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New Poets of Native Nations and the Hybridized American Identity

By Gabriel Boudali.

Heid E. Erdrich (editor), New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, 2018)


“then I heard a poet trouble and say:


I’m a straw man for leftist critique.”

                                                —Layli Long Soldier


In the introduction to the June 2018 issue of Poetry, Heid E. Erdrich asserts the notion that “there is no such thing as Native American poetry.” She wants to make it clear that the work collected in the issue, and in the newly published anthology, New Poets of Native Nations, is not defined by a demographic metric, stating that:

we are poets who belong to Native Nations. There are 573 Native Nations. Their relationship to the US federal government is as nation to nation. We also know who we are and we determine our own membership and citizenship. We write into, out of, even despite this fact.

This powerful sentiment expresses the tricky reality of being an artist who belongs to a hybrid culture, one formed by the history of colonialism alongside contemporary ideas on identity. What does it mean to be of a Native Nation? What does it mean to be a poet, writing “into, out of, even despite” the tradition of a white, Eurocentric literary canon?

New Poets of Native Nations is an ambitious project designed to bring together voices of poets who published their first book in the twenty-first century. As editor, Erdrich makes clear the intention to showcase work that confronts contemporary society. In her introduction, she states, “my criterion that a poet have a clear connection to a Native nation has nothing to do with blood quantum,” eschewing the legal metric by which the US federal government determines Native nation citizenship. Rather, most of the contributors to the anthology are “multiracial” and that “not one of them identifies as ‘Native American’ alone.” This fact makes the anthology a unique primary source for understanding the complexities, and beauty, of hybrid identity and culture.

In her introduction to Hybrid Identities: Theoretical and Empirical Examinations,  an anthology of sociological analyses of the globalizing world, editor Keri E. Iyall Smith defines hybridity as the “reflexive relationship between the local and global,” where “identities are not assimilated or altered independently, but instead elements of cultures are incorporated to create new hybrid culture.” Understanding the nature of this exchange remains the critical task of the moment. As we approach a new decade, and the twilight of this American century darkens, new voices will lead the way. The concept of identity—when hybridized by global, local, and subcultural communities—will   redefine aesthetics as the dominant cultures of history recalibrate to include, and bring to the fore, those individuals who have experienced the conditions of the colonized, the worker, the unrepresented, the displaced, and the oppressed.

Sy Hoahwah’s poetry, which appears in both Poetry and New Poets of Native Nations, often employs a righteously sardonic tone when expressing the manifold configurations of identity in the context of place. Take his poem “Hillbilly Leviathan” with its opening image: “The Ozarks are where defeated assassins, the unholy / and monsters come to retire.” The smart conjunctive following the line break evokes a gathering of sundry characters, undesirables who have retired in a region which exemplifies recreation and leisure for some, and extreme poverty for others. This opening stanza finishes with wit and aplomb, “The proper soil and crooked moonlight grow back / the disemboweled, the decapitated, / while we collect arrears in child support for our demi-god children.” Again a description of the unlucky inhabitants of the place, disembodied but hopefully healing, while the turn to the first person plural signifies either a kinship or further isolation within the group. The poem continues mostly with the first person, the speaker self-defining with grim metaphors of disembodiment and smallness: “I, tongue of snakes. / Cut up, dipped in powder sugar,” and “An online southern Christian university ordained my smoker’s cough / to be a dove.” The poem ends with the somewhat miserable humor successfully employed throughout: “Like my burial site, I am party-size.” This final image calls to mind all the native burial grounds lost or developed on throughout US history, against an example of the individually packaged-and-sized consumptive nature of America.

In “The Internal Colony Hybrid: Reformulating Structure, Culture, and Agency,” an article included in Hybrid Identities, author Roderick Bush uses W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of Double Consciousness and the history of the Black Liberation movement to describe the relationship of a nation within a nation, or a population colonized within a dominant culture. The history of Indigenous populations in the United States and elsewhere represent prime examples of this colonial phenomenon. Not isolated by geography, but actually part of the fabric of the society which has colonized it, the population of the internal colony struggles most poignantly with the local/global divide, trying to hold on to their traditional culture while being made to adhere to the values and law of colonial rule. From this situation springs a unique individual, existing between cultures and yet precluded from those opportunities which would allow them to flourish fully in either sphere, traditional or political. But Bush argues convincingly that “the hybrid culture then becomes a source of agency that is important in the ability to impact change within these societies.” As poets, the artists collected in New Poets of Native Nations occupy a powerful role culturally, and a book like this, at this moment, acts as a looking-glass for  white-dominated culture. As challenges to the status quo of global capital, environmental degradation, and underserved communities rise in pitch, the perspectives held by these poets offer vital reading.

An essential poem in this collection—one that perfectly illustrates the nature of the internal colony and the sordid history of Native nations colonized by the US government—is Layli Long Soldier’s poem “38.” In a unique formal experiment, Long Soldier’s poem acts as poetic history lesson detailing the demise of the Dakota 38 and the political conditions surrounding their execution. Early in the poem, there is this disclaimer: “You may like to know, I do not consider this a ‘creative piece.’” This warning lets the reader know that in this piece, history takes precedence over its creative interpretation.

The Dakota 38 refers to thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging,
under orders from President Abraham Lincoln.

To date, this is the largest “legal” mass execution in US history.

The hanging took place on December 26, 1862—the day after Christmas.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

There was a movie titled Lincoln about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was included in the film Lincoln; the hanging of the Dakota 38 was not.

Rather than retell this history with poetic flourishes, Long Soldier avoids certain cliché affectations of what had once been considered “Native American poetry.” The poem succeeds because a reader’s common expectation from poetry is to experience a delicate artifice, a nuanced perspective, but here we have a poet bluntly declaiming the injustice of history and the continued disgrace of a society that still fails to come to terms with its own atrocities. By referring to the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, Long Soldier calls out the dominant culture’s efforts at mythologizing a white national hero, by downplaying or ignoring the same hero’s involvement in the subjugation of entire populations. Her approach raises important questions. How does a poet confront their ancestry in the context of such history? What are the mechanisms by which an individual successfully acknowledges their identity in a society containing communities that can either accept or reject such expression?

In confronting identity, poets have the unique opportunity to both question and express their own contradictions, eccentricities, and amalgamated forms of language in a manner that is either clear or experimental. But for these Native poets there can be an added layer of confusion and trauma involved. Several tackle the near extinction of native languages head on, such as Margaret Noodin whose bilingual poetry is published in both Anishinaabemowin and English, or Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru from Guam, who makes liberal use of indigenous vocabulary throughout his poems, creating a breath for English readers in which they must pause and reflect on the origins of voice. These poets, linguistically displaced, are American authors writing in English despite the fact that their identity has been formed from previous generations who spoke in different tongues. In a sense, the work of poets of Native Nations might be seen as the translated utterances of victims of American imperialism. As native languages continue to disappear, it will fall to these poets to not only resurrect and preserve their native tongues, but to memorialize the loss.

Some poets, however, take a different approach in their use of language. With refreshing wit, Tommy Pico offers a radical rejection of identity stereotypes as he challenges what is perhaps the most intrinsic aspect of what had been called Native American poetry—the dominant imagery of nature’s power and force. In his book, Nature Poem, Pico constructs the book with a singular speaker whose voice is confident but struggling:

You can’t be an NDN person in today’s world

and write a nature poem. I swore to myself I would never write a nature
poem. Let’s be clear, I hate nature—hate its guts

I say to my audience. There is something smaller I say to myself:

I don’t hate nature at all. Places have thoughts—hills have backs that love being stroked by our eyes. The river gobbles down its tract as a metaphor but also abt its day. The bluffs purr when we put down blankets at the downturn of the sun and laugh at a couple on a obvi OkCupid date

and even more stellar, the jellybean moon sugars at me. She flies and
beams and I breathe.

Fuck that. I recant. I slap myself.

With his rejection of the literary formality of English language poetry and the use of abbreviated language and internet colloquialisms, Pico’s speaker is a product of our time. Further still, the speaker declares “you can’t be an NDN person in today’s world / and write a nature poem” because doing so recalls the stereotype of the noble native attached to the land. The urban lifestyle of a gay man in New York City, as expressed in Pico’s work, stands as a rejection of this perceived primitivism. But as the poem continues, we see the speaker struggle with this rejection. Nature has “guts” and thoughts” and becomes animated in the poet’s contemporary imagery of the “jellybean moon.” His fiery voice is a strong expression of the hybridized identity. Cultures collide and his speaker is there to assess the damage and speak to the emergence of something powerful and new from the ashes.

Of course, a troubled connection to nature is not the norm. In fact, many Native poets embrace a deep affinity with the land, a tradition that characterizes much of American poetry, but is most poignantly felt by those whose ancestors lived on this continent for millennia. In “Dog Moon Night at Noatak” dg nanouk okpik recounts a dog-sled run in a terrifying landscape of “crested bergs” and a “cobalt blue snow scape” as some seemingly distant speaker recalls becoming sick along the journey:

In sledge a fever broke with a dry
hoarse cry of stomach pain. We went.
My goose-feathered flesh indigo,
his face pale but red at the cheekbones.
Yet shiny from the hoarfrost sweat like
the needles pricking the ice as it bleeds.

When is cold     cold?  Are we there yet?
When is rain      rain?  Does it matter to many?
What’s left         Behind or ahead? As now approaches.

The poem’s dramatic landscape is transferred onto the bodies of those within it, dramatizing the power of nature. The interrogatory stanza forces the reader to reflect on the passage of time within the context of a conveyance of a sick body. “Goose-feathered flesh indigo” and “hoarfrost sweat” are terrifyingly beautiful images inspiring fear and awe. dg nanouk okpik ends the poem with these sentiments at a place removed from the landscape described above, “I gaze up, view the dog moon in silence, and shiver.” Nature as a powerful force will never fail to affect the American psyche, and it should do so even more now as climate change creates disaster after disaster.

There is no such thing as Native American poetry. This notion liberates poets and readers from the stereotypes of “native” or “indigenous” imagery. Artistic movements and communities exist to advance certain goals, to create new ways of thinking. In New Poets of Native Nations, the artists can be read as those agents of change who come from oppressed and underrepresented communities, but only when their poems ask us to do so. Nevertheless, identity remains central, and invites readers to immerse themselves in the experiences of others. Poets welcome readers into their lives, and when they express the trauma and confusion that arises from a history of being othered and the politics of globalizing modes of exchange, we must listen carefully. Empathy should be the dominant mode and effect of literature. In order to achieve this, our contemporary moment requires us to reimagine a world order that recognizes the malfeasance of dominant culture, and prioritize the views and experiences of the historically underrepresented. Collections like these, which move away from stereotype and embrace the full spectrum of identity and style, help to define art by un-defining it.

This brings us back to Layli Long Soldier’s poignant image : “then I heard a poet trouble and say: / I’m a straw man for leftist critique.” Sitting all alone on the page, this evocative scene is startling. How free are poets, artists and citizens to challenge dominant culture? How does one avoid the fallacy of having their view of history distorted, and when will society at large accept the oppressive results brought about by imperial power and economics? Perhaps another reading of this same scene would be that—as this essay might represent—the oversimplification or misrepresentation of one’s view or identity is inevitable. It is difficult to identify precisely the origins of a poet’s utterances, even when they speak politically, because the political mode isn’t at all reductive, but vastly complex and formative. To categorize New Poets of Native Nations as a product of certain cultural contexts and a tool towards justice is an effort that might seem shallow considering the diversity of poetic brilliance collected within its pages. But these poets seem to be asserting their voices, their unique perspectives and experiences as powerful individuals within a society of weakening dominant traditions. They lead the way in a shift in American poetry. One could say, the author isn’t dead, but sings very loudly.


Gabriel Boudali is a writer living in Richmond, VA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 5th, 2018.