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The Stories He Lives By
Evelina Zuni Lucero (Isleta Pueblo) writes about the influence and importance of writer and poet Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo).
By Evelina Zuni Lucero
Summer 1978. I was a young journalist, in love with words, thriving on deadlines and adrenaline rushes, disbelieving that I actually got paid to meet and interview Indian leaders and newsmakers, the ordinary and extraordinary, the movers and shakers, like poet Simon Ortiz. Simon and I sat on the grass, under the thick shade of cottonwood trees that dominated the then-existing campus of the Albuquerque Indian School. The All Indian Pueblo Council was in the process of taking over the school from BIA control. The aging buildings were being condemned one by one, and AIPC was looking into how they could provide a better education for Pueblo youth. It was a fitting place for an interview with this poet, what with the political implications in a boarding school setting, and Simon’s confrontation of issues facing America and Native America in his writing.
I was only vaguely aware of his writing, though by this point he already had four books to his name. His book, Howbah Indians, had just been published, his reputation growing. It was an amazing discovery for me that Indians could be authors. There had been none as I grew up, no one I recognized in all the books I had read. I listened hard as Simon spoke, not only because that comes with journalistic training, but because his words resonated within me: “As Indian persons, each of us has different roles and tasks, and I decided I would write to carry out the responsibility of teaching Indian and non-Indian people” (Zuni).
Even if it had only started as an adolescent dream, I still harbored the thought in the back of my mind that someday I could write a book. And here before me was an Indian author, a Pueblo no less, who wrote of people and places with which I was familiar, who showed in his poems and stories that our lives were as important and worthy as any. Like coyote, he had been all over the country, working all kinds of jobs, meeting all kinds of people, and then writing about those experiences. His hands gestured as he spoke passionately about writing, about themes in his work, about responsibilities, about the value of language.
The Sixties were a defining moment for Simon: “I think a lot of us went through quite a change. We came to a point in time where we had to make a decision either to keep on being treated as a stereotype image of the quiet Indian or to speak out and to demand respect. Not just quietly ask, but to act, to confront the non-Indian power structure. I think this happened within the communities, Indian and non-Indian, and within ourselves. We gained a more firm idea of ourselves, what our human capabilities were, and could become.
“Most of my writing is part of a story of Indian people, life, land, America. Most Indian people grow up with the thought of being useful for the sake of the land, the people. This kind of philosophy is really what I want to make my writing be,” he told me (Zuni). It amazed me that an author was down to earth, a “regular” guy not caught up in arrogance, but was interested in community and in speaking to community. Looking back, I see so clearly that he, who had also been without Indian models, was making the way for all the Native writers who followed, including me.
Eight years later I was in the graduate program at UNM in the creative writing program, studying Native American literature, not knowing then the Native American Renaissance was beginning to roll, with Simon as one of the major writers at its forefront. Since then I have become well familiar with Simon’s work and have heard him read and speak many times, and have had many conversations with him. Returning to this interview twenty-six years ago, I am struck with how Simon’s message has remained constant over the years as only a message that comes with conviction can. What he said then is what he always has said and is what literary scholars have written about as a common theme of resistance in his work and in Native literature in general: “Indian people are really energetic and enthused about how we can work, not only with organizations just on specific levels, but throughout all things. There’s a lot of inspiration by looking at the long history of resistance. If our ancestors hadn’t fought, we wouldn’t be here” (Zuni).
He told me in 1978 that in his writing, he strives for an in-depth insight into people, not just their personalities, but also the events which surround people and in which they grow, sometimes even destructively: “People’s lives aren’t always successful. I have always tried to find, even in defeat, inspiration for others” (Zuni). I think it is this quality in his writing of providing hope and inspiration that resounds with readers.
He’s an important writer, well regarded, revered, even, by some. He has contributed much to Native literature with his essays, poetry and short stories, always with that seeming simplicity that overlays complexity. His Native language, the stories of his people, 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. Always he opens with a greeting in the Acoma language. His voice is resonant. He speaks slowly. His words are deceptively simple but hit with a twang to the heart like an arrow to the bull’s eye. He writes out of a tender compassion for the harsh political and social realities of Native life. He writes and speaks from his heart.
In addition to his writing, his significant contribution to Native literatures is his constant support of emerging writers and support of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico and the Institute of American Indian Arts. I admire this community consciousness. 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, the next generation.
Zuni, Evelina. “Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys, Struggles, Victories and Sorrows.” Pueblo News Aug. 1978.