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Simon Ortiz creates 'A Poetic Legacy'

October 26, 2009

For some people, land is a plot of dirt to build houses on, or acreage for a ranch.

For Simon Ortiz, professor of English, land is life. It’s what nourishes us. (And we, in turn, must sustain it.)

“Stai howbah hanoh haatse skai-eetyah-tih. All of us peoples are held by the land,” Ortiz said. “In other words, all peoples are supported and sustained by the land; we are all within the province of the haatse, the land.”

“It's the idea that land is part of all things, and that land is a part of the concept of the wholistic nature of all creation. Land and its abilities sustain life; people and their abilities sustain life. This is an Indigenous world view.”

If you talk to Ortiz long enough (and it just takes a few moments) you’ll hear his mantra of “land, culture, and community,” and you’ll also hear him refer often to language – how his two languages inform his perception of the world.

These themes dominate a new book about him and his work, “Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance,” published in July by the University of New Mexico Press and edited by Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez and Evelina Zuni Lucero.

“A Poetic Legacy” is the first book about Ortiz’s work, and it squarely positions him alongside other icons of Native American/indigenous literature such as Leslie Marmon Silko, M. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Laura Tohe and Lawrence Evers.

Otiz is, of course, pleased from both personal and scholarly points of view that his writing has been examined and discussed in a critical book.

“I like the book because it offers me perspectives about myself and my work that I don't consider or think about. Or that I may not have considered and thought about while doing my work as a writer,” he said.

Ortiz, who has written more than two dozen books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature, said he values the critical attention because he learns from others’ thoughts about his work.

“I try hard to learn from others. In the classroom, I tell students I learn from them and their perspectives and ideas as much as they learn from me, perhaps sometimes even more than they learn from me or other teachers.

“Actually, it's the dynamic of exchange of ideas we all learn from. The dynamic of dialogue and interaction between author and critic is a teaching-learning space and source. Because I learn from that teaching-learning space and source, I appreciate the perspectives expressed via viewpoints, reflections, questions, analysis that others have of my work.”

From a personal viewpoint, it’s gratifying to the poet-professor to see where his lifetime of work has taken him, on a journey he never thought he would make.

Ortiz was born in 1941 at the Indian Hospital in Albuquerque and raised on the Acoma Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. Following high school he worked in the uranium mines and processing plants of the Grants Ambrosia Lake area. After working a year at the mines, he quit and went to college to study chemistry – although he was also interested in writing at the time.

His dissatisfaction with school took him out of college and into the U.S. Army, “to see new places and meet people.”

Then it was back to college, at the University of New Mexico, and back to his fledgling writer career. At UNM he had his first poems and stories)published in small literary journals, but he did not yet envision himself as a teacher and “indigenous writer.” He left college once again and dabbled in journalism, publishing two small newspapers – one titled ABC – Americans Before Columbus.

When M. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, a new world opened for Ortiz. “It was like a gate thrown open to the voice of the Native American people,” he said.

The 1970s brought “a reassertion of the Native American voice,” he told editor Lucero in preparation for the book. “Some people have dubbed the ‘60s and ‘70s as a renaissance. But it was almost like a first-time awareness that we were expressing of ourselves.”

The ‘70s also brought another dimension to Ortiz’s life, one that he probably would have preferred not to experience: alcoholism.

In “Out There Somewhere,” a book of his poetry published in 2002, he writes, for example:

“The corner of Burnside and Union is not the edge of the world. Car traffic, streetlight flash, the invisible siren wail every short hour. It’s Portland.

“’Man, the woods are the place to be,’ Tom says. ‘Cutting trees. Up there in Tulalip, Indians, the air smelling of smoke.’ He takes a deep shaky breath.

“I’m silent. Not thinking too hard. It’s too hard to think in the detox haze.”

Ortiz is celebrating his 16th year of sobriety – “a major accomplishment,” he said. “I knew the harm as a child. I grew up in a dysfunctional family and felt belittled in school. Alcohol subdues your feelings. And, my father was an alcoholic.”

“A Poetic Legacy” reveals another surprising fact about Ortiz, one he doesn’t hide: He never earned a college degree. He told Lucero that "I did not get a degree. I have never gotten a degree. It's embarrassing because some people claim that I have a degree from the University of Iowa. I don't and I would never say that. But people, some writers, journalists, authors, take the liberty and assume that you aren't anybody unless you have a degree."

In 2002, The University of New Mexico granted him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in recognition of his many academic and literary accomplishments, so he does, at last, have letters after his name.

“I was told it counts,” Ortiz said. "So, sometimes I'm called Dr. Simon J. Ortiz."

Ortiz never earned a degree because family obligations, finances, fate conspired him to always miss the brass ring by a few inches (though he says he chose not to take those last classes and exams). But he has more than made up for it by being a lifelong learner and advocate for acquiring knowledge.

That he has published so much, and that his work is considered worthy of a book, is amazing, considering the fact that English was not his first language, and not the way he feels most comfortable expressing his culture.

Ortiz said, in "A Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians," that he "wasn’t really sure that writing stories and poems was the best way to express myself as an Indian. I felt that expressing myself in the ‘Mericano’ language –English – was a modern-day trait that worked against me as an Indian, against all of us as indians. Like most Indians of that time, I didn’t trust the Mericano language, but it had been used so often to hurt us.

"English was the language of the dominant culture, of government, of treaties, of Indian schools where children were taught that there was something wrong with being Indian. Although I couldn’t articulate it then, I had begun to realize that only when we had gained a stronger sense of our Indian selves would we be able to use English to express ourselves for who we are.

“By comparison, the language of my childhood, the ancestral language of the Acoma Pueblo People – Aaquumeh hano – is imbued with a sacred and mythic power that embraces everything of spiritual and human importance. Our culture, our identity, is conveyed by language, by the oral tradition. It carried the knowledge of creation and existence. It is the way we perceive and express the meaning of our lives, the way we know ourselves as a strong and enduring people. And for this reason, it is sacred."

So how does he feel, after reading the first major book to look at his body of work?

He admits he doesn't take praise easily, but he is happy with the book.

"I'm glad it was done and that it came about because there has been some mention of the fact that I, a major Indigenous American writer, have been overlooked extensively by critics over the years. I've felt that's been somewhat the case, and, needless to say, I've been mystified and perturbed about it.

"My views on colonization of Indigenous lands, cultures, and communities and the struggle for Indigenous liberation have always been strong and apparent, and I've always emphasized that colonialism happened not only in the historical past but is strongly continuing to take place in the historical present! I'm happy that writers-critics-interviewers in this book focus on that emphasis in my present and continuing work and my insistence upon it."