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Conference Spotlight: Native American Literature Symposium (Part 2)

Did I mention the food?

If I had the space and time, I would blog about every panel, paper, and keynote of the Native American Literature Symposium; instead, I will focus on the poetry-related events.

The first panel I attended featured two scholars from the U of Oklahoma, Waleila Carey and Royce Freeman, presented "Weaving Generations Together Through Language and Oral Tradition." Waleila spoke to the importance of the revitalization of the Cherokee language, adding that "language is indigenous fire." Royce spoke to the difficulty of language loss, and how language revitalization can bring healing. Both these scholars wove poetry into their presentations. One thing I became acutely aware of during their presentation was how traumatic and yet empowering indigenous research can be.

The first keynote lunch performance featured the young award-winning poet Saanii Adil'ini (Diné). She read an emotionally powerful set of poems from her manuscript that revolved around themes of family, place, and identity. Even though her poems dig deep, she always managed to make the audience laugh between poems. This reminded me of a line from a Joy Harjo poem: "Stories and songs are like humans who when they laugh are indestructible." I very much look forward to the publication of Saanii's book.

The next presentation, "'That Is Why I Sent You to Carlisle': Carlisle Poetry and the Demands of Americanization Poetics and Politics," scholar Cristina Stanciu (Virginia Commonwealth U) discussed the poetry published in The Indian Helper, a newspaper published by the Carlisle Indian boarding schools. Her research highlighted the role that education, literature, and publishing played in the forced acculturation of indigenous peoples. Being at the conference, however, I found it ironic that native peoples were now using education, literature, and publishing towards decolonization and empowered indigeneity.

Speaking of which, the next panel I attended was "The History and the Future of Native American Publishing in the Advent of a New Era." It focused on RED INK, a student-led journal of indigenous writing based at the University of Arizona. They emphasized how important it is to maintain a space to "support the development and continuance of native voice." Despite the journal's more than 20-year history, it seems that the U of Arizona is no longer willing to support them. With the way things are heading in Arizona, I'm saddened yet not surprised.

Acclaimed native poet Simon Ortiz spoke during his lunch keynote about the oppressive laws in Arizona targeting peoples of color. He reminded us that literature and education are seen as dangerous because literature and education can empower people.

I saw this wisdom come to life in two other panels. The first featured readers from the anthology Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Among others, it was great to hear Brandy Nalani McDougall, Sherwin Bitsui, and dg nanouk okpik. I love this photo of us because it shows indigenous poets from the Navajo to Hawaiian, from Inuit to Chamorro:

The second panel was "A Fifty-Year Legacy: The Story Continues," which was dedicated entirely to young poets who were studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). I was very impressed by these writers, and I'm excited by the coming generations of native poets.

On a side note, while browsing the IAIA museum store in Santa Fe a few days before the conference, I saw this:

I don't want to end until I acknowledge the Tiwa people of the Isleta Pueblo, the "little island" pueblo in the desert along the Rio Grande. On the last day of the conference, we were led on a tour of the pueblo. We were brought to the the newly restored church, and were taken on a walk around the town. We ended up at our host's father's house, which he had built many years ago. As we walked in, her 94-year old father invited us to sit, drink, and eat. He talked story for a bit, played a few traditional songs. When we were told the shuttle was coming, we began to say our goodbyes. And, like Pacific Islander goodbyes, it took almost an hour.

This gathering was inspiring in so many different ways. I felt inspired by the determination of the native organizers, by the brilliance of the native scholars and scholarship, by the passion of the native poets, and by the generosity of the native people.


Originally Published: April 6th, 2012

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of three collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008), from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn, 2010),...