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  • It’s Not a Poem. It’s My LifeNavajo Singing Identities
  • Kenneth M. Roemer (bio)

          We     must remember the worlds       our ancestors         traveled.   Always wear the songs they gave us. Luci Tapahonso, “We must remember,” A Radiant Curve


Possibly nowhere have the challenges of Indian literatures to conventional concepts of genre been more obvious than in discussions of poetry and autobiography. From Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in the early nineteenth century (e.g., see Parker, Sound the Stars Make 151) to well-known poets such as Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, and Luci Tapahonso, Native poets have used progressive repetition-with-variation forms that blur distinctions between written poetry in English and English translations of traditional songs, prayers, and chants. The translations themselves have challenged genre concepts. Especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as open verse became acceptable, and then later as ethnopoetics gained recognition, editors presented individual translations or “recreations” of songs and whole collections of translations or recreations as “poetry”—witness, for example, the titles of well-known anthologies such as Cronyn’s American Indian Poetry (1918), Astrov’s American Indian Prose and Poetry (1946), Day’s The [End Page 84] Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians (1951), Rothenberg’s Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian of North America (1972), and Soen’s I, the Song: Classical Poetry of Native North America (1999).

One obvious problem with the “poetry” designation is that in many Native cultures the concept of poetry as defined and produced in the “Western” world is foreign to their linguistic systems. For example, Esther Belin, a Navajo poet, commented in a recent SAIL review of another Navajo poet, Luci Tapahonso, that a “Navajo-language speaker would readily disclose that the English word poetry does not exist in the [traditional] Navajo world view” (125). During the past three decades perceptive scholars, including Susan Hegeman and Robert Dale Parker (Invention 80–100), have acknowledged the appeal of labeling song translations as poems; this makes the texts more familiar and, to some teachers, more legitimate as “literature.” They also acknowledge problems other than the linguistic one mentioned by Belin. They emphasize how a poetry designation can fundamentally misrepresent traditional song, especially if the translation is inaccurate and no performance or cultural contexts accompany the text. If the printed translation is bilingual and accurate and excellent contexts are provided, the impact of the performance experience is lost, and as Parker reminds us, even if the performance is filmed, the viewer receives the song through several levels of mediation (Parker, Invention 97–99).

Turning to autobiography, it’s common knowledge among specialists that there are more than two hundred years of single-authored examples of life writing in English, beginning with Samson Occom’s brief narrative, many of which fulfill some of the expected characteristics of conventional autobiographies, including an individual’s life story organized by the “chronological imperative,” to borrow David Brumble’s term. There are also numerous examples of single-authored life narratives that mix genres and emphasize family, clan/band, and tribal identities as much or more than individual identity, thus rendering the “auto” part of an autobiography label a lead-in misnomer. In a 2007 SAIL article, for example, Tyra Twomey reminds us of the genre complexities represented [End Page 85] by a narrative like Sarah Winnemucca’s Life among the Piutes (1883), complexities that invited fundamental questions from major scholars like Brumble and Arnold Krupat about using conventional genre labels for single-authored Native autobiographies and even inspired questions about “whether Native autobiographies should be considered a different literary genre entirely” (30–34, 22; see also McClure).

Then there are, of course, the hundreds of published collaborative life narratives that blur boundaries between Native speaker and non-Native editor, tribal and nontribal worldviews. More recently there are films that blur distinctions between fact and fiction and between individual and collaborative autobiographical media productions: for example, Sherman Alexie’s Business of Fancydancing; Valerie Red-Horse’s Naturally Native, which presents three sisters who represent three stages of Red-Horse’s life and personality; and Spiderwoman Theater’s Sun Moon and Feather, which depicts the Red Hook, Brooklyn, childhoods...


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pp. 84-103
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