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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Chippewa Songs
- Louise Erdrich
- Ghost Dance Songs
- Thomas Harriot
- Black Elk & John G. Neihardt
- Simon J. Ortiz
- Leslie Marmon Silko
- Stories of the Beginning of the World
- Luci Tapahonso
- Roger Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Luci Tapahonso (b. 1953)

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

Luci Tapahonso Activities
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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.

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