On the poetry of Simon J. Ortiz
Like an atlas of the Four Corners Country in verse
Note: I wrote this piece in 2013 and it first appeared at hcn.org and remembered it while reading some of Ortiz’s poetry recently. I figured I should re-up it here.
About 20 years ago, my father gave me the book, Woven Stone, by Simon J. Ortiz. I was reading a lot of Indigenous writers at the time, such as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday and Sherman Alexie. I was also reading a lot of poetry, from Richard Shelton to Rilke. Ortiz, a poet from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, fit right in.
Woven Stone, more than 300 pages long, includes poetry written over many years.
As I tend to do with poetry, I also have read it over many years, picking it up from time to time, flipping to a random page, and reading a few poems. Mostly I’ve been drawn to those with vivid imagery and clear, simple emotion. “My Father’s Song”is perhaps my favorite. “Wanting to say things,” writes Ortiz, “I miss my father tonight.” He goes on to recite his father’s song, which is about planting corn at Aacqua (Acoma) and coming across the burrow nest of a mouse:
Very gently, he scooped tiny pink animals
into the palm of his hand
and told me to touch them.
We took them to the edge of the field and put them in the shade
of a sand moist clod.
I remember the very softness
of cool and warm sand and tiny alive
mice and my father saying things.
More recently, however, I’ve relied on Woven Stone as a reference book of sorts, giving me new insight into the Four Corners County. Amidst the evocative imagery and the powerful emotion is a chronicle of the Southwest, a clear-eyed historical account of environmental plunder, exploitation, oppression and the plight of the Indigenous people.
Nor is Ortiz’s work limited to poetry. Several years ago, as I researched a story about Gallup, New Mexico, John Redhouse, a Navajo who has long fought against reservation border town racism and uranium mining, sent me a packet of stories about Larry Casuse, a Navajo activist who was killed in a firefight with Gallup police back in 1973. The packet included stories from a variety of media, even a New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin. Because of the way the packet was put together, I began reading “We Shall Endure”—an account of a march memorializing Casuse—without knowing who wrote it. It turns out the author was Ortiz.
“Gallup is a Fever,” he wrote. “Being in Gallup is always pretty much the same feeling. It is a feeling of something not balanced well in the belly.” I had read a number of news pieces about Gallup during the 70s and 80s, but this spoke volumes. And that’s when I went back to Woven Stone and started reading, really reading, the poems.
Gallup, Indian Capital of the World,
shit geesus, the heat is impossible,
the cops wear riot helmets,
357 magnums and smirks, you better
not get into trouble and you better
not be Indian. Bail’s low though.
Indian Ceremonial August 7-10,
the traders bring their cashboxes,
the bars are standing room only
and have bouncers who are mean,
wear white hats and are white.
Gallup is a complicated place, and its relationship with the Navajo and Pueblo people native to the area is especially complex, a phenomenon perhaps best witnessed in the reaction to the Indian Ceremonial, which has taken place every year for decades. It showcases the dances and cultures of a number of tribes, and draws some 50,000 spectators each year, many of them Indigenous. But, to the bafflement of many white people, it was also the main target of the 60s and 70s activists like Redhouse and Casuse, who protested against the event under the banner of Indians Against Exploitation, or IAE. Redhouse explained in 1973 that the ceremonial exploited Indigenous culture for the benefit of local businessmen, with none of the profit going back to the Indians: “The original idea of the ceremonial is beautiful, but it’s been twisted around into something ugly.”
In just a few verses, Ortiz captures the complexity, and helps us understand what it felt like—and still feels like—to be an Indigenous person in Gallup. While he could be talking about almost any reservation border town in these verses, he's not: Nearly every Ortiz poem is grounded in a specific place. "Ten miles / the other side of Nageezi, / we stopped / a mile south of the highway," he writes, in "Buck Nez." One could almost navigate the Four Corners region using Woven Stone as a poetic roadmap.
Before he became a poet, Ortiz worked for in the uranium mines and mills near Acoma. That work later inspired some of his fiercest work, in Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land. This is not the fiery rant one might expect from the title. These poems are instead calm and circumspect, matter-of-factly detailing the ways corporations used Indigenous people—and sometimes others—as cheap, disposable labor to man the mines that tore up and poisoned the land and people. When the other miners, those from Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and beyond, tried to organize and better the unsafe working conditions, writes Ortiz, “that jail full of Indians sure came in handy … The unions didn’t have much of a chance, and Grants just kept on booming.”
The poet’s worker’s-eye perspective is especially revealing in poems like “Ray’s Story,” in which he relates the story of Lacey, an Indian from Muskogee who worked on the crusher, the first place you worked after graduating from the labor crew.
Dangerous, no shit about that,
and you had to pick that stuff out
of the ore
before it went through the crusher
and plugged it up.
“Anyway, one night — I wasn’t on that shift — he was down there and I guess a mess of steel cable came through.” Lacey apparently grabbed the cable to keep it from going in the crusher and
then a curl
of the heavy cable must have tangled him up
and pulled him—yeah pulled him—
right down into the jaws
of that crusher.
It makes a hell of a racket
that nobody can hear nothing
and nobody heard Lacey
if he had a chance to yell at all.
In Woven Stone’s introduction, Ortiz writes about how he identified with the people he worked with in the uranium industry, mostly working-class white men from all over, because they weren’t far removed from their land-based backgrounds. They had followed the boom not to get rich, for the most part, but just to save up enough cash to go back home and buy some land or a house. In his poems, Ortiz sometimes expresses exasperation at their ignorance, especially of his and other Native cultures. But he also writes about them with deep compassion and sensitivity.
“To Change in a Good Way” is about Bill and Ida, two white Okies who came to work the mines. They befriend Pete, who also works at the mine, and Mary, who are from Laguna Pueblo. While the piece is fictional, its portrayal of everyday life is remarkably accurate, giving weight to the mundane without overdoing it. It reminds me a bit of Raymond Carver’s short stories in subject and style—or maybe I should say Carver’s stories reminds me of Ortiz’s work.
Finally, “Our Homeland, A National Sacrifice Area” should be required reading for anyone wanting to know about the history of the Southwest and the Pueblos, Acoma in particular. You might say it is Ortiz’s version of his own creation story, tracing his ancestral line back to those who built the structures at what are now known as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, in the context of colonialism. But it’s also a eulogy for the land from which he came, told with a mixture of verse and prose, jumping back and forth between imagery and exposition. An acerbic wit peeks through the poetry from time to time, as seen here in his description of Chaco and Mesa Verde:
The park service has guided tours,
printed brochures, clean rest rooms,
and the staff is friendly, polite,
and very helpful.
You couldn’t find a better example
of Americanhood anywhere.
Ortiz ends “Our Homeland” with a rallying cry:
We must have passionate concern for what is at stake. We must understand the experience of the oppressed, especially the racial and ethnic minorities, of this nation, by this nation and its economic interests. … Only when we are not afraid to fight against the destroyers, thieves, liars, exploiters who profit handsomely off the land and people will we know what love and compassion are. … And when we fight … we will win. We will win.
Ortiz is far more than just a poet—he is an observer, chronicler, historian, storyteller and, most importantly, a voice for the people and the land. As a journalist of the Southwest, I find Ortiz's work informative. More than that, though, it's humbling: No matter how much I struggle to find the right combination of words to communicate this land and its people, I know I'll come up short. Ortiz shows us that the best, most truthful language with which to communicate this harsh and rich landscape is poetry.