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"Planting the Seeds of Revolution"
An Interview with Poet Esther Belin (Diné)
The landscape of my writing will always focus on our struggles, from my memory, what I witness in my blood coursing through my veins, and stories overheard in bar-talk. The will of my writing rises from shimá, as daily as her morning prayers in the gray hours. The hunger in my writing feeds from my journey homeward.1
Esther Belin's powerful first book of poetry, From the Belly of My Beauty, has been out in the world for almost five years now and continues to wage a drive for peace, justice, and understanding. For Belin, writing is activism, activism is writing. Raised in Los Angeles by Diné parents who were part of a federal relocation drive in the early 1950s, Belin has forged a powerful contemporary voice, one of endurance, one deeply attached to Diné culture and language. This interview grows out of our continuing long-distance conversations that usually involve our work, writing, politics, and the futures of our children.
JEFF BERGLUND: I know you regularly visited your grandparents during vacations as a child, but since graduation from UC-Berkeley, you have lived and worked nearby the Navajo Nation, in Torreon, in Sante Fe, in Farmington, and in Durango. How have these years reframed your sense of your childhood? How have the last few years given you a different sense of the possibilities and/or limits of reservation culture? [End Page 62]
ESTHER BELIN: I hate to admit how we re-live our parents' lives. I rather would like to believe I am still living my childhood in the sense that I am able to play and enjoy the pleasures of family and environment, and that I can still become the hero of my dreams. My current timeline is like a pot of mutton stew. And I, of course, am still simmering.
JB: As a poet with an activist heart, what experiences have recently galvanized your social or political intellect? Are there incidences or trends that alert you to the need for intervention?
EB: It is an everyday event—look at the California governor! [Arnold Schwarzenegger, elected after an unprecedented recall election in Fall 2003.] My gosh, I would have been up in arms rallying against his command. And of course the relationship Durango has with the local tribes, same ol' bordertown mentality. My intervention is at home with my four warrior daughters (ages 10, 8, 4, and 2)—that is how we are choosing to raise them, as warrior women, not aggressive but always aware that war is real and comes in many forms. There are both cultural and institutional wars. Our daughters are decoders and scouts.
Definitely, there is a difference. As original landlords, we're coherently creating change on our own accord and in ways that "American" culture acknowledges as activism. But we have also always protested in our own ways; however, too often, these forms of activism have been misconstrued as witchcraft or forms of savagery.
It is very difficult now to reimagine our ancestral forms of governing. Our world has caused humanity to outgrow our forms of governing, and we are approaching each other with new challenges like loss of language and blood quantum issues. In order for us to grow forward, we need to redefine ourselves as indigenous, because no matter how bad we want to believe we are still like Dances with Wolves, we aren't; we are so far removed, like lost teenagers rebelling. People don't like to hear that and they don't want to be responsible for dropping the cultural ball of preservation. Somewhere we were tricked into believing that we are no longer in a state of emergency.
JB: I know you were active as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, particularly during the efforts to implement [End Page 63] an ethnic studies component in the curriculum. Could...