Native American Poets You Need to Read Right Now

Reading poetry from people of different identities is crucial to an understanding of the world in which we live. Each brings with them a unique framework of society and all of its interlocking pieces. Native Americans’ narratives are often erased in order to romanticize our past and our present. These Native American poets assert their voices as powerful and necessary through eloquent, poignant language.

Must-read Native American poets

 

corpse whale coverCorpse whale by dg nanouk okpik

Inupiaq-Inuit poet dg nanouk okpik crafts lyrical poems unlike much else. She uses both traditional and contemporary poetic techniques in order to conjure a juxtaposition we don’t see often. Take a look at her piece entitled Cell Block on Chena River:

 

 

First:       Brother, remove the tool marks on your scathed skin, brush your tattoos with
                                   nettles, smear bearberry juice in the gashes. Crack open the jail-seed.
Second:   Tear away the bars which restrain
                                   your lean, spare life. Bend your curves in a knot. Brother, smudge your
                                   saw-tooth edges.

Sy Hoahwah

Sy Hoahwah is Yappituka Comanche and Southern Arapaho, often bringing in these identities in his poetry. He weaves ornate language to create complex, powerful imagery as seen in an excerpt from this piece Typhoni:

“I carry sad omens,
slobber down the psychic’s legs
to her feet pointed backwards.
I roll off the back of a skull strapped on top
of a fox who shape-shifts into the irresistible.”

More of his work can be found in one of his latest collections, Night Cradle.

words like love coverwords like love by Tanaya Winder

An enrolled member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, Tanaya Winder pulls no punches in her critiques of colonialism and violence. See for yourself in an except of her piece Love Lessons in a Time of Settler Colonialism:

“They too know all too well that some cracks were built just for us to fall through. We live in a world that tries to steal spirits each day; they steal ours by taking us away.

From Industrial Schools to forced assimilation, genocide means removal of those who birth nations—our living threatens. Colonization has been choking

us for generations. I tell my girls they are vessels of spirit, air to lungs expanding; this world cannot breathe without us.”

Michael Wasson

Wasson is Nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Lenore, Idaho. His sometimes sparse but hard-hitting lines certainly make an impact. Check out some lines from his poem The Exile:

“Chilocco Indian School, Oklahoma, 1922: A disciplinarian says, There is no foolishness, do everything just so…such as keep your room clean, keep yourself clean, and no speaking of your Native language.

For now I can
just whisper
kál’a sáw

the ’óx̣ox̣ox̣
of your hím’ k’up’íp

wrecked at the base
of a century that burns

through my slow blood”

Check out more of his work in his book This American Ghost.

conflict resolution for holy beingsconflict resolution for holy beings by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo a member of the Muscogee Nation, which can be found in Oklahoma. She is a poet who has won several high-level awards for her work. Harjo even belongs to a band called Poetic Justice! See some of her poetic prowess in an excerpt below from An American Sunrise:

“We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike. It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight. Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. ”

bone light coverbone light by Orlando White

Orlando White is Diné of the Naaneesht’ézhi Tábaahí, and explores the very elements of language that we hardly analyze with this level of intensity. The typography, the specific letters, the punctuation. White studies it all through his work. For example, here is his full poem Cephalic:

“I place a black cloth the size of a dot over his head. Wrap his entire minuscule body
with a thread of my black hair. He lies there on a white sheet of paper and squirms like a dark cocoon, thinks he is going to transform. The letter, when it begins to lose color in a book never opened, becomes a macula in thought. And when read through the lens of a decimal point: see its dark fleck of a cranium, see expendable language—grab the
letter next to him, hold it like a tiny black scythe, behead the i and watch its dot head roll to the back of a sentence.”

This poem can be found in another one White’s collections entitled Letterrs.

whereas coverwhereas by Layli Long Soldier

Layli Long Soldier’s book Whereas gained quite a bit of attention since it debuted. It was nominated for a National Book Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, both prestigious markers of talent and skill. Check out these lyrical lines from the collection’s titular poem Whereas:

“Whereas since the moment had passed I accept what’s done and the knife of my conscience pierces with bone-clean self-honesty,

Whereas in a stirred conflict between settlers and an Indian that night in a circle;

I struggle to confess that I didn’t want to explain anything;’

what other native american poets do you enjoy reading?

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