- "It was that Indian":Simon Ortiz, Activist Poet
"It was that Indian [. . .]"(3). The first time I heard Simon Ortiz read this line from his poem with the same title was in the 1970s at the University of New Mexico. He was reading from his recent work, Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land. These poems spoke powerfully of the uranium mining that was taking place on Laguna land in New Mexico. Simon's poetry was a reflection of not only his experience as a former mine worker, but of the Southwestern native people's experience in the mining industry.
"It was that Indian. [. . .]" A little revolution exploded in my mind. It's been twenty-four years since he wrote this line, but it continues to stick with me. Few native writers were getting their work published in those days. At this poetry reading, Simon named places I knew and people who worked for the mines near Laguna and Grants, New Mexico. With each poem he read, I became more immersed in his words. As we used to say in the 70s, "he blew me away" with his words.
I grew up on the Diné reservation in New Mexico and Arizona in a remote place and mostly disconnected from the outside world. At the elementary Day School I learned to read from the Dick and Jane reading series. When we got to see television once a week, it reflected a white America: Our Miss Brooks, The Real McCoys,The Three Stooges,The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Here was one of the first native writers speaking of border towns, capitalism, exploitation, environmental pollution, and racism. Though they were his words, he spoke powerfully for those of us who were silent. Simon's reading made us feel the power of language, the power of speaking for The People and for the land. [End Page 54]
Further on he read, "and never mind also / that the city had a jail full of Indians" (Fight Back 3). Simon voiced a silent truth that we Indians had been living under for nearly five hundred years of colonialism. No one was writing of border towns, those little havens of racism and exploitation hubs that simmered near the reservations in those days, except for Simon. My childhood memories are still clouded by the times when my family parked in the JCPenney's parking lot and saw Indian men and women shout greetings to their family below from behind the shadowy windows of the upper floor of the Gallup city jail. His words continue to explode in my mind as they do today when I'm at his readings or reading his work. My earliest writing, stirred with Simon's activism, influenced my work as I tentatively put words on paper. His work as an activist poet has helped raise our social and political consciousness and, I believe, influenced the present generation of native poets and writers. Simon, as informal mentor, has generously given his time and editorial skills to beginning native writers. I am especially grateful for his editorial help on my manuscript, No Parole Today. With Simon's early encouragement and support I published some of my earliest work as a fledgling poet. It was during this time I sorely needed a mentor to give me the kind of encouragement that he provided.
"We have been told many things, / but we know this to be true: / the land and the people," Simon wrote from the same work (Fight Back 36). In each new book Simon has taken us on his journeys, sometimes as trickster Coyote, sometimes as father, as husband, as lover, as son, as urban derelict, as teacher in his comments on the Indian in America, and on America. He once said, "My education comes from experiencing all of America." While some of his revelations are hard to take, he avoids descending into cynicism and bitterness. Instead he reaches for hope, for the continued struggle to survive. His activist poetry converges with the spiritual values of his Aacqu/Acoma upbringing and his compassion. Simon, like Ella Deloria, Vine Deloria, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn...