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Sounding a ‘Larger Voice’ from Indigenous America

The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation's new anthology of work by 13 prominent Native writers is a celebration and a provocation – and it's free.

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The cover of “The Larger Voice,” and anthology editor Rena Priest.

We carry the river, its body of water, in our body,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mohave poet Natalie Diaz declares in her poem The First Water Is the Body. “… I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving within me right now.”

Reading through The Larger Voice: Celebrating Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellows, the new anthology in which Diaz’ poem appears, I found myself reading aloud even more than I usually do when reading poetry. Even the essays, I discovered, I preferred to speak out loud: They were prose, yet never prosaic.

There is a richness to the varied writing in this collection that is fully contemporary but is also, as so much good poetry is, like a song; a flow of words whose import comes not just from their literal meaning but also from the rhythms and histories of their spoken sound, rising and falling, syllable to syllable, like a river on the run.

Consider this, from Nimíipuu, or Nez Perce, poet Michael Wasson’s Your Shadow Invents You Every Time Light Fails To Pass Through You:

Listen. I know you’re afraid—I am too. I know how the body prays for beauty but remains a shipwreck you are building in my image. How many

books are enough to tell you you’re alive today?

Go ahead. Speak the words. Roll them in your mouth, then set them loose, downstream, in your mind.

The Larger Voice delivers on its title’s promise, providing an enlivening and varied platform for the work of thirteen prominent contemporary Indigenous writers who speak in thirteen distinct voices but also with many commonalities, each engaged in the present yet reflecting in varying ways on the past and its consequences – a past that prominently includes a history of betrayal and brutality on the part of European settlers against the people of the many nations that had lived here for thousands of years.

In her preface, anthology editor Rena Priest suggests some of the nowness-and-thenness and oral awareness of the voices: “In the time before newspapers, email, cell phones, satellites, TV, 5G, and the worldwide web—in the time of the oral tradition—you had to be present to hear something, or you had to hear it from a person who was called forward as a witness to the work.”

The anthology’s voices come from many regions of what is now the United States, and the book includes introductions by recent U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, of the Mvskoke Nation, and poet Laura Da’ (Eastern Shawnee), an American Book Award winner who lives near Renton, Washington. Priest, its editor, is a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation near Bellingham in northwest Washington, and current poet laureate of that state.

And in one sense, at least, The Larger Voice is futuristic, or at least a radical alternative to the publishing-industry norm. You can’t buy it. You can’t get a hard copy. You can download it, free, in PDF form, and then print its roughly 130 pages yourself; or simply read it, as I did, on your computer screen.

The anthology also provides a larger voice for the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a national organization that is dedicated to “the perpetuation of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian arts and cultures nationwide.” Among its many programs have been its National Artistic Fellowships, one-year, unrestricted grants across several artistic disciplines to develop original and existing projects. The thirteen writers in the new anthology were all fellows in literature.

Conceptual drawing for the new exterior of the Native Arts and Culture Foundation, from Emerick Architects.

The foundation opened its doors in 2009 in Vancouver, Washington, and is now based in Portland, in the historic Yale Laundry Building, which was donated to the foundation by the Yale Union when that contemporary arts center disbanded.

Plans are in the works to remodel the building to suit the foundation’s needs, as Portland architecture and planning journalist Fred Leeson reports on the website Building on History: “The foundation envisions the building as a place to encourage, display and sell Native American art and to produce events in a ‘black box’ theater.  …  The building also is expected to include a dining venue, as well as offices for the foundation that provides grants promoting Native American arts and culture.”

Surprises abound in The Larger Voice, as in Laura Da’s poem Adornment, which begins:

PICC line jangling at my throat—
trade sliver gorget askew.

Slim gauge needles
navigate shallow shales
of the periodic table,
facsimiles for the benefit
of pitchy blood.

What was this? I had to look up PICC: peripherally inserted central catheter, also known as a PICC line; as the Mayo Clinic puts it, “a long, thin tube that’s inserted through a vein in your arm and passed through to the larger veins near your heart.” This, then, was not specifically a poem about Indigenous life, but of something else that might occur to any of us, a medical condition with the power to level all playing fields.

Sponsor
Portland Center Stage Young Americans Portland Oregon

In a way Da’s poem underscores that Indigenous people, like Black people and immigrants and many others, contain multitudes, always themselves and yet often also walking simultaneously in many shoes, criss-crossing borders and overlapping understandings. And yet. “If you’re Indigenous, the poems you write are Indigenous,” Priest, the anthology’s editor, said at a group reading sponsored by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation at the recent Portland Book Festival. “Even if they’re about daffodils, not outrage.” Even if they’re about PICC lines and medical emergencies, and opportunities to connect.

Tribal languages, and the loss and recovery of them, are of deep import, because when a language dies (or is systematically suppressed), so does a large part of its culture. In her poem Lexiconograpy 2–It Was Cloudy, Ojibwe writer Heid E. Erdrich offers both English and translation, side by side, beginning: “Cloud beings come laughing, comical” to the left, “aanakwad vii, biidaapi vai” to the right, and although I can neither pronounce nor understand the words to the right, by simply seeing them I begin to understand, a bit, the complications and potential rewards of linguistic duality.

Cherokee writer Kelli Jo Ford’s The Year 2003 Minus 20, an excerpt from her novel Crooked Hallelujah, is a taut and compelling fiction about childhood and womanhood and living on the edges (“You can’t trust a man to take care of you. Remember that, Reney. You can’t trust them at all for that matter. They’ll lie to get what they want. And they always want something.”), with a dose of desperation and more than a ripple of verity.

There is fine writing also in The Larger Voice from Diné writer Sherwin Bitsue, who has both an American Book Award and a Whiting Writers Award; Cherokee poet Santee Frazier; Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan; Oglala Lakota poet and National Book Award finalist Layli Long Soldier; Standing Rock Sioux writer Mona Susan Power; and Diné poet and children’s book author (and inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation) Luci Tapahonso.

The poetry and fiction in The Larger Voice are anchored by two long essays that provide historical and moral context, from Warm Springs writer Elizabeth Woody, a former Oregon poet laureate; and Ojibwe author David Treuer, the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and an Ojibwe lawyer and judge.

In her 1998 essay Twanat, to follow behind the ancestors, Woody, who is now executive director of the Museum at Warm Springs, traces the history of Celilo Falls, the great fishing and gathering place on the Columbia River that was inundated in 1957 by the building of The Dalles Dam, and the catastrophic effect on the River People of the falls’ disappearance.

Her essay is partly a paean to tradition and family, and very much a treatise on environmentalism and the ways in which traditional Native practices kept the natural world in balance and contemporary industrial life has thrown it out of whack, claiming among its victims the survival and safety of the river system’s once multitudinous salmon runs. A new investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Pro Publica, described in the story Unchecked pollution is contaminating the salmon that Pacific Northwest tribes eat, buttresses Woody’s point of view.

“We are past discovery and colonization,” Woody writes. “Integration of our universal values must include those who cannot speak. The salmon, the tree and even Celilo Falls (Wyam) echo within if we become still and listen. Once heard and understood, take only what you need and let the rest grow.”

Treuer, in Return the National Parks to the Tribes, which is excerpted from a May 2021 essay in The Atlantic, expands on Woody’s historical and environmental themes, telling a hard story in clear, persuasive language. The great lands, largely in the West, that became parts of the National Parks system were praised as, in John Muir’s words, a “wild garden” that should be preserved. “But in truth,” Treuer responds, “the North American continent has not been a wilderness for at least 15,000 years: Many of the landscapes that became national parks had been shaped by Native peoples for millennia.”

And the Native people who had lived on what became parks land were displaced, their treaties broken over and over, losing even the hunting and fishing rights that had been promised them. While the parks were being established, the reservations were being formed and the Plains Wars were raging. “It was as though the government paused mid-murder to plant a tree in the victims’ backyard,” Treuer writes.

“America’s national parks comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession,” he writes, and states his theme clearly: “We live in a time of historical reconsideration, as more and more people recognize that the sins of the past still haunt the present. For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again.”

Yet in spite of the stark history, within these pages are also ample joy and love. As Harjo declares in her introduction: “Consider this anthology as a place where many of our best Native speakers stand together to give us what is as essential as water: stories, prose, and poetry that will incite inspiration, community, and growth, because in this profoundly changing world, we need their words.”

Words, often enough, of insight and nuance. In Do We Have the History of Native Americans Backward?, his essay in the Nov. 14 print edition of The New Yorker, Treuer argues against the fatalism he finds in Dee Brown’s classic history Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. “I readily accepted the version of history promoted by Brown’s book: that Native American history was a litany of abuses (disease, slavery, warfare, dispossession, forced removal, the near-extermination of the American bison, land grabs, forced assimilation) that had erased our way of life,” Treuer wrote. “And yet my culture and civilization didn’t feel gone. When I looked westward and back in time, I couldn’t help think that Brown’s historical record was incomplete—that the announcement of our collective death was rather premature.”

As Priest declared at the Portland Book Festival reading, “To launch this anthology out into the world is very exciting.”

And as all good art is, very difficult to pin down. In her poem The First Water Is the Body, Diaz concludes not with answers, but with questions:

Will we remember from where we’ve come? The water.

And once remembered, will we return to that first water, and in doing so return to ourselves, to each other?

Do you think the water will forget what we have done, what we continue to do?

We forget, we remember, we write things down, we use our voices large or small, we protest, we celebrate, we carry on. After all, we’re only human.

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  • The Larger Voice is available to download, free, in PDF form. To request a copy, hit the “Request PDF” link on this page.

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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