The Navajo Nation's First Poet Laureate, Luci Tapahonso
Navajo Nation's first-ever Poet Laureate Luci Tapahonso (also a professor at the University of New Mexico) talks to Natalie Diaz about what that position means to her at Los Angeles Review of Books. "For me 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. It is not even really me, you know...." More from their conversation:
Most poet laureates are named for a city or state, or for the United States even, because they live there or were born there, but you are poet laureate for an entire nation of people, your people. It’s a much different connection that you have to the people you have been named poet laureate for, the people that make up your nation, your tribe, your extended family. How do you see or understand your relationship to words or language in the context of having been named the first-ever poet laureate of the Navajo Nation versus the relationship others might have to, say, their city, or their state?
I think it’s primarily different in regard to the ancestors and the land. I see it as a reflection of the resilience of the people, what people have gone through, and our adaptability and survival. The stories that I write and share with people are really the reflections of what has been deemed important, from different periods, so when I think about what it represents, first it represents the history and the ancestry. It also represents the way people live today and how that shows how language works. There have been a lot of changes … People have moved into positions that our ancestors, my parents, couldn’t even have imagined. Yet at the base of it, it seems to me, through the medium of poetry, people are still really proud of being Navajo. Being Diné means something. [Note: Many people in the Navajo Nation refer to themselves as “Diné.” The term “Navajo” actually comes to us via Spanish and Tewa.] No matter what your experiences are, or no matter how much one is physically removed, culturally removed, or removed because of language — like if you are not a fluent speaker — the idea of identity is strong. This is what is important about it.
I see the position as one that, you know, it’s the first position, so I really feel the weight of that responsibility. When I go places and people invite me because I am the poet laureate, sometimes they have completely different ideas of what it is to be a Navajo or what is poetry … It’s important to do as much as I can to publicize the ideas of language, the importance of family, the importance of history, and also the importance of changes that have happened, that are happening now. Always political issues come up, issues of the environment, issues of education, of poverty, drug use, alcoholism. All of those things are a part of it, too. You can’t just concentrate on poetry like maybe some other people could, because I am really representing, as you say, a whole nation.
The idea of poetry in our Navajo world, speaking — Ya’ jił’tí’i’gí’ — Diníbizaad — is related to the whole — one’s whole life, the whole community. It’s not separated the way poetry is in Western society.
I try to accept as many invitations as I can with the idea that probably people have not met another Navajo before. They don’t really have any idea except maybe the stereotypical kinds of ideas of American Indians. For whoever comes behind me in the next two years, I want to establish what the position entails, and that is a challenge.
Read the full interview--about the younger group of Diné poets, poetry as storytelling, aging, dealing with grief and silence, and more--at Los Angeles Review of Books.