Poet Luci Tapahonso a hero among her tribe

Luci Tapahonso is visiting Wellington to read her poems and talk about indigenous literature.
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Luci Tapahonso is visiting Wellington to read her poems and talk about indigenous literature.

Luci Tapahonso has a poem burning inside her, about the American election and shaky times.

Draped in turquoise jewellery, beads in her necklace, bracelet and earrings blazing a bright blue, the Native American poet has penned her thoughts about Trump in a red notebook she has brought with her to New Zealand, which she carries with her everywhere.

Here for Victoria University's Creativity Week, Tapahonso is a hero among her tribe, the Navajo, who named her its inaugural poet laureate three years ago. While most poet laureates are named for a city, state or country, the mother and ​grandmother was bequeathed the honour on behalf of her entire tribe – the second-largest Native American tribe in the United States, behind the Cherokee, with 300,000 enrolled tribal members.

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Growing up on a reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, the middle child of 11, Tapahonso watched tribal members banging on the door seeking advice from her parents, who were respected as elders. Today, as a published author of six poetry volumes and three children's books, the writer recognises she has a similar guiding role.

For now, she's consumed by the Trump election, which came as a huge shock to her tribe.

In her home city of Santa Fe, the majority backed the Democrats. She arrived to Wellington in the wake of the November 11 quake. "There's something about being here a week after the earthquake and after what has happened which is a disaster as well. I think there's an insight or a realisation. There's something there," she says, pulling out her journal filled with beautiful handwritten pencilled words. Now in her 60s, Tapahonso has been scribbling her thoughts since she wrote her first poem at the age of eight, and has kept a daily notebook since her teens.

Urging her tribe to draw on their history, she says in her quietly spoken way: "Our children are really unsure and frightened. I've been telling my children and grandchildren that our ancestors faced many challenges in life. They had to negotiate a world that they had never encountered before. But it was through the stories and memories that they had of their ancestors before that showed them what it means to be a Navajo person and to think about themselves as descendents of holy people. We have to think about having faith in ourselves and in our people and our land as our ancestors did."

A juror for the Poetry Society of America, and named "Storyteller of the year" by the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Tapahonso graduated with an English degree from the University of New Mexico and has taught her craft at universities in New Mexico and Arizona. Her 1993 collection, Saánii Dahataal (the women are singing), written in Navajo and English, was the first work to gain her an international reputation.

With poems translated into Italian, German and French, Tapahonso delights in the way a poem has the ability to convey an idea or experience in a few words.

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Described by reviewers as "a lyric matriarch of the American Southwest", she writes in her native tongue, drawn to a language heavy with verbs and imbued with emotion, before translating that into English. Her award-winning collection, A Radiant Curve, includes poems and short prose conveying memories of her life, while weaving through tribal culture and stories – visiting her mother after her father passes away, her grandson's first laugh ceremony and viewing a sunset in a desert sky.

Some of her poems touch on key moments in Navajo history, such as the Long Walk in 1864, when about 9000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to embark on a trek of 480km to Fort Sumner, in New Mexico, to be interned. Many died. Says Tapahonso: "As a Navajo person, I want to show that a Navajo point-of-view or sensibility remains steadfast since the beginning of Navajo time."

While her father left school at the age of 11, he instilled in her a love of books and reading. From their reservation, he frequently drove her and her siblings to the library 30 miles away. "Both my parents had books and they were so worn out," she smiles. "My parents appreciated how important education was for us."

In A Radiant Curve, her poem reads: "We... must remember the worlds... our ancestors... travelled. Always wear the songs they gave us... Remember we are made of prayers... Now we leave wrapped in old blankets of love and wisdom."

Luci Tapahonso will give a free public reading at Te Papa's marae on Thursday, November 24 at 1pm. 

 - Stuff

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