Thursday, January 31, 2008

HUM 221: More poetry by Joy Harjo, more questions (plus the same three)

Friday (weather permitting), we'll read more about Joy Harjo, a Creek/Muscogee poet originally from Oklahoma who now lives in Albuquerque and spends a lot of time in Hawaii. She's a member of the American Academy of Poets, who have a brief biography and links to poems called "Deer Dancer" and "Equinox." In "Deer Dancer" she tells about an ugly incident -- a Native American woman who takes her clothes off in a bar, and the people there -- at least the Native Americans -- see something proud and good about their heritage in:
... the stranger whose tribe we

recognized, her family related to deer, if that's who she was, a people

accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.
Harjo also calls her "the proverbial dream girl, the face of the moon." (There's the moon again, in another bar. What's a nice moon like you doing in a place like this? What's the deer-dancer woman doing in a place like this? Or, as Harjo asks, "That's what I'd like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?" What's going on here?)

Harjo writes a lot about alcoholism and other social problems. But she also writes a lot about how we come to accept who we are, and how we reconcile ourselves with the world. "Deer Dancer" concludes:
The music ended. And so does the story. I wasn't there. But I imagined her

like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who

entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a

blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left.
Can you see any images in the poem, any action, any narrative that shows Native American people in very seedy circumstances? Like in a cheap bar? Dancing naked on the furniture? But can you see anything in Native American culture still shining through in spite of the circumstances? What would it mean to be like a deer? In Native culture? To us, in our culture? To you? What are deer like? Are they graceful? Are they natural. Do they belong in bars? Think about some of these things.

What is Harjo saying about Native American culture and values and Native hope for the future? About her own personal values and hope for the future? What can she say to all of us about our values and our ability to overcome mean circumstances.

Joy Harjo is very big on reconciliation, on working through personal difficulties. And she's very big on the Muscogee culture. In a poem called "Autobiography," she tells the history of her people -- how they were forced west in the 1830s and their land was stolen -- and how she came to accept her heritage one night nursing a drunk she found on the street, a drunk from the Jemez pueblo who reminded her of her father. She ends the poem:
I have since outlived that man from Jemez, my father and that ragged self I chased through precarious years. But I carry them with me the same as this body carries the heart as a drum. Yesterday there was rain traveling east to home. A hummingbird spoke. She was a shining piece of invisible memory, inside the raw cortex of songs. I knew then this was the Muscogee season of forgiveness, time of new corn, the spiraling dance.
See how "Autobiography" works through difficult issues and comes out talking about spirit, forgiveness, new life? Does "Deer Dancer" do something similar? How do you respond to the poems?

Blog your response to these two poems by Joy Harjo, "Deer Dancer" and "Autobiography." What do they tell you about Muscogee culture? What do they tell you about Harjo? What do they tell you about yourself? Remember the three questions I asked the other day to get you thinking about your response to a poem? Well, here they are again:
1. What about this work stands out in my mind?
2. What in my background, values, needs and interests makes me react that way?
3. What specific things in the work trigger that reaction?
Post your response -- at least 4-5 sentences long -- as comments to this post. Please note: If you were taught in English class never to say "I" in a paper for school, you're off the hook in this class! There's no way you can write about these questions without saying "I." That's what they're all about.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

HUM 221: Wednesday, back to Plan A

For today's in-class discussion assignment, scroll down to what I posted Tuesday, Jan. 22, on Creek/Muscogee poet Joy Harjo. It's under the heading
HUM 221: Blogging the arts, questions to ask
yourself (and keep asking all semester) ...
There's some stuff to read, some questions to write about.

Unless we get a really lively class discussion going, I want to also look at some of the webpages on Native American values that are linked to our syllabus for HUM 221.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dena'ina: 'The language of their place'

Last week we read about the extinction of the Eyak language of southcentral Alaska, as Eyak elder Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker, died at the age of 89. Today we'll read about efforts to revive a related language, spoken by the Dena'ina (d'NAY-na) people whose ancesteral home includes Anchorage and Cook Inlet, the body of water that leads out from Alaska's largest city to the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean.

Most logical place to start is the Dena'ina Qenaga portal page. Let's translate. "Dena'ina" is the name the Dena'ina people give to themselves. It means, simply enough, "the people." In Dena'ina, "Qenaga" means language. Dena'ina Qenaga is a project of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and it is funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The ANLC has done a lot of work not only to record and preserve the language for scholars, but to bring it alive for the Dena'ina people.

Linked to it is a website called Kahtnuht'ana Qenaga: The Kenai Peoples Language. It's about the dialect of Dena'ina spoken by members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe on the Kenai Peninsula along Lower Cook Inlet south of Anchorage.

(A tangent, as long as we're talking about languages. "Kenaitze" may look Native American, but it's an English version of the Russian name for the people of lower Cook Inlet. Alaska, of course, was first explored by the Russians and was a Russian colony for a hundred years. "Kenatsy" in Russian is the word for a flat, barren landscape, and it gives its name to the Kenai Penninsula [pron. Keen-eye], too. The Dena'ina call it "Yaghanen," which means a good land.

(Or is it a tangent? If the Russians and the Americans can't get a tribal people's name right, who's going to?)

Let's surf around the Kenai website. A map showing Images of Dena'ina Territory shows why the Dena'ina think theirs is a good land. Click on the yellow dots to see photos, and the place names in Dena'ina and English. Cook Inlet is the body of water that stretches north and east from the Gulf of Alaska, at the bottom of the map. One of the dots at the end of Cook Inlet shows you Anchorage (you'll recognize the one with buildings), and the Kenai Peninsula is the landmass south and east of Cook Inlet that looks like a splayed-out baseball glove.

Lots of other information on the Kenaitze website, including a pull-down menu with a lot of vocabulary lists. Check out the ones on mammals, fish, "houses, shelters & caches" ... how does language reflect the way they live? How does the way they live reflect language? There's a lot of information about Dena'ina subsistance traditions in those words.

Also linked to the Dena'ina Qenaga website is an Alaska Public Radio Network show on tape recordings of traditional music dating back to the 1950s. Listen for the plank drum. It's a traditional Athabascan instrument, and it has a harder, sharper "clack" than a skin drum, at least to my ears. You'll also hear about Dena'ina traditions and how they've changed since the 1950s, when the tapes were made.

If you want to know more about how a non-English language works than you ever imagined was possible, open Peter Kalifornsky's story of "Putting Up Fish" and click on the explanations of the Dena'ina sentences. See how they take a word and add on meaning with different prefixes and suffixes? Amazing! Then consider most human children are already fluent in their native language, meaning they can form complete sentences even though they continue to learn more vocabulary lifelong, by the time they are 5 or 6.

But maybe the best place to get a feel for the Dena'ina language is a story that anthropologist Alan Boraas tells of the time he and a Dena'ina elder named Peter Kalifornsky recited the Pledge of Allegiance at a school assembly, Kalifornsky in Dena'ina and Boraas translating, and how the children reacted to hearing their language spoken, some of them for the first time. Here's Boraas:
Two hundred grade schoolers make a lot of noise even when being shushed by their teachers, and I was a little ambivalent when we stepped to the microphone. I cleared my throat, Peter cleared his, and we began:

"Dek'nesh'uh bet'uhdi_t'ayich"' Peter read. "I pledge allegiance" I repeated. "Naq'ach' k'iniyich'," "to the flag," "ts'e_q'i k'i_anich'ina," "of the United States of America."

As we read, the children became curiously silent. Johnny stopped pulling Sally's pigtails, Betty and Amy stopped giggling, and Ricky, off in his own space, suddenly was captivated. As one, they stared intently at the frail old man speaking a strange language they didn't understand. They were not confused, but awed. Even the school district administrators paid attention.

The children seemed to sense that this was the language of their place. An ancient language with ancient roots. Though they came from many backgrounds, subconsciously they seemed to want to connect to those roots. After the program was over I stood to the side talking with some acquaintances, and I happened to look over toward Peter. Forty or so kids had gathered around him. They were quiet and respectful with a look not so much of admiration, but of wonder. It was as though there was something missing in their lives that this mysterious old man and his ancient language could satisfy. They would draw near and reach out their hand, and he would reach out his and touch them. Then they would drift away and others would press to the front for a chance to touch the hand of a man who held the secret to their connection to their place.
Finally, check out a 2004 public radio story on the Dena'ina Language Institute at Kenai Peninsula College. You will hear the sound of a language slowly coming back from the brink of extinction.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

HUM 221: A language died this week

An 89-year-old grandmother who died in her sleep Monday at her apartment in Anchorage was the last native speaker of the Eyak language. With her died a language that linguists reckon was 3,500 years old ... and a whole way of thinking.

What do we lose when a language goes extinct? In class today we'll read The Anchorage Daily News' obituary of Chief Marie Smith Jones and a 1993 feature story about her fight to preserve the language and culture. She worked with Michael Krauss, a linguist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (who became fluent but wasn't a native speaker). As a result of her efforts, future scholars will be able to study the syntax and morphology (word formation) of the language. But it will be a dead language, like Latin or Babylonian or ancient Greek.

We'll also watch a video of Smith Jones saying a prayer in Eyak.

The words won't mean anything to us. But as we watch, please remind yourself: This little old lady in the beaded hat was doing something, saying something that nobody will ever be able to do or say again.

What do we lose when we lose a language?

In a brief editorial today (Friday) in The Independent, a British newspaper, staff writer Rachel Shields quoted Steven Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for psycholinguists in the Netherlands: "When a language dies, a whole world dies. It takes millennia to develop, and is an artefact that contains within it a whole culture. This is a tragedy." Sheilds also gave Smith Jones' name in Eyak: Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch.

Let's think about it. How does the language we speak affect the way we see the world? How do words affect the way we think about things?

Here's an example from Eyak that I noticed in the ADN stories. In the Athabascan languages of Alaska, people tend not to use "north" and "south," "east" and "west" when they're talking about directions. More typically they use words that would translate as "up river" or "downstream," because that's the way they orient themselves when they're traveling through the North Woods of Southcentral Alaska. Knowing that, Krauss was able to guess out where they might have lived many years ago. But that's not what's important here: It's the way the Eyak people used words in a way that helped them keep their bearings when traveling off roads through a wilderness.

Look for that again when you read the stories.

But we can find examples closer to home, too. If you know people who are bilingual, you probably hear them all the time.

How many words do you know that are hard to translate from one language to another? (Hint: Many of them we can't talk about in class!) Here are a couple we can: When a Mexican-American says "Ay chihuahua!" he or she isn't talking about a little dog. Norwegians have an expression they say when they're disgusted: "Uff da!" Try saying it out loud. You know exactly what it means. ("Da" is the word for "then.") But it just doesn't translate into English. The language is part of the way people think.

How many words or phrases do you know that carry more than their literal meaning because we've heard them so often, especially in emotionally charged situations? Home, mother, apple pie, singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the seventh inning. How would you explain them to a non-English speaker? "Ho ho ho" at Christmastime. "'Tis the season to be jolly." "You deserve a break today." "Be all you can be." "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." How many words or phrases like this can you list? How do they shape your thinking?

What would you lose if you lost them?

Then think of Marie Smith Jones, of Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch. What did we lose, all of us, when we lost the Eyak language this week?

Post your response to the message board. Here's how, recopied from my other blogs:

How to post your response

Scroll down to the bottom of this post. On the right side of the last line, there will be a link that says "___ comments" (with a number filled in where I've left a blank, depending on how many comments have been posted). Click on that link and fill in the comment field on the right. Sign in (make a note of the username and password you choose because we'll keep on posting to the blog), review your comment if you wish and publish it by clicking on "Publish Your Comment." Logical, isn't it?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

HUM 221: Blogging the arts, questions to ask yourself (and keep asking all semester) ...

More questions than answers. That's what I want to leave you with in Humanities 221 (Native American Cultural Expression). We'll be talking about art, and we'll be talking about how art "crosses over" from one culture to another. I have some strong opinions about how that happens, and why it happens, what we gain from it and what we lose. (You don't have to agree with me, by the way. Just be ready to say why you do or you don't ... to argue the point, in other words.) Either way, I don't have a lot of clear-cut answers on any of this. It's a complicated, messy business. But people are complicated and messy, and so is art.

So let's get started. We'll look at two poems by Joy Harjo, a poet and jazz musician who is an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian tribe.

'Eagle Poem.' When was interviewed on Jim Leherer's TV news show, she recited "Eagle Poem," considered one of her best. Click here to follow the words. (She leaves out part of the poem. She's on TV, after all, and TV viewers have short attention spans. Right?) Then we hear some of her music, and she talks some more about her art.

Here's what's going on in "Eagle Poem." Harjo looks up in the sky and sees an eagle riding a thermal, circling around up in the sky. It fills her with awe. It's like praying. That's it. Simple. Direct and to the point.

Some things to think about, then write two or three paragraphs in answer. Eagles are messengers of God in her tradition. Kind of like angels in traditional Christianity. Does that work for you? And she prays by opening herself to nature, "[t]o sky, to earth, to sun, to moon." Can you see praying that way? Do you tend, like so many of us, to put religion and poetry in different "boxes?" What about religion and art in general? Think about different churches you may have attended, differences in visual art like paintings, sculpture, stained glass, etc., the different styles of music in different services. What's the same? What's different? How do you respond to a poem that's written by somebody who is obviously getting in touch with values from another culture that we may not share? Or are there values there that we all share, even if we express them differently?

'Remember.' Another of Harjo's most popular poems is called "Remember." There are two versions on the World Wide Web, one with musical background and one with Webtext explanations by Virginia Commonwealth University student Kellie Cruz. Here's a passage I like:
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her
in a bar once in Iowa City.
What do you make of that? (Personal disclosure: I've never been in a bar in Iowa City, but I used to go to Gonzo's in Davenport. I never saw the moon there!) When she was interviewed by Jim Leherer, Harjo spoke of taking old things in her poetry, tribal things, and making them new, rejuvenating them. Is that what's going on here? I don't know. What do you think? Here's another line that's sort of like that:
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe. I heard her singing Kiowa war
dance songs at the corner of Fourth and Central once.
That's Fourth and Central in Albuquerque, by the way. Here's a picture. It's right downtown. Does it look like the place you'd expect the wind to be singing Native American war dance songs? Where you'd find the origin of the universe?

Re-read both poems. How much in them seems to reflect Harjo's heritage as a member of the Muscogee nation? How much seems universal -- in other words, common to all people -- and how much is a blend of the two? Are there some things about poetry, music -- the arts -- that transcend cultural boundaries? How do we respond to art across cultures?

Your in-class assignment for today: Watch the TV segment with Joy Harjo, listen to her poem, read it over afterward and post a good two or paragraphs (at least two or three sentences each) on your response to Harjo, her poetry and her music. Be specific. Don't be afraid to quote.

Here are some quetions that are designed to get you thinking. Ask yourself these questions:
1. What about this work stands out in my mind?
2. What in my background, values, needs and interests makes me react that way?
3. What specific things in the work trigger that reaction?
We'll ask ourselves variations on these questions all semester. Please note: If you were taught in English class never to say "I" in a paper for school, you're off the hook in this class! There's no way you can write about these questions without saying "I." I guarantee it.

Keep these three questions in the back of your mind. We'll keep coming back to them.