restricted access Maps of the Universe
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Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.4 (2004) 29-33

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Maps of the Universe

At age four, my daughter colored motion. She swept circles around the page, starting with yellow or blue; first this color, then that, adding in others as desired. That year Simon Ortiz came "back East" to the school where I teach, to meet with my classes, to give a reading, to enjoy a few days of spring in upstate New York. We held a dinner at our house, and my daughter, not known for her enjoyment of large gatherings, came into the room with a picture she had just finished and handed it to Simon. Looking at its swirls of color and motion, he said, "A map of the cosmos."

In his poem "Across the Prairie Hills" from After and Before the Lightning, Simon recalls his father's words:

You make one
when you prepare to travel.
So you will always know
where you are, to where to return.
Haitsee, a map of the universe.

In celebration of Simon's work, I look closely at the maps he creates in and through his writing. They describe where the characters, the speakers, the readers are; they suggest where those individuals might need to return (as for example in the stories "Woman Singing" and "Crossing"). They are maps, not itineraries, and yet they are filled with motion, with travel, with the energy that language is.

These maps arise from and belong to a particular location; they [End Page 29] are of and from the margin. While the word has often been associated with loss or silence, Simon delineates a different landscape, one in which the margin is the open space or opens the space between divisive borders. In the margins people meet and talk and walk and plan. The place is vital, rife with the life of those who have stepped—or been pushed—out of bounds.1

Such space is rarely easy or comfortable. More often than not, it is dead difficult, filled with the voices of raging women and wailing men. Where does a person go when the mainstream washes them out? World trade centers collapse. Government officials talk war—and mean it; all their imaginations yield. Words spoken loudly in September echo brutally off the realities of the United States' divided history. They march into March with no end in sight. My now-eight-year-old daughter reads a Scholastic news article about the State of the Union address and asks me why the president is declaring war yet again. Retaliation. Vengeance. Words spoken by men who know nothing—or refuse to know nothing—of Sand Creek or the Navajo Long Walk or the men at Acoma mutilated because they sought back their way of life.

Where does a person go when borders are closed, and they have become military and defensible, when the guns are trained on any one who crosses? In the American Southwest that is no new reality. Where does one go? Unbelievably and essentially into the margin, the space between the borders. You head closer to the sky as the Pueblo peoples did facing Spanish retaliation after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. You go underground. You go, however you can, into print and try to keep your good words there—out there in No Man's Land for those readers who know there is power in language, power to describe and connect and unite people in a shared vision.

That's where Simon has been, has taken his readers for the last thirty years. His poetics are inseparable from an ethical commitment that heightens awareness into action. That action is fundamentally considerate. It brooks no man-made hierarchy. When you listen, there is another reality, as Simon's readers are given to know, and as those individuals held in life by Simon's words are given to know. In the poem "Crazy Gook Indians," Emmett is laughed at by the foreman [End Page 30] for his reaction in the mines but the reader knows why Emmett responds as he...