Interviewer - Lucy why don't you start out by just describing the Long WalkIn 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:
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.
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?