Diné poets share art with students
By Phil Hall
In April four Navajo (Diné) poets were invited to the Fourth Annual Celebration of Diné Authors for a week-long program at Rough Rock High School and a community event: Orlando White, Esther Belin, Velencia Tso-Yazzie, and Sherwin Bitsui.
The purpose of the program, organized by Barney Bush (Shawnee), who teaches Native American Philosophy and Logic at Rough Rock High School, was to expose students in this rural Navajo Reservation community to the art and work of these accomplished writers.
“In the community of poets and writers, these writers are recognized,” Bush said, “but here on the Navajo Reservation they are practically unheard of.”
Three of the four authors spent their childhood on the Navajo Reservation; the fourth, Esther Belin, grew up in urban Los Angeles, but has returned to her community. The other three have moved to urban areas, but all maintain strong connections to their Diné homeland.
As I rode my moto south down Highway 191, I had but one thing on my mind: pie and ice cream. There’s a café in a little waterhole named Mexican Water on Highway 160 that’s a favorite of mine. The friendly waitresses there know how I like my pie: hot, Hot, HOT!, with vanilla ice cream on top. I was hoping for cherry, but settled for a slice of pecan, and was not disappointed.
I picked up 191 again, straight south, down through the beautiful redrock country around Round Rock, where a sandstone whale looms out of the desert. Near dark I arrived at Rough Rock, as out-of-the-way as any place on “the Rez.”
As I walked into the school gym a Navajo lady was singing a folk song from the ’70s, belting out the chorus, strumming an acoustic guitar. Bitsui came over and greeted me; I took a seat next to White.
A graduate of Red Mesa High School and the College of Eastern Utah-San Juan Campus, White is now receiving his bachelor’s degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe and will leave this fall for an MFA program at Ivy League Brown University. The four writers had just finished the third day of their program at the school.
I asked White about his expectations going into the program:
“I thought it was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I want to teach someday and my favorite group is high-school students. I remember my high-school experience and it wasn’t that great. I think I read one book in high school and I don’t remember what it was. I am really proud to have an opportunity to come to Rough Rock and share what I’ve learned.”
It is difficult to imagine the lives of these young Navajo students. Even though I live on the northern edge of the Navajo Reservation and see these young people on a daily basis, I have little insight into their lives, their thoughts, their sense of worth.
I’ve worked with them in a variety of programs in the arts, education and humanities, and when you get to know them you’re always impressed at how intelligent and insightful they are. Many seem as closed as stone but beneath the surface there is often a surprise. The secret is empowerment. Young people need to know it is all right to write about their feelings.
“There was this one kid,” White said, “and he came up to me and said he liked my stories. He talked about how his mom found his poems and stories he had written about death and suicide and love, and his mom took him to a psychiatrist and he was put on medication. I think my stories helped him understand that it’s OK to write about these things.”
Students’ exposure to the outside world comes largely through television, shopping trips to Farmington, N.M., one weekend a month, and visits to family members who have moved to the big city (Phoenix, Albuquerque , Flagstaff, Tucson).
Barney Bush introduced Bitsui, who, like White, grew up in northern Arizona, near White Cone, west of Ganado. He graduated from the IAIA program with an associate’s degree and matriculated at the University of Arizona, where he received a BFA, and published his first book of poetry, “Shapeshift,” three years ago.
He is perhaps the most popular young Navajo poet in the world today. He has given readings in South America, Europe, Canada, and coast to coast in the United States.
Here’s a stanza from “Shapeshift”:
He sings an elegy for handcuffs,
whispers its moment of silence
at the crunch of rush-hour traffic,
and speaks the dialect of a forklift,
lifting the cedar smoke over the mesas
acred to the furthest block
“We (artists) all collaboratively worked together,” Bitsui said. “We talked about our experiences as Diné writers. All of us have moved off of the reservation so it was a kind of a homecoming for us.
“Navajo students have problems in the family and in the community,” Bitsui continued, “and a lot of literacy issues are pandemic on the reservation. I hope our experience here gives the students a sense of writing. A growing number of young writers are learning the importance of writing.”
Tso-Yazzie, who lives and teaches in Santa Fe, originally hails from Chinle, Ariz., 30 miles or so from Rough Rock. I asked her about the students she worked with during the week:
“We were working on a play, and these two students, both of whom seemed very hard-core, came up and volunteered to be part of the program. They wrote some really wonderful pieces, and it truly amazed me that these kids can write such beautiful things with the hard lives they live. As a result of writing, these kids are going through a healing process. I hope my presence there helped expose them to the writing world.”
Belin, a mother of four and a graduate of UC-Berkeley, has studied writing at IAIA, and currently teaches “Native American Support and Culture” at Durango (Colo.) High School. She is the author of “From the Belly of My Beauty.” At a ceremony that night she gave copies of her book to some of the students involved in the program.
my anger trapped in my own brain cells
the thought behind the unspoken
is more than
what rolls off the tongue
—“Sending the Letter Never Sent”
“I think I learned that there are a lot of things that need to happen with the Navajo kids,” Belin said. “There’s a lot of mismatch between their lives as Navajos and the bigger world. There are a lot of rough edges and frayed spirits out here.
“We’re all natural writers, I think. We can all overcome obstacles. I think we, as artists, modeled for them that ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. As a culture we have been strong enough mentally and physically to survive this long.”
Programs in the arts, education and humanities work. Exposing the students to writers, visual artists, dancers, musicians and dramatists allows them the opportunity to express themselves, to be who they are.
Rub the magic lantern and the genie emerges.