Words as Seeds
I begin by acknowledging where I come from. I do this to ground myself but also to respect my ancestors; I believe we carry them, their light, and their love wherever we go. My name is Tanaya. I’m Duckwater Shoshone, Pyramid Lake Paiute, and Southern Ute.
Each year I teach creative writing and poetry to hundreds of Indigenous youth in dozens of communities. On this teaching path, facts and reality float in blinding rates: for Native Americans ages ten to thirty-four, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Working with Indigenous communities and youth is an honor, a gift, and a huge responsibility.
I am invited into another Indigenous community: their land, and their schools. I hold awareness for these spaces I am invited to participate in; I operate by the motto “do no harm.” For ten years I have been doing this work and one of my first times is still with me: I arrange the seats in a sharing circle where each person shares what is in his/her/their hearts. I start: I think it’s important for us to share because I realized in reading your papers that so many of us are going through the same things and we don’t have to go through them alone. I’ll start off by sharing what’s troubling me or causing me pain and then we’ll just go around the circle. If you don’t feel comfortable or don’t want to share when your turn comes up, just pass. And that’s OK, too. On April 12, 2007, my best friend committed suicide. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t there. I was young and had never lost someone in that way. He was only twenty years old and his death was a rupture.
The communities, universities, schools, tribes, teachers, parents, students, and people trust that I have come to help youth express themselves, their hearts, and their minds. I visit a school and establish that relationship. I leave with a commitment to that community; I will always be responsible and accountable to them because now we are connected. Once I had the kids write letters to themselves saying things they wanted to hear. I saved the letters and mailed them to them months later.
That first summer of my teaching I am running late so I just photocopy sections of a favorite book with the most dog-eared pages, the most underlining, and head out the door. I give this assignment:
Read over the excerpt from Linda Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World. The assignment: write in response to the intimate voice of Hogan. Write about one moment of trauma that occurred to you either personally or ancestrally. Grading/Point System: Referencing/Quoting the text — 20 points, Heart — 80 points.
Both my classes write silently, an engagement I’d recognize as my own. For two hours the ink spills furiously onto the page, tells stories they carried internally until now. Later, when I start grading, I realize that the section I copied was from “Falling”; its opening quotation by Carroll Arnett read:
For giving us the horsewe can almost forgive the alcoholAlmost
I read the responses. How far back this pain stretches: from child to parent to grandparent, on and on. I had no idea how wide it extended across states and reservations. This pain knows no borders.
This teaching experience cracks me open. I need to do something to acknowledge the traumas we share. You can’t just split a person open and then leave them raw, exposed. In the circle I’ve arranged I say: On April 12, 2007, my best friend committed suicide. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t there.
Ten years later, I’m a seasoned director of an Indigenous youth program. I know better; I know that I am a state-mandated reporter; I know the kids always come first. Today I train teachers how to hold this space and to do so responsibly, with utmost care. Back then, I did only what I was raised culturally to do — acknowledge the ways in which we are all related. One of the ways we are related is through shared pain as a result of historical and ancestral trauma.
In my first teaching experience, I hadn’t said these words aloud to anyone before: On April 12, 2007, my best friend committed suicide. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t there. In giving breath to that combination of words, I infused them with truth. There’s so much more I could have said, but I didn’t tell the students my whole story. It wasn’t about me. This talking circle was for them; a chance to heal. Every single student, even the shy ones, opened their mouths to voice their truths.
Visiting communities today always starts with prayer. I pray before I leave my home, I put down tobacco, and I pray when I get there. I pray that the Creator helps them find words to voice whatever their white-knuckled hands desperately need to release, so they are free to catch wonderful gifts.
When we start, I briefly tell my story so they can know where I am coming from not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well. I want them to know my why. Why write? Why poem? Why open yourself up in this way?
I tell them: I come from mountains, rivers, and a desert that holds a lake created by tears. I grew up and attended school on my father’s homeland, the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado and spent summers on my mom’s homeland, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation in Nevada. As a child, I was told to help my people and become successful. So I grew up and attended Stanford University; I started writing poetry to heal from loss during my freshman year. I continue to tell them about when my best friend committed suicide. The amount and type of sharing always varies with the situation, the makeup of students, the energy of the room; but the sharing must always, always be in service of the students. We teachers are vessels to carry the songs, stories, and poems that are mirrors to reflect back each person’s own beauty, gift, strength, and light.
Today, I am able to tell my story in different permutations to help serve the space I’m making for the students to write. I tell them I found myself in words. I tell them now I don’t have to choose one thing to be. I get to be everything I wanted — I can work with youth, I’ve founded an Indigenous artists management company, I perform, I get to teach youth how to write.
My work started in that first classroom. When each of the students shared and spoke their hearts to each other in the sharing circle, there was a moment. For the first time in my life I had a kind of hyperawareness where I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be at precisely the right moment.
What are stereotypes you face as Native youth? Let’s write them on the board. The students write things like: We all play basketball, we’re all thieves, we’re stupid, and we all need to be saved. The last one always sticks with me. Students don’t need us as teachers to save them, our native youth can and do save themselves daily. We are not superheroes, we are not meant to heal or fix because our youth are not broken. We are all capable of healing ourselves. Sometimes we just need space and tools to do so. Teaching poetry provides both.
A mother who had seen my TED Talk wrote that her daughter had attempted suicide twice. She asked: How did poetry and writing help you to heal?
My mother raised me and my sister. Her own mother was forcibly removed from her reservation as a little girl and raised in a boarding school. Yet her love raised my mother. It was a love so revolutionary and radical, a powerful fire unextinguished — this is ancestral love. Our ancestors’ love flows through our veins. I imagine it as moments of impact, connection, and a web of light woven through each heart we encounter on our paths. I tell myself, You’ve been given certain gifts, now how will you use them? I visualize the universe as an ocean and I try my best to be a lighthouse, shining with the best intention, light, and love I can imagine. For me, this means continually learning and relearning love’s revolutionary power to create change. I hold that responsibility that has been gifted to me through my ancestors, I hold it in my hands and heart whenever I teach the power of words.
I tell youth to think of words as seeds; this is something my mother has always said — the words you use carry energy. Be careful with the energy you work with, only speak positivity over your life and the lives of others. This is how I think about all words.
I’ll start a writing session by asking students to write about a funny memory or about someone who helped impact who they are today. I do this to help the students see that they are natural-born storytellers. One of my favorite activities to lead is: I know joy, I know pain, I know love. We talk about the difference between concrete and abstract words. I ask them to write six numbered sentences, two for joy, two for pain, and two for love — while using the five senses. Something like I know joy tastes like the freshly brewed coffee. Or, I know love sounds like my family laughing together over stories. We form a circle and everyone reads their lines in numerical order. A group poem starts to form alternating between I know joy, I know pain, I know love.
Once, a student wrote: I know pain demands to be felt. The next day of my artist residency I gave the prompt: If you could have any superhero power what would it be and why? Nearly all of the girls responded: Invisibility. In that moment I remembered how unbearable it was to be seen as a Native woman. It was that reservation teaching experience that made me decide to respond in action based out of love. I didn’t just want to teach, I wanted to build something that could help sustain other artists, poets, and dreamers. So, I created an Indigenous artist management company called Dream Warriors. We travel the country spreading revolutionary, radical love through poetry, singing, and rapping our way from reservation to city, community college to university, sharing our gifts and empowering communities. Together, we created a scholarship for high school seniors who want to pursue the arts.
Our youth are indicators of the health of our communities; they are the canaries in the coal mines that detect toxic conditions. My art is meant to help heal youth. Teaching writing and poetry comes down to impact — if art is a weapon, we can use it as a shield. Poetry helps us wade through ancestral traumas carried in our blood memory. Poetry reminds us to breathe, that we are magic, and that we are love(d).
Poet, writer, and educator Tanaya Winder is an enrolled member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe and has ancestors from the Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Navajo, and Black tribes. She grew up on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, Colorado, and earned her BA at Stanford and an MFA from...