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A Special Message from Luci Tapahonso
Four years ago, I wrote the following lines memorializing one of my last times with my mother:
“We were alone in the quiet house.
Across the road, a cow bellowed and somewhere by the wash,
Dogs were barking playfully. One sounded like a puppy.
Here in the living room, we rested, closing our eyes.
Then she said, with her eyes still closed, ‘let’s sing.’
So I started a song and she joined in.”
Each time I read these lines, that precise moment exists again— the cool, still air in the quiet house; the clear, deep blue of New Mexico skies and the full, white bubble-like clouds in the distance. I remember precisely my mother’s breathing as she napped and I recall again the distinct tilt of her voice.
When I recite this poem in public, the audience recognizes the longing, the gentle silence, and the loneliness, and love in such moments. Together, we commemorate and mourn inevitable losses. And my mother lives again—through memory, through images, through stories and through this careful arrangement of words called “poetry.” Through these written words, the audience/ readers remember again their beloved ones who have left this world.
It is this same precision of language that defined my mother and father’s lives, and that of grandparents before them. Their lives were delineated by oral knowledge that informed them of kin, their place in the vast Dinétah—Navajo country—and it told them of their relationship to animals, plants, and other five-fingered beings. This knowledge was imparted through stories, prayers, songs by memory then retold and shared over the centuries.
The written word is essential because it reconnects us with the past, reassuring us of our presence today and strengthening the future for all of us. Our ancestors maintained the art, and indeed the onus, of retaining our traditions so that we survive now as distinct Indigenous peoples. Thus we understand what is meant by “the sacred begins at the tip of my tongue.”
Luci Tapahonso is Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation.