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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Simon J. Ortiz (b. 1941)

[5887] Ansel Adams, Looking across the Street toward Houses, “Acoma Pueblo” (1933), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Branch.

Simon J. Ortiz’s world is one of mixtures and doublings, of multiple identities: he has an American name and an Acoma name, Hihdruutsi; he is from the Southwest but lives in Toronto, Canada. Born and raised in the Acoma Pueblo community in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ortiz received his early education from the Bureau of Indian Affairs school on the Acoma reservation. He later attended the University of New Mexico. Ortiz currently teaches in the department of English at the University of Toronto.

Storytelling has always been a part of his life. As he explains, “I think that because storytelling is a process, that is a dynamic of culture. . . . [I]t was with that first utterance of sound that your parents or those who are closest to you in your family utter that first sound or that first word and you first conceive of it as sound that has meaning. It could be a murmur, it could be a song, it could be your name.” His poetry explores the significance of individual origins and journeys, which he, like many American Indian writers, sees as forming a vital link in the continuity of life. Drawing on American Indian oral traditions, his poems emphasize orality, narrative, and the actual worldly effects of language. As Ortiz explains, storytelling is about more than just the style of the poetry: “The purpose of that story sharing or storytelling is . . . conversing, and the story listeners are conversing with us. We are sharing, or participating. And it’s the storyteller participating by his telling, and the listener participating by his or her listening. So it’s an exchange. It’s a dialogue. It’s an event.”

Ortiz’s poetry is also influenced by the sounds of the oral tradition and by the way that he conjures up concrete images and uses repetition. His poems, therefore, feel like they are being transmitted through the spoken word more than the written word. He has said that “Indians always tell a story. . . . The only way to continue is to tell a story and there is no other way. Your children will not survive unless you tell something about them—how they were born, how they came to this certain place, how they continued.” Ortiz advocates a political literature, eschewing the idea that poetry should be above or beyond political concerns. While this is less obviously true of the poems featured in the video, it is more evident in such poems as “At the Salvation Army” (from From Sand Creek).

Perhaps most crucially, Ortiz’s poetry grows out of his experience with the Pueblo landscape and the cultures that live with it. Like fellow Pueblo poet Leslie Marmon Silko, Ortiz expresses concern through his work that Western worldviews treat the land as a property to be used rather than as a life-force to be respected. Ortiz’s books of poetry include Going for Rain (1976), Poems from the Veterans Hospital (1977) (in which “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH” appears), From Sand Creek (1982), Woven Stone(1992) (in which “My Mother and My Sisters” appears), After and Before the Lightning (1994), and Out There Somewhere(2002).

Teaching Tips

  • Most students have heard little first-hand testimony from veterans about their experiences with war. Have your students interview veterans about their experiences, either veterans in their families or those at local VA hospitals. They may want to read them the poems that Ortiz has written and ask the veterans to comment on them.
  • Have your students write in their journals about some central family memory or legend as in “My Mother and My Sisters.” What purpose does the dissemination and repetition of the story serve in their family? Is this story community-forming? Confidence-building? If the story is funny, as many such stories are, what purpose does the humor serve?
  • In his interview with American Passages, Simon J. Ortiz reflects that even though the Pueblo didn’t have a written language before the arrival of the Spanish, they had “art forms and art objects, that communicated, that served as expressions of knowledge.” Ask your students to focus on the image of the women creating pottery in “My Mother and My Sisters.” What linguistic strategies does Ortiz use to let us know that what the women are doing is more important than just throwing and painting pottery?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is “the building” in “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH”? To which “three American wars” does the narrator probably refer?
  2. Comprehension: The narrator of “My Mother and My Sisters” says that his mother paints “with movements whose origin has only to do with years of knowing.” What does this description mean?
  3. Comprehension: What is the relationship between the building and the geese in “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH”? What does Ortiz seem to be saying by including them both in one brief poem?
  4. Context: The VA Hospital in Albuquerque is located on over 500 acres on a high mesa and is designed in a village layout in Spanish-Pueblo architectural style.What is the significance of the architecture of the hospital in Ortiz’s poem? What difference would it have made if the building were built in a style that imitated a pueblo or a kiva, the traditional site of Pueblo healing?
  5. Context: “My Mother and My Sisters” includes two segments, the narrator’s description of his mother and sister making pottery, and his mother telling the story of looking for pinons. What do these two segments have in common, or how do they illuminate each other? Consider the relationship between pottery-making and story-telling as art forms: how do they both involve the expression and transmission of cultural values and assumptions?
  6. Context: Examine the jars from Acoma and Santo Domingo Pueblos featured in the “Singing Mothers” Web Archive in this unit. Describe the shape of the jars. What potential uses might they have had? How has the potter used shape and geometry to create a sense of balance and rhythm? Compare the harmony-seeking principles in the pottery to those in Ortiz’s poems.
  7. Exploration: Poetry often invokes the five senses in order to make its message more vivid and immediate. There are two senses at work in “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH”: the Wisconsin horse’s sighting of the geese and the sound the geese make. What is the relationship between sound and sight in the poem? What does the persona reflect on when he hears, and what does he reflect on when he sees? Which is more “healing”? Compare Ortiz’s use of sensory impressions to that of other contemporary poets such as Li-Young Lee and Sylvia Plath.
  8. Exploration: Poetry is often addressed to an audience—a “you.” The second, brief stanza of “My Mother and My Sisters” is written in the second person—that is, it is addressed to some “you.” Who is this audience? What is the relationship between the reader and the narrator as a result of this pronoun? How does the second stanza affect your understanding of the poem? How does its inclusion support Ortiz’s claim that poetry is a “dialogue” or “conversation”? You might contrast Ortiz’s use of the pronoun “you” to that of other poets in such poems as “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath and “Black Art” by Amiri Baraka.

Selected Archive Items

[5876] Ansel Adams, “Church, Acoma Pueblo” Corner View Showing Mostly Left Wall (1933),
courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
The Acoma Pueblo community of Albu-querque, New Mexico, was the childhood home of poet Simon J. Ortiz. Ortiz’s poetry deals with political concerns and bears the marks of his oral heritage. Ansel Adams is one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Along with Edward Weston, Sonya Noskowiak, and others, Adams founded Group f.64 which rejected the popular tendency of photographers to imitate painting. F.64 sought a “pure” photography, which they defined as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.”

[5887] Ansel Adams, Looking across the Street toward Houses, “Acoma Pueblo” (1933),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Branch.
Acoma Pueblo, the home of the Acoma Indians, is believed to be the oldest inhabited village in the United States. Atop a 367-foot mesa, this “Sky City” is well defended against enemies. Dwellings are built around a plaza that serves as the community’s sacred center. The interconnectedness of the houses reflects the social bonds of the community.

[5891] Henry Kyllingstad, Daisy Pino, an Acoma Girl, during On-the-Job Training at Brown’s Cafe, Albuquerque, N. Mex. (1951),
courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
During the 1950s poor living conditions and high unemployment led many Native Americans to seek work off the reservation in cities. N. Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, and others write about the hardships and alienation experienced by “urban Indians.”

[5971] Nancy Crampton, Simon Ortiz Portrait (n.d.),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton.
Simon J. Ortiz was born in the Acoma Pueblo community, to the Dyaamih clan. In Ortiz’s native language there are no words for extended family members; everyone is either “father,” “mother,” “sister” or “brother.”

[8304] Simon Ortiz, Pottery in Acoma Pueblo Culture (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg Media and American Passages.
Pueblo pottery is considered some of the most beautiful, and it has deep ties to storytelling traditions. In this excerpt from a poem by Simon Ortiz, we learn of the power of pottery in Acoma Pueblo culture: “That’s the thing about making dhyuuni; / it has more to do with a sense of touching / than with seeing because fingers / have to know the texture of clay…”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6