Sunday, April 11, 2010

HUM 221: Luci Tapahonso, the Dinetah, the Dine language, heritage, family and English-language poetry

Friday we read Navajo (Dine) writer Luci Tapahonso's poem "In 1864." Today we will try to put it in the context of her overall career as a poet and educator. Now teaching at the University of Arizona after academic gigs at universities in Kansas and New Mexico, she is an important voice in Native American Studies nationwide. In an interview with KUED-TV ath the University of Utah, Tapahonoso explained how, and why, she came to write "The Long Walk." An excerpt:
Interviewer - Lucy why don't you start out by just describing the Long Walk

Luci - The Long Walk was probably one of the most important periods of in their history. It has, of course, a profound impact on the people that suffered through it and lived through it, and it continues to have an impact today on our lives.

Interviewer - What do you think it meant to the identity of the Navajo people?

Luci - I think that though it wasn't meant to, it probably reinforced and strengthened and ensured the identity of the Dine.

Interviewer - When you think of ancestors and relatives and people who made the Long Walk what are your emotions about that time?

Luci - It's hard, you know, to say you feel one way or another and it's so much a part of our experience that it's difficult to think of it separately by itself. It's very meaningful to me, and it's so much a part of our experience as a people and as individuals and as a group so ...

It's very much a part of the way that we identify ourselves, and not necessarily the experience, but because many of my ancestors of whom I'm a direct descendant, which means it's my experience in a sense. So I don't think of them as separate from who I am. I think of what happened as forming my own sense of self, and my experience that it's going to play a role, or it plays a role in who I am as well as my future and my children and grandchildren's lives and their future as well.
In an especially perceptive analysis of Tapahonso's poetry in 1999, Amy McNally of the University of Minnesota said Tapahonso writes about heritage and family "to relate the importance of passing along to one's children the cultural nourishment necessary to ensure the continuity and vitality of one's heritage." McNally adds:
Tapahonso writes her poems and stories in English peppered with Diná, but has originally conceived and/or performed many of her works in her native tongue, only translating to English when the works are to be published. In her preface to Saanii Dahataal [a book of poetry, subtitled The Women are Singing], Tapahonso explains how the translation from Navajo to English, and indeed from performance to the written word, can alter the effect of her poems and stories: "Many of these poems and stories have a song that accompanies the work. Because these songs are in Navajo, a written version is not possible. When I read these in public, the song is also a part of the reading. This is very much a consideration as I am translating and writing--the fact that the written version must stand on its own ..."
So language is important, too. Can you maintain the traditions without maintaining the language? How can you maintain tradition if you live in an English-speaking culture and necessarily write in English?

As sort of an epigraph McNally uses the poem "Tsaile April Nights" ... let's read it. (A couple of notes: "Tsaile" is pronounced like "SHAYley." Female rain is a gentle shower, like those in the spring that help germinate plants. Male rain comes more often in summer thundershowers. Pictures of male and female rain are available on the Plant Genome Outreach to Native Americans website at Iowa State University. Piñon is a pine tree of the high desert with aromatic smoke.) How much does Tapahonso's home in the Dinetah influence her poetry?

Other poems sound variations on Tapahonso's themes of heritage, family, culture and reinforcing and strengthening traditions in the face of adversity. As you read, be ready to blog on some or all of the questions they raise:
  • "It Has Always Been This Way" - a very traditional poem. How are these traditions maintained in a fast-moving society driven by mass media and to some degree contemptuous of all kinds of tradition? Or can they be maintained?
  • "They are Silent and Quick" - a poem about Tapahonso and her daughter, who were living hundreds of miles away in Kansas at the time, speaking about traditions back home in the Dinetah. How do old traditions become new ones in a new part of the country?
  • "Better to Avoid Her" - what pressures does mass society bring to bear on traditional values? Are they unique to Native Americans? Or are they shared by all?
  • "A Discreet Conversation" - how do family, heritage and the pressures of society play out in this scene? What is the effect, on you as a reader, of the grandfather's speaking the Dine language?
  • "Hills Brothers Coffee" - one of Tapahonso's most famous poems. (Here's a picture of the "man in a dress, / like a church man" [probably a Franciscan brother] on the coffee can.) It's about family. But is it about heritage too? Look at "In 1864" again before you make up your mind.
  • "Hard to Take" - a vignette at a checkout counter. What pressures does a society that is often intolerant of minorities bring to bear on traditional values? Why does Tapahonso speak Dine to the other people in line? What does she assert when she does? What does she lose? What does she gain?
  • "A Whispered Chant of Loneliness" - more family and heritage. The "Yei bicheii" is a traditional ceremony. Yei are the holy people of Navajo legend. How is tradition maintained in this poem? Or is it? What's this stuff about Goldilocks and the Three Bears and National Geographic?
As you read the poems, you were asked to be ready to blog on some or all of the questions they raised. Also this: Does Tapahonso's poetry speak to non-Indians who do not share her Dine heritage? Are any of the issues she raises shared by other Americans? Is it important for others to reinforce and strengthen traditional values? If so, do artists like Tapahanso have anything to say to us in the larger culture? Post your thoughts as comments to this blogpost. How many of the issues raised by Tapahonso's poem strike you as being important enough to include on the final exam in HUM 221? Just askin'.


Roman said...

I think this poem is talking about the pressures of society and the reaction people have to it. Some resort to drinking or other bad habits. Others pout and cry and think to themselves why me?

This does go for all people not just native americans. It speaks to everyone who lays down and quits in tough situations in their life. People need to read this and realize that tough situations occur in life and we can sometimes be defined by how we deal with them.

mikefleshman said...

"Hills Brothers Coffee" was about a boy sitting around with his uncle. They discuss their which coffee is the best. It makes me think that maybe this coffee reminds his uncle of his native roots and that is why he likes it so much. It is hard to understand because to a naked eye it is just about a boy and his uncle drinking coffee.

Shakeria said...

Better to avoid her.... i like this poem its talking about a woman who lost track of her traditional values.. what stands out the most to me is:Sometimes
I don't even care to see her
her bushy hair
was so nice the night before
those bleary eyes almost closed
smeared mascara shiny with waiting tears... even with her crying the person has absolutely no sympathy..

Jessica said...

"It Has Always Been This Way"
Overall i liked the poem. The Navajo have very strong beliefs about brining a baby into the world. Unfortunately, most Americans don't have all of those traditions with raising the baby and keeping them close to home/family.

ajgand said...

I read "A Whispered Chant of Loneliness." I do believe that this poem speaks to non-indians. It talks about her father reading her stories when she was a child. All parents at some point told their children stories. I do believe that it is important to reinforce traditional values. In this poem, she talks about being loneliness. I think that everyone goes through a period when they feel this way.

dave maziarz said...

i did 'hills brothers coffee' and i think that it is about a navajo family and the bonding between an uncle and his nephew. it reflects the strong family bonds that the navajo have.

t_mac_24 said...

A Discreet Conversation:
The poem is talking about a boy who rolled his car while drunk driving, and luckly he is not hurt and they are all kind of making jokes about it and launging it off. I think that if this would to happen to someone i know, no one would be laughing about the situation even if everyone was okay, because that is not a smart decesion to be drunk and driving.

Kyle K. said...

hard to take.
this poem is about a person that goes to gallup to but food and clothes. the person drops her change in line. then says i am sorry i am sorry. the girl behind the register says, are you a navejo? this shows how protective and scarred they are by other cultures. this person has to prove they are a navejo because he or she didnt have an accent. the customer is embarrased and leaves without getting he or she a new wardrobe.

Catey Rutschke said...

Better to Avoid Her-I think that more and more people these days forget about traditional values and just choose to do whatever they want to have fun. In this poem, there is a girl that has come home drunk and is crying to a man. He has no sympathy for her because she "choose" to do what she did. He talked about see a lamb that was hit by a car and how helpless it was, but he said that this girl was not helpless and she knew the consequences of her actions. I think a lot of parents pressure their kids to be great students or great athletes and they want them to uphold traditional values. But in today's society, a lot of the time, these things will not happen. I think that Native Americans may hold higher standards to those in their tribes because they may have a lot more traditions sacred to their tribe. I think some traditions may be shared but definetely not all of them.

Brad Selvaggio said...

i read It has always been this way and it was a nice poem to read. i felt like it taught me the navajo way of child birth. The baby is always surrounded by happiness and generous people. i like how they still use the pollen on the babys tounge to help there lungs and be be strong and healthy. Over all the poem teaches you something about the navajo people.

Her poetry only talks about the navajo but it teaches americans there ways. she doesnt say anything about amwerican issues.

Cait131 said...

A discreet Conversation:

How do family, heritage and the pressures of society play out in this scene? What is the effect, on you as a reader, of the grandfather's speaking the Dine language? - The man in this poem was very lucky, and it states that a couple of times throughout the poem. Like when he rolled his car twice and didn't get hurt, and when the people told the lucky man's wife that she better go with her husband next time that he gets paid. They grandfather says that certain statement with excitement, which kind of excites me as I read the poem. It's all about how you say things, and sometimes it can have the same reaction on the reader.

-Tapahonso's poetry does speak to non-indians. I can see how it actually speaks to the reader along with other people. Some of the issues she raises are shared by other Americans. It is very important for others to reinforce and strengthen traditional values. It sounds like by reading her peoms, that she does have certain things to say to us in the larger culture.

logan eader said...

The poem "It Has Always Been This Way" talks alot about the culture or way of life for the Navajo indians. My first reaction to the poem was that it talked about how they are more of one big family, not just individuals living together.

calenevill said...

Hill Brother's Coffee- this poem reminds me of the brand of soda i prefer- mt. dew, much like Tom Jim does for hill brother's. Some doesnt do it for him and its the same with some soda i consume. he drinks the coffee twice a day and i drink soda twice a day. In some ways they are very similar.

Cait131 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Hayes said...

"Hills Brothers Coffee" is about a younger boy sitting around with his older uncle. They discuss the coffee that they made which they really enjoy. This seems like a way for the older generation to bond with the younger one. I think they like the coffee so much because it reminds them of the Native roots. I think the poem is really about the bonding of generations over things that seem to be small and insignificant but it reality are the little things that bring people together.

Tara Proctor said...

I read Better to Avoid Her, I thought it was cool how it was not written like a paragraph but that the lines were uneven and scattered. I liked the poem, it was short and right to the point. She is telling us how a girl in her tribe has changed and conformed to the white people's way of life, and she doesn't like that at all and the boys in her tribe don't like it either. They are trying to stay true to their tribal heritage and not give in to white culture.

Kathleen said...

I picked the poem, "It has always been this way". I think this poem does a great job of showing the traditions of the way they treat babies. The traditions seen in this poem like not going to noisy ot evil places while pregnant, shaping the head, and the belly button falling off are all traditions that are still seen today. The others that are mentioned like burrying the belly button next to the house or putting a pinch of pollen on thier head and and tongue are traditions that I have not seen but that doesn't mean they aren't still practiced. I think that some of these traditions are very easy to maintain. I think these not only speak to Native Americans but to everyone.

Lucas Baugher said...

"They are Silent and Quick"

Old traditions become new ones very easily. The author talks about how she had never seen fireflies in the night sky before. She thought that it was magic in the sky. She called home to her parents and told them about it. They said that nothing like that happened in Navajo country. After a good nights sleep, the author made sure to go out into the early morning fog and collect the "blessings" that were floating about. This was a navajo tradtion that she had brought to her new home. The watching of the fireflies was a new tradition that she was going to share with her daughter.

Michael D. said...

"They are Silent and Quick"
Old traditions don’t change. They can stay exactly the same or change a little bit. New traditions can even be created. Luci Tapahonso relates the tradition of “going out in the gray dawn before sunrise to receive the blessings of the gentle spirits who gathered around our home,” to the fireflies. She states that “And now, as I watch these tiny bodies of light,[fireflies]he aching inside lessens as I see how the magic of these lights precedes the gray dawn.” The poem does speak to non Native Americans because it shows that we can relate to other things no matter what.