Simon Ortiz Reclaims Acoma
Simon Ortiz, Out There Somewhere. University of Arizona Press, 2002. 158 pp. $16.95
In the preface, Simon Ortiz proposes that Out There Somewhere transcribes a “Native sense of Existence.” Ortiz variously defines this indigenous way of living as he roams hauchaw tyah haati—”out there somewhere”—uncovering the nuances of a contemporary colonized life subjected to social injustices in the everyday of America. Yet Ortiz faithfully returns to his sources of inspiration: Native Americans, the Aacquhmeh (the people of Acoma Pueblo), and sacred lands. Ortiz’s journey “out there somewhere” charts a political, spiritual, and cultural reclamation of Acoma, which he identifies in the poem-prayer, “In The Moment Before,” as “the land, culture, and community”.
The everyday of America is available to all Americans, yet Ortiz’s work reminds us that a “Native sense of Existence” is clearly marginalized within American culture. So the first section of his book is appropriately titled “Margins.” Transcribed in a mixed form of journal and free verse poetry, the opening poem, “Headlands Journal,” forecasts the volume’s moods of hope and joy even as the book conveys consternation and anger enkindled by a colonized life. In his treatise on Ortiz, Andrew Wiget offers insight on the reception of Ortiz’s politicization of poetry. He argues that “An ‘objective’ aesthetic focusing on ‘inherent aspects of form’ is an impossibility” for a colonized person, and to those who would expect otherwise “his poetry must seem not only politically but aesthetically unattractive.”1 Yet there are poetic moments of transcendence as Ortiz treks the rocky heights of the Headlands near the San Francisco Bay area:
On flatter, safer ground seventy yards away I looked back, and I couldn’t
believe it. My breath letting out, a rubbery weakness trembling me. I’m
shaky too. But feeling an odd gentle loving feeling. What is it? I don’t
know. It’s like I’m going to fly toward somewhere. It will suddenly not be
dizziness anymore but a sudden release of energy that is flight.
This “dizziness that feels like flying” projects the volume’s dominant feeling of cultural and spiritual transcendence, but clearly it is not abstract but truth and beauty that is culturally and geographically specific: It is a transcendence inspired by Acoma.
Ortiz also tracks the devastating costs of colonization that provide the necessity for this transcendence and political resistance. In conversations with Mexican and Nigerian friends in “Headlands Journal,” he discusses the disproportionate numbers of minorities in America’s prisons: “Alaska has a 17 percent Native population in the state and a / 70 percent Native inmate population in its state prisons.” Later, he endures an ostensible compliment from someone after a conference: ” ‘It’s good for them to hear you speak in a foreign language’ . . . ‘you mean the Acoma Pueblo language I was speaking.’ / ‘Yeah,’ he said from the backseat. ‘That language. The foreign one.'” Near the end of this journal-poem, Ortiz imagines replacing U.S. Park Service signs with indigenous ones that read
ATTENTION LIARS, THEIVES, AND KILLERS
You have stolen enough land and life.
From here on out, you are no longer allowed access.
We claim back our land and life.
Do not enter.
In the opening poems of Out There Somewhere, Ortiz defines a “Native sense of Existence” as possessing a personal and political consciousness of the social costs of European colonization and capitalist exploitation of indigenous people and sacred lands; being treated like a foreigner in one’s homeland; forced to fight for sovereignty and the right to self-determination; being over-incarcerated and harassed; and withstanding the anguished feelings of poverty and disenfranchisement, as in the poem “‘Being Poor’ and Powerless. And Refusing Again”
For Ortiz, this is a crushing defeat that is nevertheless forestalled—perhaps thwarted—by a recurring expectation to prevail. The words “victory” and “win” appear frequently throughout Out There Somewhere. Witness the poem, “Just Call It Smiling For Victory,” which also debunks the stoic stereotype: “Don’t anybody ever tell you that Indians never smile. / Don’t anybody ever tell you that Indians never win . . . Just look at all those smiles!”
As Ortiz recounts indigenous experiences in the everyday of America, he searches all through his sojourn-in sincere and ironic, angry and humorous tones-for “Indians.” In “Past Poems,” he declares, “My temptation is to go up to the first white man I see / and say, ‘Where are the Indians in your crummy town?'” He speculates that a missionary who “hollers very loudly, ‘Burn!'” is “the man who would have told me where all the Indians were.” In a series of poems about “belief,” Ortiz lays bare the Imperialist construction of “Indians.” “Believing the Belief” presents a child-like, sing-song rhyme cast in the middle of cunning linguistic repetition that parallels the taken-for-granted, circular reasoning of self-sustaining colonial logic: “Soon, very quickly, there were Indians! / If it’s one thing Europeans knew how to do, it was to believe! / They still do, you won’t believe it even though it’s true!” / Oh, their belief in the power to believe was beyond belief! / Their power to believe was beyond belief!” The colonial “power to believe” was so powerful that “Indians” magically appeared. Through the title of the poem that follows, Ortiz expresses the irony of this power: “Even ‘the Indians’ Believed.” In his search for “real Indians,” he concludes that they are “No where.” Re-naming “Indians,” Ortiz finds “our people / (The People, Human Beings, Hanoh, etc.).”
Indeed, Ortiz’s journey “out there somewhere” charts a spiritual and cultural reclamation of Native America and Acoma. The book’s six part structure suggests what is needed to enact this repossession. After exploring the political consciousness of living a colonized existence in “Margins” and identifying the Imperial construction of indigenous Americans in “Images,” Ortiz reaffirms the oral tradition as communicating advice, history, and spirituality for the generations in “Gifts.” History, journey, and story are intertwined in poems such as “A Picture” in which Aacquhmeh men in the 1910s leave the their homeland to find work in “Califor-ni-ya-aa / Califor-ni-ya-aa.” Yet the Aacquhmeh await the return of those who were forced to leave, including the Acoma children who were “traded”—kidnapped—by the Spanish in 1599: In the poem “For the Children,” the poet affirms, “Still today the people wait.”
These “Gifts,” however, are also about overcoming displacements, kidnappings, and other horrors of colonialism. Cultural survival, reaffirmation of Aacquhmeh cultural identity, the oral tradition, the sacred belief of the interdependence between human beings and the earth, and the Aacquhmeh’s rightful claim to their land are all invoked in the especially noteworthy “Acoma poems” included in the fourth section, “Horizons.” Written first in the Acoma Pueblo language and then translated into English, these five brief poems reclaim native languages as domestic rather than foreign. Moreover, certain characteristics such as sounds and rhythms do not translate and are meant to be listened to, as in the poem “Kuutra Tsah-Tseh-Ma Srutai-Kyuiyah”:
Kuutra tsah-tseh-mah sru-taikyuiyah
Duwaah ehme hau shrauyuu pehni eh sraupeh tah.
Duwaah ehme sraupeh tah eh hau srauyuu pehni.
Ortiz’s Acoma poems are rich in their linguistic resistance and ceremonial chants. However much may be lost in translation, the sheer creativity and the message itself are retained. As Ortiz explains in his 1981 essay, “Towards a National Indian Literature,”
the indigenous peoples of the Americas have taken the languages of the colonialists and used them for their own purposes . . . Along with their native languages, Indian women and men have carried on their lives and their expression through the use of the newer languages . . . it is entirely possible for a people to retain and maintain their lives through the use of any language.2
The Acoma poem quoted above expresses the truth and beauty of reclaiming Acoma. Ortiz translates it as “Your Life You Are Carrying”:
Dirt you are holding.
Land you are carrying.
Your life you are carrying.
This is what I am showing and telling you.
This is what I am telling and showing you.
Themes of survival, courage, and renewal end the volume in the final sections, “Ever” and “Connections After All.” One of the concluding poems of the volume, “Mutant and Wise,” ominously suggests that victory—Cultural? Spiritual? Political?—is close at hand for a “child of colonialism,” and it links a sense of mutated contemporary existence under colonial oppression, cultural survival, a spiritual bond to the land, the wisdom of sacred prayer, and beauty:
is not without
but is the thunder rolling into itself
over and over and over again
over and over and over again
rolling into you
rolling into me
rolling into you
rolling from the sky from the mountains from the distance into you into
me over and
The People are “waiting for the thunder the coming and / coming and coming.” Like all of the free verse in Ortiz’s Out There Somewhere, the poems in the final sections are unapologetically political and distinctly poetic. Is there another way to reclaim Acoma? Perhaps, but rarely do we encounter a performance with so much poetic beauty and truth mingled with such keen political, spiritual, and cultural insight.
Chad Beck is currently a visiting lecturer of English at North Carolina State University where he teaches literature, composition, and film. He received his B.A. and M.A. in English from North Carolina State University and his Master’s in Cinema Studies from New York University. This Fall, he will enroll in the Ph.D. program in Communication and Culture at Indiana University.