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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Luci Tapahonso (b. 1953)

[6157] Nancy Crampton, [LUCI TAPAHONSO PHOTO] (1980-2002) courtesy of Nancy Crampton.

A Navajo woman born in Shiprock, New Mexico, Luci Tapahonso grew up on a farm within the largest Indian reservation in the United States. For the Navajo, or Dine, as they call themselves, kinship and lineage define one’s sense of self: Tapahonso’s father was from the Bitter Water clan, her mother from the Salt Water clan. Tapahonso emphasizes the importance of her family to her craft: “When I write I can always hear their voices and I can hear the way that they would talk and just the beauty of how they structured stories and their expressions and their faces. So, my primary literary influence has been my family and my relatives.”

Tapahonso’s first language is Dine, the Navajo language, and Dine frequently appears in her poetry. Indeed, she often conceives, writes, and sings her poems entirely in Dine, translating them into English only for publication. This practice highlights the typical Native American conception of literature as performative, living, and inextricably linked to the specifics of culture, language, and place. For the Navajo, Tapahonso explains, language is powerful: “[The Navajo] say that when a child is born … the first breath they take is a holy thing, that it means that the power of the winds in the air that make up the universe are a part of you so that when you breathe you can actually feel your breath; that means that there’s a sense of the holy imbued in you. So that each time you say something then … you can change things. … You can change the course of whatever it is that you’re going to do.” She goes on to explain that this belief in the efficacy of language makes all of the Dine careful speakers: “There’s not really a way to say … you’re sorry so … people have to be very careful about what they say and … you understand that words do have power and that you have the power to create or . . . the power to destroy. You have the power to heal, to comfort, to make people laugh.” For the Dine, the poet or wordsmith has a special status. Tapahonso notes, “A person that speaks beautifully is thought to have … a really good upbringing … a lot of people [having] loved them, a lot of people [having] invested in them to make sure that they speak well. …”

Tapahonso received her B.A. and M.A. in 1980 and 1983, respectively, from the University of New Mexico, where she studied under Leslie Marmon Silko. She has taught as an assistant professor of English at the University of New Mexico and the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and currently teaches at the University of Arizona. Her books of poetry include A Breeze Swept Through (1989), Saanii Dahataal: The Women are Singing (1993) (in which “They Are Silent and Quick” appears), and Blue Horses Rush In (1997). In the preface to Saanii Dahataal, Tapahonso writes of two literary issues that appear as concerns for many other American Indian writers. First, she notes the centrality of storytelling to Indian life: “There is such a love of stories among Navajo people that it seems each time a group of more than two gather, the dialogue eventually evolves into sharing stories and memories, laughing, teasing. To be included in this way is a distinct way of showing affection and appreciation for each other.” Tapahonso’s words highlight the way in which stories are an essential aspect of maintaining Indian culture. Second, she de-emphasizes herself as a singular creative voice, as the “author” of her poems in the traditional Western sense. Rather, her writing is itself part of the web of an old culture—as is Tapahonso herself—and works toward the continual renewal of that culture. As Tapahonso explains, “Like many other relatives, [my paternal grandmother] had a profound understanding of the function of language. This writing, then, is not ‘mine,’ but a collection of many voices that range from centuries ago and continue into the future.”

Tapahonso has served on the board of directors at the Phoenix Indian Center, has been a member of the New Mexico Arts Commission Literature Panel, and has been on the steering committees of the Returning the Gift Writers Festival, the Kansas Arts Commission Literature Panel, the Phoenix Arts Commission, and the Telluride Institute Writers Forum Advisory Board. She was also the commissioner of the Kansas Arts Commission.

Teaching Tips

  • The number 4 is important for Tapahonso’s verse. As Tapahonso points out in her American Passages interview, many Navajo songs have four stanzas and ceremonies are structured in fours, as are many ordinary things. Play the excerpt from Tapahonso’s interview in which she elaborates on the significance of the number 4, and then have your students read one of her poems that uses repetitions of 4. What meaning does the number bring to the poem?
  • Show your students the segment on the Navajo Reservation from the documentary Winds of Change: A Matter of Promises, narrated by N. Scott Momaday. How do the Navajo strategies for adapting to cultural change compare to the strategies used by Tapahonso? This segment of the video, which introduces Navajo veterans and chantways, is also useful to set up Ortiz and Silko’s work.
  • The traditional Navajo dwelling is called the hogan and is constructed out of earth and wooden poles according to instructions given from Talking God. Hogans are a good way to introduce students to some of the basic principles of Navajo oral tradition and chantways; as anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu reflects, the house is “a microcosm organized according to the same oppositions which govern all the universe.” The entrances to hogans always face east. As Tapahonso explains, “In Navajo thinking everything begins in the East. So the beginning of day, the beginning of life . . . is seen as being situated in the East. The hogan given by Talking God is also the home of Dawn Woman, or Changing Woman, wife of the sun.” Have students look at the image of the hogan in the archive. How is it different from a Western-style house? How does it reflect the values in the poem “A Breeze Swept Through”? Students may also enjoy “Starlore,” Tapahonso’s poem about a hogan, from Blue Horses Rush In.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: The location of a poem or story—its setting—almost always conveys important information about its overall meaning. Where does “They Are Silent and Quick” seem to be set? Where are the narrator and her daughter, and where are the narrator’s parents?
  2. Comprehension: “A Breeze Swept Through” retells a Navajo creation story. Who or what is the “first born of Dawn Woman”?
  3. Comprehension: What is the significance of the narrator’s Navajo mother saying, “‘There’s nothing like that in Navajo stories'” in the third stanza of “They Are Silent and Quick”? How does this statement affect the narrator, her “aching,” and her feelings about constituting one of three generations of women in her family? What do these emotions have to do with the setting of the poem?
  4. Context: Why would Tapahonso compare dawn with birth in “A Breeze Swept Through”? What does her comparison suggest about the place of humans in the natural world?
  5. Context: In Language and Art in the Navajo Universe, anthropologist Gary Witherspoon argues that for the Navajo, “the earth and its life-giving, life-sustaining, and life-producing qualities are associated with and derived from Changing Woman [Earth Mother]. It is not surprising, therefore, that women tend to dominate in social and economic affairs. Women are the heads of most domestic groups, the clans are matrilineal [i.e., they trace their descent through the maternal line], and the land and sheep traditionally were controlled by the women of residential groups.” What role do women play in Tapahonso’s poetry?
  6. Exploration: The narrator of “They Are Silent and Quick” says, “There are no English words to describe this feeling.” What do you think she means by this statement? At what point in her narrative does she switch from English? That is, where do the “breaks” occur in her English consciousness? You might compare these moments to when Gloria Anzaldúa (Unit 2), for example, switches to Spanish, or when writers like Jean Toomer (Unit 10) switch dialects.
  7. Exploration: The Navajo is a matrifocal society; that is, in certain ways the community revolves around women (for example, families tend to reside with the mother’s clan). In “A Breeze Swept Through,” images of the female are vital to the force of the poem. Why is the poem gendered female? Would you describe the poem as empowering to women, especially Native American women? Why or why not?
  8. Exploration: Compare the Navajo creation story in “A Breeze Swept Through” to the creation story in Genesis. How are humans characterized in each? How is the divine characterized? What are the relationships between the human and the divine in each story?

Selected Archive Items

[5957] Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo Shiprock Fair Exhibit (c. 1934),

courtesy of Pacific Alaska Region, National Archives and Records Administration.
This fair, held every year in Shiprock, New Mexico, is the oldest fair in the Navajo Nation. Luci Tapahonso was born in Shiprock; her recent book, Songs of Shiprock Fair, describes one child’s experiences at the fair.

[5959] Terry Eiler, Sheepherding on the Grounds of the Utah International Mine on the Navajo Reservation (1972),
courtesy of Still Pictures Branch, National Archives and Records Administration.
Luci Tapahonso, the middle child in a family of eleven, grew up in this area. Tapahonso is a Navajo who composes much of her poetry in her native language, Dine.

[6157] Nancy Crampton, Luci Tapahonso (1980-2002),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton.
Altering, adapting, and drawing from the Dine (Navajo) oral tradition, poet Luci Tapahonso carves out a space in American literature for a diverse yet distinctly native voice.

[6158] Nancy Crampton, Ortiz, Silko, Tapahonso Group Photo (n.d.),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton.
All three of these prominent Native American writers come from New Mexico. Each shares the traditional Native American emphasis on storytelling, and each emphasizes the importance of developing a respectful relationship with the land.

[6533] Kenji Kawano, Navajo Grandson, Grandma, Horse (2001),
courtesy of Kenji Kawano.
A young Navajo man stands with his arm around his grandmother. Herself a Navajo, Luci Tapahonso draws inspiration for her work from the lives of those she knows best and from the landscape of the Southwest.

[6590] Joel Grimes, Traditional Navajo Dancing during Fourth of July Fair (1992),
courtesy of Joel Grimes.
The Navajo have a long tradition of dancing. Navajo Luci Tapahonso attempts to tell the history of her people’s culture in her writings and to contextualize it in terms of the present.

[6850] Edward S. Curtis, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait of Navajo Woman, Facing Front (1904),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103498].
This woman’s clothing is an example of bicultural production: while influenced by European dress, it also incorporates a Navajo blanket influenced by the designs of baskets and pottery. Sheep, who provide the wool for blankets as well as a source of food, are a crucial part of Navajo culture.

[8007] Luci Tapahonso, Reading: “They are Silent and Quick” (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg/CBP and American Passages.
This poem shows (Dine) Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso moving between the English and Navajo languages. In the poem, Tapahonso discusses the importance of the oral tradition and storytelling.

[8963] Edward S. Curtis, Navajo Hogan (1905),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-105863].
The hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling, is constructed out of earth and wooden poles according to instructions from Talking God.

[9074] Luci Tapahonso, Reading: “A Breeze Swept Through” (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg/CBP and American Passages.
This poem shows (Dine) Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso moving between the English and Navajo languages. In the poem, Tapahonso retells the creation story of Dawn Woman.

[9080] Luci Tapahonso, Interview: “The Number Four and Its Significance” (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg/CBP and American Passages.
A recording from an interview with Tapahonso in which she discusses the number 4 and its significance in her poetry and for the Navajo;

other interview excerpts can be found in archive [9076] through [9083].

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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