It is Thursday night and I ride the #2 bus along Franklin avenue, through the heart of the Minneapolis Native American community. My destination is McNamara Alumni Center on the world-renowned University of Minnesota (UMN) campus.
In 1851, seven years before Minnesota was admitted into the Union, the territorial legislature chartered the university. That same year, the Dakota were forced to cede nearly all their land in Minnesota and eastern Dakota in the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota (though Minneapolis and St. Paul are built on land ceded in 1805).
I am headed to see Natalie Diaz, Mojave American poet and language activist, read her poetry.
The McNamara Swain Room is standing room only and I find the last seat in the back row. The lectern subdued at the front of the room, she opens the reading with music from her cell phone played into the microphone: ‘Maps’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Wait, they don’t love you like I love you…
She says it’s a reference to her mother, a Native American woman who apologized for her need to be held and loved by white men. For her mother, ‘wait’ did not mean patience but rather ‘weight’ as in heft; ‘they don’t love you like I love you…’ meant Natalie was no less than.
She stands alone with long dark hair and soft voice and mentions that people are often uncomfortable with silence at poetry readings. It is a warning for she is not uncomfortable in silence, in the pause between her poems, surrounding the unique cadence of her reading. Honest, visceral poetry about the enduring effects of colonization, exile, genocide, racism, poverty, and grief.
She writes about growing up on the reservation in poems like ‘Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation’. She writes about the adjoining white community. She writes about her brother’s addiction to methamphetamines, including the title poem of her 2013 book When my Brother Was an Aztec and ‘My Brother at 3 A.M.’
She says she can love her brother on the page, love him better on the page than in real life. This brother blocked every shot she tried to take against him in basketball until his addictions caught up with him. In college she played point guard on the women’s basketball team, reaching the NCAA Final Four her freshman year. After graduating, she played professional basketball in Europe and Asia until she returned to school and earned her MFA in poetry and fiction.
Professor Diaz was named the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University where she teaches. Previously, she directed the language revitalization program at Fort Mojave, her home reservation, and worked with the last Elder speakers of the Mojave language in an effort to preserve it. It is spoken by only about 200 people in California and Arizona. Her Elders grieve at the loss of their language- “There is no one left for me to ask”.
She leads us in an exercise to learn a Mojave children’s song about a tick, a deer (‘aqwaq), and a coyote (hukthar). She moves through the words of the story, explains the meaning, and we repeat the words three times with hand gestures that imitate the animals. Her voice has regret and sorrow, that every day she is away she feels she loses something by not learning more of her native language. But her Elders have told her that being a poet and a teacher is also part of who she is and to honor it.
She has hope because enough of the language and the structure has been preserved that it can endure, that it can adapt over time as all languages do. She explains that the Mohave word for bird is the same as for airplane. The Mohave word for the sun is also used for East, time, watches, and clocks.
Natalie Diaz is so real, humble, gifted; her humor mixed with sadness, her admission of anxiety not just for public speaking but for how her audience will react. Most of her audience is white and there are hard truths in what she has written. The UMN audience is a full spectrum of color, creed, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, and country of origin.
At one point, she suggests the five native people in the room might ‘take back’ the bathroom and hallway in McNamara. She tells us Native Americans make up less than 1% of all Americans, as if she is only part of a person, a hand that disappears when it goes under her lover’s shirt. She mentions the reading is sponsored by the Edelstein-Keller Endowment for Creative Writing. She says that as a Native American reading poetry in Native lands, she hopes that those for whom the endowment is named were good people that did good things.
On Friday, I rush to the university bookstore after work to buy Natalie Diaz’s poetry book. Like all good poetry collections, it is like rich chocolate. You can only consume one piece at a time. Thick emotion hooks onto the deep fibers of the soul. You must savor the language. My mind flickers between conflicting images, what the words might or do mean, the blank space between, what is left unsaid, left to the sheet of infinity.
To where your particular experience of this life meets the poet’s experience of this life…
Your minds embrace, dance.
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2019