Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) (b. 1941)
Contributing Editor: Andrew O. Wiget
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The principal problem with Ortiz's poetry from a student perspective is that it is so intensely political and that it takes a political view of past events. Students can be reactionary and feel that what is past is past, and that there has been too much of a tendency to cast aspersions upon America's reputation in recent years. This jingoism is often accompanied by a belief that poetry should not be political, but rather should concern itself with eternal truths. These are not problems that are associated with Ortiz's poetry exclusively, of course, but are part of the naive vision of poetry that teachers of literature struggle to overcome.
I think it's very important to begin this poem with a reflection upon the historical experiences of Native Americans. Begin with the historical epigraph describing the Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle's band which gives this poem sequence its name. That particular massacre is very well documented and students should spend some time trying to understand the forces that came together to create that massacre: Colonial Chivington's own political ambitions; his ability to mobilize the fears and anxieties of the frontier Colorado communities; his success at taking advantage of the militarization of the frontier during the Civil War; the remoteness of Chivington's forces from federal supervision; and the nonresistance of the Indians.
A second important issue to be discussed is how we all use key events in the past to give us a sense of what our history is, emphasizing that the historical memory of people is selective and formed for very contemporary reasons.
I think that there are certain key lines in the poetry that are worth looking at in some detail. In addition, I ask students to look at the relationships between the epigraphs and the poems, how each speaks to the other. Finally, I ask students how these poems as a group, framed as they are by the boldfaced short poems about America, and prefaced by the historical statement concerning the Sand Creek Massacre, all work together to create a unified statement.
The poems move between some very concrete historical references (on the one hand) such as those to Cotton Mather, Kit Carson, and Saigon, and (on the other hand) to some highly surrealistic imagery and abstract language. Students frequently have difficulty bringing the two together, and it's helpful to explore some of Ortiz's more provocative statements as a way of creating the matrix of values from which the poetry emerges.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The major theme of Ortiz's poem sequence is that Euro-Americans were as much victims of their own ambitions and blindness as were Native Americans, and that the recognition by Euro-Americans that they have victimized themselves is the first step toward the beginning of a healing of America that will be based on a common appreciation of our shared responsibility for her future.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Certainly the principal formal question will be the juxtaposition of the epigraphs, with their blunt ideological focus, and the poems, with their convoluted syntax and high rhetoric. It would be important to remind students, I think, that Ortiz's cycle of poems about the American historical experience is only one example in a long history of poetry about the American historical experience that stretches back through Hart Crane's The Bridge and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass to early national poems such as Joel Barlow's The Columbiad.
I don't think the original audience for this poetry is significantly different from the student audience, except perhaps in their political orientation (the students may be more conservative). These poems were written at the end of the seventies and represent in some sense a considered reflection upon the traumatization of the American psyche by the domestic turmoil of the 1960s, the loss of confidence evoked by Watergate, and crisis of conscience provoked by the Vietnam War. Many of the younger students who will be reading these poems for the first time remember none of those events.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Certainly I think Whitman, whom Ortiz does admire greatly, can be invoked. Ortiz tries to cultivate a prophetic voice and a historical vision similar to Whitman's. I think he may also be effectively contrasted with many writers for whom a historical criticism of America's past terminates in an attitude of despair. Ortiz has transformed anger into hope through compassion.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I would look at the first poem and ask students what is meant by the juxtaposition of the lines "No waste lands, / No forgiveness," Or have students look at the third poem, which may be an even more provocative example, and ask them why Ortiz believes he should have stolen the sweater from the Salvation Army store, and why, in the end, he didn't.
Ortiz, Simon. "The Story Never Ends: An Interview with Simon Ortiz." In Joseph Bruchoc, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1987, 211-30.
--. "Sending a Voice: The Emergence of Contemporary Native American Poetry." College English 46 (1984): 598-609.
Wiget, Andrew. "Contemporary Poetry." Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
--. Simon Ortiz. Boise State University Western Writers Series, Number 74. Boise: Boise State University, 1986.