San Francisco, California. On April 5, 6, and 7 Small Press Traffic presented Coordinates 2002: Indigenous Writing Now. American Indian poets, writers and scholars from nine nations (Laguna Pueblo, Navajo, Suquamish, Dakota, Arapaho, Cherokee, Nez Perce, Mohawk and Chippewa) met to read their work and discuss the state of American Indian Literature today.The challenge of writing in English and the need to relearn, and write in tribal languages dominated Saturday’s discussions. Morning panelists (“Conjuring With the Hand of Language”) Diane Glancy, Ester Belin, Ines Hernandez-Avila, and Cedar Sigo each addressed the complications of being more fluent in English than their own (tribal/heritage) language and the corresponding challenge this presents for their writing. The importance of being able to speak your own language continued to surface through out the conference.
Hernandez-Avila spoke about the Casa de Escrituras en Lenguas Indigenas of Mexico City, Mexico, a “house of writers who write in their Indigenous language” who have made the commitment to retain fluency and write only in their tribal tongue.
“language is a consciousness, a way of seeing. Words make a trail on which you have to walk, make a world you inhabit. Words make an energy field, they are creative.”
From this energy she was compelled to complete her novel, Pushing The Bear, about the Cherokee removal.
Later that afternoon, Trixter Vizenor said,
“It’s not enough to be offended. We need a creative and aesthetic language.”
You need to stay awake to understand him. He allows no sleeping in the audience or among his readers. He challenged the writers present to do the same,
“We do need some new language. We do not have to master it, we have to create it.”
The second most salient feature of the conference were the differences among the generations. Young writers like Cedar Sigo and Kimberly Tall Bear gave powerful readings Saturday evening, and followed up with an early morning Sunday panel, “Choices and Practices for a New Generation.”
Tall Bear from the Dakota and Arapaho Nations spoke about the need for “new images,” stating that the “cliched images betray our politics.”
At Flandreu there is “not a lot of access to decolonizing visions. It’s important to see Indian people who had crossed into terrain not mapped or tracked for them. [It’s] especially encouraging when they are still a part of [their] community.” Tall Bear is part of a Dakota, Nakota, Lakota writers group.
“Identity politics are quite divisive.” She says, “We have a responsibility to speak.” We also have a responsibility to get our writing out there, and this is a major challenge for young native writers, especially those who are not producing the same old consumable images and ideas. Sigo and Tall Bear are doing their part, looking toward publishing as well as creating work that can inform, inspire and challenge the communities we make meaning in. Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson, Small Press Traffic Executive Director and conference organizer noted that Tall Bear was planning to start a press devoted to Native American writing.
Tall Bear spoke to the challenges she sees for the younger generation of Indian writers, artists and activists:
“publishing authentic Indian writing, owing older writers honor—they are available now, and [then we must] open up to new possibilities, [we need not to] constantly assert our right to speak. We do not have to constantly try to be included. [We should] articulate our own view instead of get into identity politics. [And finally, we need to] build institutions, presses and publish new artists.”
Poet Cedar Sigo is already publishing his own journal, Old Gold. He brought a fresh vigor to the weekend conference, along with a stack of his books to sell. His first book, Goodnight Nurse, published by Angry Dog Press, is a conversation with his cousins, “telling them I’m a fag without shame.” For Sigo publishing is important, especially so Native writers are not “ghettoized in Native Anthologies.”He is new to San Francisco and a poet of amazing depth and guiltless audacity. Early Saturday morning, he introduced the audience to his relationship with the Suquamish language saying, “The Earth is one word deep, that is your name.”Remember this man.
Speaking about his writing he says, “Gorgeous indelible lines present themselves to me. You can’t ignore them.” Sigo dropped out of middle school and stopped living at the Suquamish tribal housing project, and began to write his poetry. He lives without apology, “trash,” he says, “is the material of creators.”
Treadwell Jackson introduced the young writers as an offering of “tradition showing itself in new forms.” She organized the conference in hopes of bringing Native writers and writing to the fore front of the literary scene that often over looks contemporary Native artists. Though the conference was advertised widely on bay area Indian e-mail list serves and featured in both the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Weekly, conference attendance was disappointing. Treadwell Jackson said, “I was really depressed by the low turnout. It really upset me because I guess I was naive or just not wanting to face the pain of acknowledging the level of racism that still goes on. I don’t want this erasure to continue for the next generation in my own family, and everyone else’s.”
Conference panel moderator Mark Nowak commented,
“the event ‘should’ have been a seminal (if not historic) bridging of this gap. . . what happened instead was a second wave of erasure.”
For those in attendance the conference brought people together, planted new relationship seeds and inspired new writing and possibility. Treadwell Jackson concludes, “My hope is that this conference provided all present with a renewed sense of purpose and strength and my feeling is that if the future is represented by these writers, we are in good hands.” She is currently seeking funding to produce a print copy of the conference proceedings.