Becoming Visible in the Modern Day

New Poets of Native Nations, reviewed by Danielle Uppleger for Columbia Poetry Review. 

In the twenty-first century, we’ve all but forgotten the original inhabitants of America and their stories. In the majority of American culture, they are cautionary tales and crude mascots for sports teams. If you don’t live near a reservation, you often forget how Native Americans were grouped together and forced to live in subpar conditions. But they haven’t forgotten. The Native Nations are still here, and they are full of artists, and these artists and their voices are presented in Graywolf Press's stunning New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich.

Heid R. Erdrich curated this collection of work to give an unbiased space for newly published Native poets in today's literary landscape. She chose twenty-one poets of Native descent who had published their first poetry collections after 2000 to showcase the new narratives of the Native Nations. The poems are not bound by a strict theme, except that most poets’ sections contain poems that use hybrid forms and Native languages alongside English and more conventional poetic forms. For example, in an excerpt from Gordon Henry, Jr.’s poem, “Simple Four Part Directions for Making Indian Lit”:

 

Ah-Beshig for the money:

Take something Indin

And take something

non

Indin

Make the Indin

indigenous of native

or skin

 

Make the

non

Indin

non

indigenous or

non

native

or non

skin

or white”

 

we see different languages as well as unique enjambment and line breaks. The poem models its form off of the old rhyme “One for the Money,” as well as replaces the English words for the numbers with their Ojibwe counterparts. These two aspects work in harmony to convey the struggles that Native American writers face when trying to write anything pertaining to being indigenous. The use of language emphasizes the fact that there will be focus on the “native parts” regardless of what the writer chooses to do, and the how-to form plays to the speaker’s sarcasm about any of this process being easy.

The collection not only discovers new stories of Native Americans, but also delves into the past that they faced. Many of the authors drew upon old tales and traditions in their poems, highlighting some of the forgotten stories and revealing American “heroes” as villains. Take Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” a poetic telling of the Sioux Uprising and the Dakota 38. She writes,

 

“You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.

If this is the first time you’ve heard it, you might wonder, ‘What is the Dakota 38?’

The 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.”

 

Soldier goes on to explain that the Dakota of Minnesota were promised money they were never given, and after starving because the government would not pay them, they retaliated. She calls this act a poem in itself. This prose poem blends languages, forms, and present and past issues all into one piece to fully examine a historical event and the effect it has on the Dakota Nation today. The form of disconnected sentences forces each statement to stand on its own and bear the weight of the information it displays insures that the reader will feel just how tragic this event is. The readers can clearly gather from these aspects of the poem that while the story is hidden from most eyes, it still holds truth that is so important to the Dakota today that they still ride in remembrance every year on the day the Dakota 38 were killed.

Erdrich’s collection gives voice and celebration to a budding generation of works that highlight what the modern Native experience is and how it differs and assimilates to the overall human experience. New Poets of Native Nations is a showcase of the hybridity of poetry and the hybridity of humanity.

New Poets of Native Nations is now available through Graywolf Press.