- Revisiting the Regenerative Possibilities of Ortiz
As a graduate student in liberal studies at Dartmouth, and a recent transplant from St. Michaels, Arizona, I find myself returning again and again to Simon Ortiz. At St. Michaels high school on the Navajo reservation, I had Ortiz's epigraph to From Sand Creek plastered in large black letters on my high school classroom corkboard.
This America has been a burden of steel and mad death, but, look now, there are flowers and new grass and a spring wind rising from Sand Creek.1
Such words seem crucial for us, in both my American history and my American literature courses, not only at a reservation high school located one mile west of the window rock, which marks the capital of the Navajo nation, but to any classroom throughout the country. Ortiz must be there. Few authors, poets or novelists are so deeply disturbed and enchanted by the stories that scar and mar the American landscape as Ortiz. His writing takes us from his tribal home of Acoma Pueblo, west of Albuquerque, to the massacred site of the [End Page 96] Arapaho and Cheyenne in southern Colorado, to the prairies of the Midwest, across countless cities, towns, and reservation lands. Consequently we are never unaware of where we are within Ortiz's lines, and that sense of place grounds us inseparably to who we are in relation to the country in which we live.
In response to both a discussion of this quotation and my apparent pedagogy, a student once asked me, "Mr. Duquès, for a white guy you talk a lot about all of the bad things in American history. What about the good stuff, you know the 'spring wind' and the 'new grass' that's always gotta be there somewhere?" The question reminded me poignantly of the manner in which Ortiz can in so few words convey both the horrific tragedy of conquest and colonization, while at the same time find a space for possibility, a means for recovery that is never about forgetting but always occurs as a kind of recuperative remembering. He speaks of "bad things" which are so pervasive in our past, detrimental ideologies that persist today, pain that lingers, yet with a remarkably powerful sense of courage and optimism.
I know my students at St. Michaels need this and can thrive upon the sentiments that imbue Ortiz's work, finding clarity and sense of self within his words, which exemplify both criticality and assuredness, condemnation and hope. Likewise, I know I need them too, in order to remind me as I continue to pursue further academic studies a long way from the reservation that, for a time, I called home, that often what is most cogent and essential in fields as diverse and interrelated as Native American studies, American studies, and cultural studies, is the work that is done not solely in the name of justifiable bitterness, visceral reconstruction of the past, and a fidelity to the representation of injustice, but work that sees such imperative subjects as the means toward reparative possibilities. What is more, I think that in lieu of the complex dynamics of a post-9/11 America and planet—where culture, religion, politics, and nationality are reinforcing binary oppositions with real world horrors—it is necessary for all of us to return to Ortiz's poetry. We must immerse ourselves in the simple beauty of his words, remembering what we often forget, acknowledging, as Ortiz tells us, that "repression works like a shadow," choosing not to overlook what is destroyed and beaten down [End Page 97] amidst those mentalities that operate under dichotomies that desecrate difference, learning not only from our own past genocides and massacres, but also recognizing the arduous yet fruitful process, circumscribed to a site, geographic or otherwise, that is regeneration.2
Matthew E. Duquès is a graduate student in liberal studies at Dartmouth College. Prior to coming to Dartmouth, he taught high school English and history at St. Michaels High School in St. Michaels, Arizona.
1. Simon Ortiz, From Sand Creek (Oak Park, NY: Thunder's Mouth Press...