*Photo of poet Natalie Diaz

Poets without Limits

Mainstream culture has a listless practice of permitting minority literature to collect dust. Public school history classes devote a lesson or two to ethnic history, often while minimizing its impactful voice. Native Americans, for instance, are mainly remembered for the Pilgrim’s pleasant encounter with the fabled Squanto, or Disney’s $350 million-dollar worldwide hit “Pocahontas.”  Farah Qureshi in an article for Journalist’s Resource asserts that “Native Americans experience ‘relative invisibility’ in the media. While they are included, they are generally portrayed as historical figures – individuals from the 18th or 19th centuries who wore buckskin, rode horses, or lived in teepees.” The poetry of Natalie Diaz and Laylie Long Soldier breaks these whitewashed bromides.

Diaz, a Californian, and Long Soldier, an Arizonan, unapologetically reclaim their indigenous cultures by bringing their readers up-to-date on how Native Americans fit into the modern lifestyle. The two women toy with artistic appearances and styles, knitting them together in a collage of outlaw verses. Their poetry blends the artistry of untamed terrain with the unpredictability of power shifts—two subjects prominent in U.S history.

Natalie Diaz’s collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, reminds readers to whom American soil first belonged and where roads paved with colonialism have led her people. In her poem “Cloud Watching,” Diaz describes the savagery that rose from the birth of America:

“Betsy Ross needled hot stars to Mr. Washington’s bedspread –

They weren’t hers to give. So, when the cavalry came,

We ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled

With bullet holes.”

These stanzas detail the massacre and displacement of Diaz’s Aztec tribe under the American flag, historical events that Americans rarely visits in its education. She goes on to describe the lack of leadership that followed generations of loss within the Aztec culture, leading to the eventual degradation of structure and strength within the tribe:

“The rhythm is set by our boys dancing the warpath –

The meth 3-step. Grandmothers dance their legs off –

Who now will teach us to stand?”

Another poem entitled “Hand-Me-Down Halloween” challenges both cultural appropriation and the White Savior Complex when a classmate named Jeremiah gives Diaz “a two-piece / Tonto / costume.” She describes how “/ white / Jeremiah told all his / white / friends that I was wearing his old costume / A hand-me-down? /” Complimenting the words, the odd breakdown in the structure accentuates and isolates the most offensive slights to her identity. The “white” child boosts his ego by making her a “fake / Indian” for Halloween. What appears as a gift in Jeremiah’s mind translates as an injury to Diaz, especially when the night escalates with ridicules of “good / little Injun.”

In Whereas, Long Soldier takes a more complex approach to her poetry. . Much of the collection relies just as much on its physical appearance as it does the text. However, the last section entitled “Whereas Statements” makes her message clear. Its stream-of-consciousness approach offers her readers a glimpse into the mindset of the modern Native American. She describes how “the burden of American Indian emptiness” manifests in every facet of her culture with “drives, conversations, or when I lie down to sleep.” This assertion describes how the very term “American Indian” is emptied of meaning and doesn’t even belong to those it describes, “like a hollow, bloated boat that is not ours that neither my friend nor I want to board, knowing it will never take us anywhere but to rot.” This statement proclaims how what once belonged to Native Americans, including the term itself and American soil, has been stolen.

She likens her desire to a creek, presumably because it contributes to a larger river or lake. This statement defines “Lakota” as “friend or ally.” She finds in her existence as a Native American because few people recognize its legitimacy as an integral part of society. Yet, she still wishes to fit herself within the whole country’s fabric.

While Diaz and Long Soldier make different stylistic choices, their messages are similar. They desire respect and appropriate representation of their heritage while remaining an integral part of America. Pitchmen are eager to peddle Native American artifacts for sports teams, costumes, or tobacco brands, but hesitant to consider their civilization an integral part of our country. Instead of using exploitative cartoons and figurines marketed in massive schemes, we should take up the first-hand works of poets like Diaz and Long Soldier to give Native Americans the homage they deserve.