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Biography of Simon Ortiz
By Norma Libman
Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust
Simon Ortiz grew up on the pueblo in the town of McCartys (“Deetseyamah”), and worked in the uranium mines, served in the military, attended college, and then took up what was considered an unlikely career for a native person: writing. His work has won numerous awards, including: a National Endowment for the Arts Award; a New Mexico Humanities Award; the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers Award; a Lifetime Achievement Award: Returning the Gift-Native American Writers; the Headlands Center for the Arts: Artist-in-Residence Award; a Lifetime Achievement Award: Western States Arts Federation; the Lannan Foundation: Artist-in-Residence Award; and the New Mexico Achievement in the Arts Award. He is the father of a son and two daughters and grandfather to their children.
In his writing, Ortiz has consistently heralded the spirit of the people of the world and their relationship to family, community, and the land. In his own words, his work is directed at “that great mass of people who I think need to be re-affirmed of their humanity--kind of a tall order, but what’s a poet for?” (1)
Ortiz’ first language is Keres, the language of the Acoma people. His first knowledge of the world came from his parents and his siblings, through oral storytelling and singing. He calls the Acoma language the language through which he first knew himself. He says: “The infant’s early life is usually his family. So my first awareness of language, whether it was to eat or whether it was to be comforted, was the language my family spoke to me as an infant, before I had any real rhetorical understanding of how certain sounds come to you. It’s very basic: you don’t understand semantically, don’t understand the meaning of the words, but you know that something is there; someone is singing you a sweet song, rubbing your back. You associate those early sounds with something soothing.” (2)
Ortiz was introduced to English when he began to attend St. Catherine’s School and later, the Albuquerque Indian School run by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). None of the teachers spoke Keres so the children were forced to learn English in order to communicate with them. He says indigenous children were made to feel hesitant or intimidated if they didn’t speak English and in some cases were punished if they were discovered speaking Keres. Also, children from different pueblos spoke various languages, all different from each other, so English became the common language with which they could interact with their peers at school.
Ortiz acknowledges the presence of both languages in his education process and also the two histories that they represent. Stories are information and knowledge he says and literature in school was presented to him via the Dick and Jane books and the Weekly Reader magazines. All instruction was in English, non-Acoma, non indigenous. But at home, he was getting another form of knowledge; more stylized, more imaginative, not that it wasn’t true, it was from oral history, exaggerated, imagined, from a long time ago: not always factual, but in a more poetic form. (3) Because oral tradition is a link with the past, “most Native Americans will insist it is at the core of who they truly are.” (4)
His parents told him that he should always learn, and they were open to knowledge in any language. Now, when he writes, Ortiz includes words from the Acoma language in his stories and poems. Languages are equal to each other, he says, but we have different ways of understanding each other. “The primary knowledge of the Americas is indigenous,” Ortiz says. “That is where all things of knowledge, of awareness, of consciousness come from. That is a thing that is not taught in school or in churches. When Western Europeans came here knowledge already was here. There was extensive civilization in the Americas, millions of people. You can’t build civilizations in the Andes, or Peru, or the rainforests, or Yucatan or Mexico or here in the Pueblos without knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is foundational and it’s basic and it’s primary.” (5)
Walt Whitman was a big influence on Ortiz, one of the earliest, going back to his high school days. Later, he says, he had some reservations about him, would have preferred that he incorporate more native language into his work, as Ortiz himself does. But he feels Whitman’s sense of strength comes from the land and that resonates with Ortiz and his love of the land. Some later influences were Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsey. “Later, in the same kind of spirit,” Ortiz says, “I began to read more serious American literature, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Malcom X to some extent. And then in the 50’s the Beat Generation, which I have to admit I was sort of on the outside, Gary Snider, Allen Ginsberg, people like that. I identified with them; I felt very much that they were part of my formation in my development as a writer. I began to think about and experiment with Buddhism, which I felt was a kind of correlation to the indigenous belief system, somewhat of an expression of what our lives were culturally.” (6)
Ortiz’s writings, both poetry and prose, champion the land and the relationship of people to the land. “Land, to me, is so basic to our survival,” he says. “Not just mine, but ours. Our survival and ‘continuance,’ which is the word I prefer. The land is where we come from. In an abstract philosophical way we credit our existence to some higher power, or higher force that came about, that was able to initiate our lives as human beings. But it’s still the land, the landscape of rivers, mountains, deserts, prairies.” (7)
The land is part of how we conceptualize ourselves as beings, as existence, he says. Ortiz says he honors the land because it is who and what we are. “It is how we are able to fare in the world. ‘We’ means all, not just Acoma.” (8) And although he is frequently away from Acoma, he says almost every day, “This land is still me, this land is still who I am . . . . it is like a prayer.” (9)
Ortiz frequently uses poetry and prose together. He says he does not know, technically, where that comes from but explains how they work together as follows: “Storytelling is very basic to our people. One recognizes himself as a person and also he is recognizing himself in relation to others. That’s true of the oral tradition of storytelling. So story, as a concept, is one of connection. And the poetry is really part of a story because it is the underlying meaning, it is how we understand. Poetry is that key to comprehension. In the way we put down words. We look at each other’s eyes, at the hands, its poetic osmosis. We understand what is meant by the wave of a hand or a blink of the eye or a kiss or a touch; a wordless gesture. A wordlessness and yet there is so much communicated. And it’s a poetic power that is evoked, that makes sense and gives sense to life, to the story. I think in terms of form, the verse form, or the lack of structure, which communicates in certain ways; where prose is more formal, more structural, rhetorically--it just communicates differently. So I use them together in order to give a much more complete or holistic grasp. I use them together in order to enhance my means of communication. And that is holistic: in order to make a good talk you go back to the beginning to make it work.” (10)
Ortiz speaks of wholeness, not only in literature, but in all of life: “We are whole when the world is whole. In other words, I am o.k. if the world is o.k. I think there is a lot of individual dysfunction these days because the whole is dysfunctional. And we can only get well, be whole, if the external is also whole. And the world does tell us that we are not doing the right thing. My children are more whole if I am doing the right thing. And how I regard my mother and father is how I regard myself. How they live their lives in accordance to traditional belief, respecting of those before you, respecting their own elders, is a guidance system that is traditionally and culturally available and possible.” (11)
On indigenous life today, Ortiz says, “Sometimes we get the feeling the indigenous way of life is disappearing. It’s true to some extent. Colonization has resulted in the disengagement of those oral traditions and the cultural dynamics and connection to the land. But being battered or being diminished does not mean the entire abandonment of the traditions.” (12)
Evelina Zuni Lucero wrote of Ortiz, following an early interview with him: “His native language, the stories of his people, and his traditional upbringing permeate his thought, his writing, his voice, his presence. He speaks forth the Indian experience in a way people, white and Indian, urban and reservation recognize and embrace. . . . No matter where he is, he always comes home to reconnect, to contribute, to participate. His writing, his life, truly is for the land, the community, and the next generation.” (13)
Ortiz says literature was knowledge to him because his father and grandfather and other elders spoke of the old stories as knowledge. That which is ours, which comes from our own, this is how you are going to know yourself, they told him. So for him literature was a natural attraction. “It is part of the way we bring knowledge to people. Look into me in order that you may see yourself. That is what a poet or any writer does.” (14)
- Dunaway, David King. Writing the Southwest. Plume Book, 1995, p. 150.
- Interview with Simon J. Ortiz, Albuquerque, NM, August 20, 2009.
- Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni (eds.). Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance. University of New Mexico Press, 2009, p. 94.
- Op.cit. Interview.
- Brill de Ramirez and Lucero, op.cit. p. 121.
- Op.cit. Interview
- Lucero, Evelina Zuni. “Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys, Struggles, Victories and Sorrows.” Pueblo News Aug. 1978. Quoted on website of New Mexico Office of the State Historian.
- Op.cit. Interview
Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni. Simon Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy
of Indigenous Continuance. University of New Mexico Press, 2009.
Dunaway, David King. Writing the Southwest. Plume/Penguin, 1995.
Lucero, Evelina Zuni. “Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys, Struggles, Victories and Sorrows.”
Pueblo News, August 1978. Quoted on website of New Mexico Office of the State
Ortiz, Simon (ed.). Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. University
of Arizona Press, 1998.
Ortiz, Simon. from Sand Creek. University of Arizona Press, 1981.
_____. Woven Stone. University of Arizona Press, 1992.
_____. After and Before the Lightning. University of Arizona Press, 1994.
_____. Men from the Moon. University of Arizona Press, 1999.
_____.Out There Somewhere. University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Published Works by Simon J. Ortiz:
Beyond the Reach of Time and Change 2005
The Good Rainbow Road 2004
Out There Somewhere 2002
From Sand Creek 1981, 2000
Men on the Moon 1999
Speaking for the Generation (ed.) 1998
After and Before the Lightning 1996
Woven Stone 1992
A Good Journey 1985
Earth Power Coming 1983
Fightin’: New and Collected Stories 1983
Blue and Red 1982
The Importance of Childhood 1982
Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land 1980
Welcome Howbah Indians 1977
The People Shall Continue 1977
Going for the Rain 1976
Naked in the Wind 1971