The Northern Arizona Book Festival held multiple book and poetry readings, workshops, and panels over a diverse number of topics through October 6th-7th and October 12th-14th, 2017. Saturday the 14th was a full day set aside purely for discussions and celebrations of indigenous authors’ works, and I was fortunate enough to attend two of the day’s panels in Fire Creek Coffee Company.
The first panel included Henry Quintero, Bojan Louis, and Kyle Grant Wilson, all of whom are poets and staff members of RED INK (an international journal that publishes primarily indigenous literature, art, and humanities piece), along with author and Snake Band Tribal Councilman Tanner Menard, Diné poet Orlando White, and Navajo writer and moderator Erik Bitsui. The panel began with a discussion of how language restoration is the key to rebuilding one’s connection to their heritage and their understanding of themselves. Orlando White spoke of how when he is teaching his students about Diné, he has them repurpose a Diné word into an ambigram (a word that can be read from both its usual, upright position on paper and flipped upside down) so the students will engage with the language in a new way. The physical process of interacting with the language is a major step, White said, to understanding the language and exploring the possibilities of the words themselves. From the idea of working with language, Tanner Menard spoke of how language restoration is a necessary part of giving a voice to people who otherwise are overlooked throughout history. He mentioned how he is working with others to build a lexicon of his indigenous language. Bojan Louis also added how their journal, RED INK, works to include as many different indigenous voices as possible. In effect, in response to people who had tried to oppress indigenous peoples and their voices in the past and still today, they are saying, as Bojan aptly put, “Hey motherfuckers, we’re still here.”
The desire to reclaim one’s culture and their language is a battle that has been going on for decades and will continue for decades to come. A year ago, I took a Native American literature capstone class with professor Jeff Berglund, where we talked in depth about how language has power in a culture. The panel’s discussion of reclaiming indigenous languages and cultures reminded me of Deborah Miranda’s memoir that I read in class called Bad Indians, the title of which comes from a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt—“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.” Therefore, to be a bad Indian, they would need to be alive, which is exactly what authors like Deborah Miranda and those of the Northern Arizona Book Festival panels are striving for in their writing: to give life to the voices of indigenous peoples so their cultures can live on, while also rebelling against the ever-present subjugation of indigenous peoples all over the world.
In the following panel, authors and poets Joan Naviyuk Kane, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Danielle Geller, Allison Ramirez, Shishonia Livingston, and moderator and author Vernon Begay continued to speak of the idea of language. Joan Naviyuk Kane spoke of how English is like a machine, or, specifically, she said a steamroller that rolls over everything in its path. English combines all that it encounters, borrowing or stealing from other languages to make itself stronger regardless of the consequences to the original language. Kane said that to stop the further destruction of indigenous languages, the native peoples would need to stand against the machine and defend their language and their culture. Orlando White previously had discussed a similar idea to this with his description of English as a surface-level language and one that is, in relative terms at least, a newer language. Words are still constantly being added and the language is still changing, because of, as White explained, the processes that are happening underneath the surface. The speakers’ past, lineage, and how they grew up make up a huge part of how they speak their language or write their “love letters” to their culture, “love letters” being a term used by Kristiana Kahakauwila. For people who speak more than one language, like indigenous peoples who use their language solely on reservations or amongst families and friends, code switching and how they view certain words as well as when to use those words impacts their lives every day.
The panel also went on to speak of Flagstaff, specifically. Except for Vernon Begay, the authors were all women, and they spoke of how because of their status as both a native person and a woman, they were afraid to walk alone at night, even (or perhaps especially) in Flagstaff. Aside from how most women react in similar situations, they were also worried about how they would be seen and treated as a native person. Flagstaff, which is made up of a large community of native peoples and which sits next to native sacred places like Mount Humphreys (or Doko’o’osliid in Navajo), still holds some prejudices against native peoples. Shishonia Livingston mentioned how she had heard horror stories of native people who were walking home and were abused by strangers because of their ethnicity, and I personally have heard people stereotyping Native Americans as a variety of ugly things. These authors and countless others are therefore working to give a voice to people who otherwise are seen as mere stereotypes and discriminated against because of it. Journals like RED INK work with indigenous languages and publish their stories to try to rewrite society’s assumptions about indigenous peoples while making it clear that not only are they still here, but they are reclaiming their voices.