The word poetry can evoke echoes of everything from Shakespearean sonnets to minimalist Japanese haiku. But with oral traditions going back thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples may well have been the first true poets. National Poetry Month, which begins on April 1, is an ideal time to take a look at poetry and its roots in Native cultures.
“For me, the poetry and the music go together,” said Muscogee (Creek) author, musician and poet Joy Harjo at a recent reading of her work. Indeed, she said, for her, poetry, music and dance are intertwined. “It’s only in very recent times that poetry has been bound up in books.”
This is true even in the European cultural tradition, said James Sitar, archives editor at the Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago.
Whether it was in a European tradition or an indigenous tradition here in America, or the Americas, or in Asia, it’s done from—in all those places—an oral tradition,” Sitar said. The earliest-known Western poets, he noted, like Homer the ancient Greek of Iliad and Odyssey fame, told stories orally. “They all grew out of oral tradition,” he said.
Though Europe may have a longer history of poetry on paper, Sitar said, “I think poetry in general even today begins with that notion of orality—the way that the words sound and what happens when you say a poem out loud.”
That is very much the case with Native poetry. “Native people, especially those close to oral culture, are natural poets,” Harjo told Indian Country Today Media Network after a presentation that opened Native Innovation: Indigenous American Poetry in the 21st Century, a symposium that took place in New York City from March 21 to 24.
Native poetry is not merely beautiful; it also serves a valuable social function, said the storyteller, poet and author Joseph Bruchac. Like a pipe that is crafted with a face looking back at the smoker from the bowl, poetry reflects back on the reader.
“In our traditions there is a general feeling that poetry does make things happen,” Bruchac said. “There is circularity in poetry—it’s not something pretty and polished that you set on a shelf. We’re making an object that looks back at us, that looks beyond us.”
The symposium was co-sponsored by Copper Canyon Press and the University of Arizona Press, in partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan and with support from the Lannan Foundation. It kicked off with Crazy Brave: An Evening With Joy Harjo on March 21 at the museum. After reading from her acclaimed 2012 memoir Crazy Brave (Norton), Harjo spoke with Bruchac and fielded questions from members of an audience of about 100 people.
The ensuing event, which took place at Poets House in lower Manhattan, featured readings and discussions with such participants as Natalie Diaz and Orlando White, as well as readings by Santee Frazier, Cedar Sigo and Roberta Hill. Sherwin Bitsui, Karenne Wood and many others also gave readings. Bruchac and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke co-curated the event.
Bruchac ventured that one of the biggest differences between Native and European poetry is the role that each plays in its cultures’ respective mind-set. Whereas poetry connects Natives with their environment (the basic tenet of Native thinking is that “we come from the land,” Bruchac noted), disconnection is a more common theme in the European tradition. For instance, Adam was thrown out of paradise after being “tempted by Eve, that serpent and the fruit of knowledge,” Bruchac wrote in the opening essay of the symposium’s accompanying book.
“In the European and Middle Eastern traditions that shape Western thought, a division takes place between that newly created human and the rest of nature,” he wrote. “Despite the first man having come from the soil, he is no longer part of the biosphere.… Thus the great Western tradition of poetry has at its base an image of exile and alienation from the land—a paradise lost, humanity evicted from a perfect existence, cast out onto an earth that is barren by comparison.”