Indigenous Voices in Verse

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Indigenous Voices in Verse

Contemplating the Native American experience through poetry

Nothing quite compares to the poetic rendering of the experience of indigenous people. Tribal history, spirituality, internal grappling with identity, the juxtaposition of American and Native cultures and the responsibility and anguish of survival – all of these come together gorgeously in lyric form and give a holistic yet personal picture of Native American life.
 
Over a year ago, the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that poetry readership was the highest it had been in 15 years.  So let’s keep it going, readers. Check out the following book recommendations that showcase the incredible contributions of Native American poets to the genre.
 
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
In her debut collection, Diaz gives a deeply personal look at life on a Mojave reservation. The poems in this collection speak to memory, home and the ties that bind us. Even when discussing addiction or bigotry, Diaz’s verse remains stunningly beautiful and narrative-driven, sprinkled with notes of dark humor.
 
An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo
Current U.S. Poet Laureate (and first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate) Joy Harjo writes in her latest collection about connection to place and the history of her people, the Muskogee Creek Nation, who were forcibly removed from their lands in the early 1800s. Harjo’s rediscovery of her homeland balances the pain of injustice with the spirituality of heritage.
 
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
This finalist for the National Book Award is also the first full-length collection for Layli Long Soldier, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. The poems in the collection are inspired by the language of the laws, treaties and apologies that characterize the U.S. government’s relations with Native American peoples throughout history. While highly political, the poet also weaves in her personal journey to reconcile her Lakota identity with being a citizen of the country that has systemically oppressed her community.
 
Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah A. Miranda
Poet Deborah A. Miranda shares the experience of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of California in her memoir. The book blends into the traditional autobiographical form poetry, newspaper clippings, oral history and other sources, making this a simultaneously personal and historical work. The multi-genre approach makes a stunning link between the devastating effects of history and the violence and suffering experienced within a family.
 
New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich
Poet Heid E. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, compiles some of the great contemporary voices in this anthology. The 21 poets featured published their first books after 2000, making this book a snapshot of modern indigenous poetry. The pieces vary wildly, from traditional songs and themes to experimental forms.