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Native American Poetry

The Culture

Indigenous people exist all around the world and can be classified as those races who inhabited a land before the colonization of it occurred. Perhaps the group most familiar to people is the Native Americans, who were the original settlers of the United States. Over time, and most especially during the European colonization which began in 1492, the indigenous population declined due to introduced diseases, slavery and war. Subsequently, with the establishment of the United States, the Native American people became increasingly marginalized, culminating in the creation of reservations and the loss of tribal land and identity. Some of these issues and injustices have been addressed over time by successive governments, but naturally the scars of their tumultuous history run deep. From this struggle emerged the many individuals who, through their activism and art, gave voice to a unique people.

The Poets

Native American poetry dates way further back than most people are probably aware, and many were publishing their work prior to what we call a modern age. Changing is not Vanishing: A Collection of American Indian Poetry to 1930 by Robert Dale Parker illustrates this, identifying more than 150 published poets from this era. The poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft of the Ojibwe tribe is a notable example of one of the most prolific writers of the time.

Tanaya Winder is a member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe and has used her poetic voice to highlight the damage caused by colonialism and the violence it engendered. Her poem, Love Lessons in a Time of Settler Colonialism, is a hard-hitting piece that addresses this issue without any disguise. More of her commentary can be found in the book, Words Like Love.

Barney Bush is an author and musician who, through his activism during the 1960s, played a significant role in highlighting many of the problems concerning the treatment of the Native American people. However, it his poetry, much of which is spoken and musical in nature, that has earned him recognition. Drawing on his experiences and social interests his poetry covers such matters as social struggle and the search for identity, alongside the troubles of cultural identity and loss.

Nila northSun is, similarly, an activist and poet who has been recognized for her poetic contributions with many accolades throughout her career. By publishing five collections, she has the ability to convey a starkly honest voice alongside a humorous tone, illuminating the native life that is found both within the reservation and outside. Her earlier work, Diet Pepsi And Nacho Cheese is just such an offering of her literary skill.

Joy Harjo is an author of many talents known for her screenplays, children’s fiction and musical works. She is most widely regarded, however, as one of the most outstanding Native American poets of her time which has garnered her attention and awards, such as the American Book Award for her collection titled In Mad Love and War. Her work speaks to a broad audience as she is adept at addressing issues concerning her struggles as a woman, individual and one expressing the concerns of her cultural identity. Many talented writers continue to emerge from the roots of the Native American culture, one that should be explored by anyone sincere in their quest to understand the nature of this county’s history, character and peoples.