO] is a variation
of my mother’s name, which is [NAVAJO] And I wanted
to write this poem for my father, who in
his last years of life and last months
of life would not eat anything but blue corn,
things made of blue corn. And I wanted to honor that,
and to honor my father. I have to say that
Brianna doesn’t really remember her
[NAVAJO], my father, but he was so close to her. He didn’t really
speak English a lot, but he would talk to Navajo to
her, and she was about 3 or 4, and they could
understand each other. And when she came into the room
when he was in the hospital, he would put out
his hand for her, and they would just hold hands. We’d lift her up so
that she could see him. He just was so close off
his grandchildren to her. And she actually looks
kind of like my father. My father was
light-complected for a Navajo. Near to the water. Most afternoons [NAVAJO] when
the sky is a brilliant teal, [NAVAJO] is at the
sunlit stove tending the speckled enamel pot. [NAVAJO] is redolent
of simmering soup and blue cornmeal. As a child, [NAVAJO] learned
to blend the fine cornmeal in the still mountain mornings. The quiet cadence of
the stirring spoon brought forth her mother’s
voice on those days when the sky was
a brilliant teal. Later when [NAVAJO] saw the
red sunset in [NAVAJO] hair, it instilled such
an ancient longing like the lilting,
grinding songs that wrought childhood repasts,
warm bread, simmering soup, and blue cornmeal. On cold, quiet
nights, the elders tell of how a woman’s long
hair reveals enduring wisdom. They say change in a
woman’s hair averted drought on a dusty, hot
afternoon centuries ago when the sky was
a brilliant teal. [NAVAJO] the glistening
of [NAVAJO] hair recall the low peel
of distant thunder, when thin corn stalks rippled
in dry fields and sought cool rain. Now her [NAVAJO] is
redolent of simmering soup and blue cornmeal. As [NAVAJO] stirs the enamel
pot in the low winter dusk, her songs yield memories of
[NAVAJO] his resonant voice and dark eyes. The decades have taught [NAVAJO]
that those long ago afternoons and skies of brilliant teal are
the quintessence of stories, simmering soup,
and blue cornmeal. So I want to read this poem. Maybe two more poems, and
then turn it over to Shelly. This is a poem call
Afternoon in [NAVAJO], and [NAVAJO] is the
Navajo name for Santa Fe. It means beads of clear,
cold– a necklace made of beads of clear, cold water. The Santa Fe afternoon
is warm and bright. The dogs are delirious
to be outdoors. They prance about,
panting loudly. Simmer down, guys, I say. They don’t have to
wear jackets today. Once my husband said they
were embarrassed for jackets. I never saw an
embarrassed dog, I said. He’d just smile. A few months ago on
another warm afternoon, my mother sat on the
comfortable old couch in front of the wood stove. The stove is in the
center of the house where it is dim and cool. After straightening the
kitchen, I sat beside her. [NAVAJO] I said
leaning against her. This means tell me stories,
or tell me what’s going on. [NAVAJO] she said. That’s all. We both laughed. I adjusted the pillow behind
her head as she leaned back. I slipped my hand into hers
and leaned against her. Her hands are warm and thin. Unlike mine, she has
slim, elegant fingers. She patted my hand
and we were silent. We were alone in
the quiet house. Across the road, a cow bellowed
and somewhere by the wash, dogs were barking playfully. One sounded like a puppy. Here in the living room we
rested, closing our eyes. She said, with her eyes
still closed, let’s sing. So I started a song
and she joined in. I sang close to her
so she could hear. We sang several songs, then she
started one, and I was quiet. I don’t know that one, I said
after she raised her head and looked at me. You do, she said. One time I heard you singing it. She kept on singing, and after a
while I got it and we finished. [NAVAJO] she said,
like she was tired. She fell asleep. I kept holding her hand
and leaning on her. I wanted to fall
asleep, but couldn’t. It seemed like there
was too much going on, but it was just she
and I sitting together on a late summer afternoon. Her cat, Kitty Baa
jumped on the couch and stretched out beside us. Kitty Baa and Mom always
nap at the same time. Today in [NAVAJO], there’s
snow on the highest peaks of the Sangre de
Cristos, the mountain of the blood of Christ. The bright snow is startling
against the deep blue sky. It’s warm enough to
use a screen door. The afternoon sun slants into
the kitchen in thin lines. The dogs sleep on
warm tile squares. It’s mid-afternoon
in [NAVAJO], where beads of clear, cold water
form an ancient necklace that encircle the Sangre de Cristos. And I’ll end with this one. We must always remember the
worlds our ancestors traveled. Always wear the
songs they gave us. Remember, we are
made of prayers. Now we leave wrapped in old
blankets of love and wisdom. [NAVAJO] Thank you very much. [SPEAKING NAVAJO] -Thank you, Luci. I think some of us are
here far from home, and it’s always comforting
to hear your stories. But to hear your voice, and
to have you here with us at Harvard on what feels like
a very gray day that some of us have a hard time
with when we come from the southwest
and the sunshine. But you were here yesterday, you
got to see the lovely weather that we can have here. I have a couple questions. And the first one–
a couple of years ago you were named the inaugural
Navajo Nation poet laureate, I’m sure to the delight of
probably every Navajo Nation member. That seemed the most fitting. You were the person that
should have been name for that. But tell me what do you think
the significance is of that? What does it mean for Navajo
Nation to have a poet laureate? -So most nations
have poet laureates, and the Navajo Nation
is the first indigenous nation in the country that
has named a poet laureate. So I think it very much speaks
to our sense of ourselves as a nation, and to our
sense of sovereignty. And then it also
really recognizes our legacy and our lives today
as a people who love language, who are wrought from language,
from stories and prayers and songs. As a Navajo person, to
be alive now and today– over the centuries that
was what sustained us, and that was what saved us. And that’s what today still
gives us that essence. So it recognizes, I
think, that history that is a spoken
history and that is ingrained in our
memories, as well as recognizing what it means to be
a poet in contemporary society. -And I think it’s
even more significant that our poet laureate, our
inaugural and our current poet laureate, are women who
we recognize and honor, and really put you on a
pedestal up there as a role model for not just younger
women, but for all of us and for the entire nation. So we had lunch with
students, and we learned that your
poetry and your work really has an
international reach, and that some
students have really related your work to their
own cultures and some of the stories in
their cultures. What would you like your
audience, whoever they are and wherever they
are in the world, to come away with when
they read your work? -I suppose that it would be an
understanding or appreciation of our land, and each
of us– our place within the fabric of our
ancestors, the stories, and our identity and our
own distinct languages. And then to recognize
or acknowledge that we belong to a family. We belong to a
family– a huge family that really love stories. I was talking about this today
and how when somebody says, guess what? And you know– we
all like stories, so whatever it might be
to be in that circle. Because in Navajo, when
people share stories or when they talk
to you, that means that you’re within the circle
of being appreciated and being loved and being honored,
and to be in that circle where you’re being told stories
and everybody’s laughing, sometimes crying, it means
that you all love each other. You’re all appreciative
of each other’s presence and each other’s voices. So to be told stories is at once
to be shown that you’re loved. -And I think we’ve all heard
stories where we walk away and say, oh, that was
a real good story. I have to retell that somewhere. -You just satisfied. -That’s right. And you remember it
and you think about it. You laugh later,
chuckle to yourself. One of the things you talked
about today with students was your choice to go and teach
poetry and do poetry workshops with students, but
specifically to do it in a Navajo way, your
Navajo way of teaching. I wonder if you could
tell the audience here what do you mean by that, the
Navajo way of teaching poetry? So when I was in undergraduate
and graduate school as a creative
writing student, we had a lot of poetry workshops. The requirement is that you
write a poem every week or so, an original poem. Then you read it to the
class, everyone reads it, and then they comment on it. So it’s called critiquing
or analyzing your poem. And I have been
in many workshops where when a person’s
poem came up, many times students
and even the professors would just be really critical. And students would run
from the room in tears, and drop their majors, and
it was just so devastating. It really hurt me to
see that, and I just knew that if I was
teaching poetry, if that was my classroom,
that wouldn’t happen. It was so unnecessary to
me because it didn’t only hurt whoever wrote that poem,
it hurt the whole class. We just sat there in
silence not knowing what to say after the professor
would just tear into a student. So when I then began to teach,
I very much established the fact that I’m Navajo. One of the things that I’ll tell
is a story of the first laugh. When a baby first
laughs in Navajo, when they first
laugh in recognition to somebody’s smile, or
they respond to a person– and it doesn’t count when
they laugh in their sleep. But when they recognize
another human being and they make that
connection– when a baby first laughs out loud, it’s
such a celebration because it means the
baby has moved out of the world of the
holy people, where babies exist before they’re
born and after they are born. They live in our
world but they really have a consciousness
of the holy people. When they laugh, they move,
they become part of us as a people that
live on this Earth. They become part of
the human family, so we celebrate
that because that was what was first done
for Changing Woman, who’s our principal deity. So when she first laughed,
I had a big party for her because it was an
utterance of her breath. And they celebrated
it, and we celebrate it because we want the
baby to always be happy. And then we have a big dinner. Whoever makes the baby
laugh funds the dinner. So I always tell my
students if you’re waiting for a
financial aid check, don’t go making babies laugh. You have to be
able to afford it. So you’re responsible
for the whole dinner, and people do it very happily. And then during this dinner,
during this celebration, during the ceremony,
the baby assumes the role of Changing Woman, boy
or girl, and everybody lines up. Since you’re in the presence
of a holy person and a deity, you line up and then you
can ask the baby– whisper to the baby, who’s now Changing
Woman– any wish that you want. Anything that you want. So that’s one reason people
like to go to these dinners, these ceremonies, because you
get to meet a holy person. But the thing is that when
you ask for what you want, since it’s all in humor
and celebrating humor, you ask backwards. So like a little boy may say,
may I marry a real ugly woman? But they mean the
opposite of that. And so they’re really
funny because everybody’s asking for things opposite. The baby gives out gifts. The baby puts corn pollen
or salt in everybody’s palm as they whisper wishes to her. And the baby also has a big
pile of fruit, gifts, toys, all kinds of little stuff, so
they give each person a gift. So the holy person not
only hears your wish, but you get a gift
from the holy person. And there’s a lot
of people there because we don’t
want the baby to ever be lonely, to be anywhere
without relatives. And we don’t want the baby
to just be wandering around by themselves. We always want them to know
that this is their home. And then also for the baby not
to be stingy, not to be saying, that’s mine. Leave that alone. To always be generous and
to share what they have. So that has to do
with the breath. So in Navajo, they
say the sacred begins at the tip of my tongue. So when you can feel your
breath when you’re talking, you’re putting the sacred
out into the world. And the sacred is when you
take your first breath. It enters through all your
fingertips and the whirl on top of your head. So they always say
your fingertips aren’t just for the FBI. All the different kinds of
wind enter your fingertips when you take your first
breath after you’re born. And I don’t know if
they still slap a baby, but the first breath
in this world. So you’re imbued with
those sacred winds. Every time you speak
or express yourself, you’re expressing the sacred. So that’s what I talk about
in my creative writing class, is that every poem
that they created has never existed before. It now exists and they
put it into the world. Therefore, we have
to honor that, and so we’re there to say what
you really like about the poem, and then to make
suggestions to make it tighter and more refined. But that defeats the
whole premise of creation. You can’t be creative
if you’re afraid of what people are going to say. -And I think that’s good
to tell not just students, but individuals
that when you write, not to be afraid of
how it’s going to sound or what’s going to
be put out there. And back to the first
laugh, it’s always difficult when a baby’s 2 to 3 months. The first question when you
see the baby to the parents is, has the baby laughed? And if it’s a no, you walk away. I don’t want to be
around the baby. And then there are parents
who invite certain people over during that stage
because they really hope that they’ll
talk to the baby and make the baby laugh because
they can throw a good party. -A really good party. -So I feel bad
for baby sometimes between 2 or 3 months. You don’t know if
people are around you who want to be around you,
or they’re purposely trying to be there for a reason. We have a couple
of minutes, so I don’t know if there was a
question from the audience. Yeah. -I have heard that puns
are a really important part of Navajo language,
punning and humor, and I wonder if that plays a
role in your poetry at all. -Give me an example of a pun. -When is a door not a door? -What? -When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar. -Oh, I see. I thought you meant
adore, like, I adore you. I’m sure there are. I’m trying to think
of– it depends on how you say certain things. So for instance– well,
it’s not really a pun, but it sort of shows you the
creativity of Navajo language. I was reading the poem
about [NAVAJO], which means a little bitty dog,
like a chihuahua– there’s a whole story behind
that, about [NAVAJO], how they saved a little boy. So we don’t normally
let dogs in our house, but we let the little bitty
ones in because they once saved a little boy,
and so we really revere those little dogs. Anyway, in that poem I talked
about the names of dogs. There was Lobo,
Snazzy and Tlog’i. And Tlog’i actually means,
like– [NAVAJO] means grass. But when you say
Tlog’i, it means furry. So there’s different meanings
depending on how you say it. I’m sure there’s other examples. It’s a really precise
language, so without knowing, sometimes you can say the wrong
thing that you didn’t mean just because of a syllable. And I’m sure that there’s
puns, but somehow I can’t think of– if you
said that in Navajo, I could probably think of it. But puns– -Oral history is,
itself, very beautiful, and some would
argue it’s poetic. If you think back to the
history of Navajo language and the relationship to
poetry, where are the origins and where are the boundaries
between the beauty of oral history and the
specificity of Navajo poetry? -I can only speak
to Navajo poetry. You mean Navajo oral history? I think they’re so interwoven. It’s so replete
with various kinds of really precise, intricate
verbal expressions, and there’s not really a
word in Navajo for poetry. You can say [NAVAJO]
which means language, it means what a person
says, but it also encompasses stories,
knowledge, wisdom, songs. It compasses a whole
variety of knowledge, and it means that a person
knows their history, they know their
origin, they understand the meaning of the mountains
and the different directions, different stones,
where the origin is. You know the origin
of your clothes. So there’s a word
for that– [NAVAJO] and it just has a
very general meaning, and that’s where poetry
exists, as well, is stories. But it doesn’t exist as it
does in English by itself. It’s embodied in
all this knowledge. -Thank you. That was a good question. We have one more and
then we’ll be done. -So I wondered if you
could talk about when you decide to translate
Navajo in your poems and when you decide not to. -I don’t know. It just kind of happens. I really don’t. It’s not really conscious. I know that when I’m
writing a sestina, I’ll already have
the words in mind. So some words have so many
different varied meanings that it’s easier to do things
in Navajo, use Navajo words, than it is in English. But as a poet and as a
writer, I write all the time, and it’s really what the story
or the poem or the vignette wants to be. So I’m the person
that writes it down. I write it down, but
I don’t invent it. -It just sort of fits, right? Well, thank you again, Luci. From Radcliffe and HUNAP we have
a very nice HUNAP coffee mug for you for your Hills Bros. Coffee. -Oh, thank you. -Or your Starbucks. -Thank you.

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