- Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics
Anthony Webster’s richly descriptive, highly informative, and aptly titled book is, as it claims on its cover, an exploration of Navajo poetry and poetics. His work represents the state of the art of the Texas tradition of discourse analysis focused on poetics and rhetoric and exemplified in the foundational work on discourse-centered approaches crafted by Greg Urban, Joel Sherzer, and Anthony Woodbury. As such, the book deserves a serious reading from scholars otherwise far removed from the particular issues of Native American language ideologies and the politics of language choice and shift that are its surface concerns. [End Page 289]
Webster’s radical move in thinking about Navajo poetics, and poetics more generally, was to work with poets, specifically with contemporary Navajo poets (Rex Lee Jim, Laura Tohe, Blackhorse Mitchell, Luci Tapahonso, Esther Belin) who write in both English and Navajo. The resulting work allows Webster to explore a number of crucial issues in contemporary anthropological linguistics, including language shift, loss, and revitalization; relations between systems of semiotic circulation and ideological positions; framings of languages as lexicosyntactic systems of reference and as iconic and indexical systems of expression; and the relationship between what so unfortunately gets reduced to “language” and what so unfortunately gets reduced to “identity.”
Following Howard Bahr’s idea that “the study of change in Navajo social life should be understood as ‘multiplying glimpses’” (p. 13), each chapter of Webster’s book offers a different refraction of these issues. To the extent that there is an overall arc to the narrative, I would say it is the move from a sense of “language” as an abstract system available to reflection and as subject of metadiscourse to a focus on individual performance, and especially the sonic and sensory dimensions of individual performance, and the dialogic tension between these two aspects of Navajo discourse and poetics.
Chapter 1 explores the shared elements between Navajo written poetry and other forms of Navajo verbal art, including such poetic elements as narrative particles, sound symbolism, and quoted speech, to argue that many Navajo poets frame their work as a form of hane’, or “storytelling.” At the same time, Webster explores the consequences of shifting from oral to written media and from Navajo to English as communicative code. ”Code switching,” for Webster, performs “the tensions between what can be transferred across languages and what cannot” (p. 48).
Chapter 2 discusses sound symbolism and ideophony as a means of creating a sense of place, of interpersonal connection, and of Navajoness, both in the sense of creating community and in the sense of standing in resistance to the rationalized approaches to language and literature taught, for example, in English classes at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. In chapter 3, Webster explores some ideological dimensions of language choice among Navajo speakers and poets, demonstrating the ways in which the contemporary Navajo poets with whom he worked craft a more “purified” Navajo language out of the flow of code shifting and mixing that takes place in everyday conversation. Webster contrasts this with the prevalent poetic use of ideophony and sound symbolism as iconic representations of Navajo community. He thus problematizes to great effect the idea that Navajo poetics can in any way be seen as a transparent window into either Navajo linguistic practice or Navajo world view.
In chapter 4, Webster shifts dramatically from the poem to the poet, arguing strongly for the ways in which Laura Tohe’s performances of her poetry act simultaneously as individual and social refractions of historical and biographical experience. Chapter 5 examines the foundational trauma of the Long Walk and Navajo imprisonment at Fort Sumner, Hweeldi, as a key moment of identity formation within the Navajo experience of colonialism. Through an extended analysis of Laura Tohe’s poem “In Dinétah,” Webster refracts this question of socially circulating poetic devices through an exploration of the production of an individual utterance in dialogue with other utterances. The final chapter, again focused on a performance by Tohe in...