2012 Introduction by Gordon Henry

The Transformative Power of Writing

Due to space constraints within the print edition of the magazine, the staff at Tribal College Journal could only print a portion of Gordon Henry’s original essay. We would like to thank Henry for his generosity of spirit in recognizing the student writers featured in this year’s issue of TCJ Student.

GORDON HENRYI am honored to write the introduction for 2012 Tribal College Journal’s Student Creative Writing Issue. As a former tribal college teacher and administrator I am aware of the breadth of opportunities and the wealth of human, social, and cultural resources tribal colleges provide for tribal people and our tribal communities. The reach of those resources stands evident in this collection of writing. This issue of student work illustrates the ways tribal colleges have become expressive communities of artistic reflection, of personal, family, tribal and human experience, as well as sovereign ground for academic development, acquisition of technical skills and for celebrating the empowerment community, self-determined, learning brings to our lives.

As a writer, I have experienced the transformative potential creative work brings to the lives of individuals and communities. The world has literally opened up to me through creative expression and writing. By working with and through poetry, fiction, music and performance I was able to revisit the past, connect more deeply and intimately with my own tribal culture, and reach audiences of people that I never thought to write to or for. My poetry and fiction has been translated into Spanish, Greek, German, Portuguese and Italian and I have given readings and performances in various venues in the United States and Europe. I’ve received notes and letters from afar, from people in New Zealand, Argentina, Japan, Portugal and various states in the U.S. Those notes were from people telling me they had read my work and were inspired by what they read.

Writing and creative work have also given me the opportunity to travel and meet people I would never have met otherwise. I have traveled to Holland, Spain, Germany, Greece, Italy and England and to reservations and universities throughout the U.S., as part of my writing life. Over the past few years, I have read with Native writers Gerald Vizenor, Simon Ortiz, Marc Turcottte, Kimberly Blaeser, Heid Erdrich, Jim Northrup, Sherwin Bitsui, and Natalie Diaz, among others. I have also had the good fortune of meeting some of the most celebrated American Indian writers, academics, activists, and artists working today. Writing has also opened unforeseen creative work for me. Recently, I was invited to perform my work accompanied by jazz musicians from Detroit. For me that was a great honor, since I knew I would be working with some of the most respected jazz musicians in the Midwest. This was important to me on other levels, as well. That performance required me to re-experience my own words; to adapt to new zones and spaces of sound, words and people; to open myself to new ways of working, creatively.

Rather than saying anything about my writing, or the qualities of my work, I believe these notes I’ve cited about my own experiences, speak directly to the ways creative work and artistic expression open us to possibilities for personal growth and human liberation. Art, creative expression, writing, music, and performance throw us into an imaginative (perhaps transcendent) world, where story, words, sound, and image communicate beyond notions of self and the limits of jurisdictions of time, space, and body. That world has no horizon or vertical limits, yet it is informed, among other things, by the honesty of our expression, by the playfulness of our sounds, by the flow of our graphic representations, by the intensity of our accounts of experience, and by the liberating energy of our thoughts.

I am writing here of inspired, innovative works of creation. Innovative, creative work—like our traditional stories, songs, and ceremonies—turns consciousness. And in those turns, we learn to re-engage, to see the world anew, to dwell upon the unknown, to empathize and to move toward becoming those people the first creative sparks of our imagination called us to be. But creative work, whether it be song, poetry, story, fiction, painting, or sculpture, doesn’t hold transformative, consciousness-turning possibilities for only the writer, storyteller, or artist. Imaginative, inspired work engages the audience and brings them along, gesturing, sounding forth, offering new ways of seeing, and experiencing our engagement with the world we live in. So it is with the writing in this edition of the Tribal College Journal. The student work here carries that imaginative spark, that inspired delivery that reminds us of who we are, how we survive, and what we are capable of, as we continue to learn and grow as human beings.

In her story “We All Look Alike,” Jamie Figueroa shows us life with a child’s sense of insight, as her character/narrator develops a growing understanding of the behavior and motives of her mother. More than that, Jamie’s story brings us into the social and cultural milieu of the child’s life with an imaginative array of details in scenes and characters. In one beautifully crafted passage, for example, the child sees herself behind her mother in a mirror:

I’m on tiptoes balancing on the toilet seat behind her. I can see myself in the mirror when she puts her arms down. I pout and make that noise I make when I don’t like something, like there’s a wind-up toy stuck in my throat.

Here the child can only see herself once the mother moves a certain way. But, as the story goes on we learn, as the child learns, that her mother’s distractions and concerns are driven, as much as anything, by a desire to provide for her daughter. In the end this story creates a strong feeling of empathy in me for Mami, the mother character. I understand her as forging, through sacrifice, a way of survival for herself and her daughter.

“Thunder and Lightning,” by Jennifer Whitewolf, also offers us a story of survival, but in this case survival hinges on relationships with our relatives, and in the energy and forces of the greater natural world. Further, while “Thunder and Lightning” reflects a more traditional world and storytelling tradition, the story draws us to universal themes of loss, longing for lost loved ones, and the possibilities of regeneration through “vision.” Black Wolf’s vision allows the twin boys in the story to bring their mother back to life, to bring her back home, where family is made strong again as the boys “grow into strong men providing for their family.” The lessons of survival and importance of family are clear in the story, but it is the vision of Black Wolf and the transformative power of vision that speaks most to me in the story. “Thunder and Lightning” reminds us that who we are and how we survive stands in relation to our visionary capacities and is evident in our relations in the natural world.

“Of Hand Blooming” by Monty J. Little is also a visionary piece, but in this case the work expresses a more idiosyncratic perspective, as the world opens up with an up-close view of the main character’s bleeding hand. Initially, that view of the hand sparks memory, as his hand reminds him of “thirsty reservation washes.” The studied view of blood on the hand transforms then as Little takes us through a variety of poetic analogies and artistic configurations of how blood on the hand draws the interior thoughts of the character toward the larger narrative context:

His blood curls, divides and slowly flakes off his palm. Within these few passing seconds, he stands, surviving a deep concussion of two cars and life around him simply unfolds.

Thus, a deep, protracted meditation of blood on the hand has led the narrator to “stand” as he understands the impact of survival and of how we are all involved in this ironically “simple” unfolding of life. Little’s metaphors and use of language are astounding and imaginative throughout the piece. His work here resonates with a strong sense of imagery and complex, concussive strains of musical language and poetic perception.

Katrina Montoya’s “Madre,” from “A Collection for My Mother and Father,” speaks poignantly of the bonds within family and the deeper histories hidden in language. In this piece, an inscription in Spanish and “framed in gold” becomes an inter-generational reminder of child-and-mother-relations, as well as a source of specific memories of the narrator’s grandmother. While the young narrator of the story acknowledges that her sisters did not understand the words in the inscription at first, as ‘they grew older and wiser in the Spanish language” they grew more connected to the depth of meaning of the words framed in gold. The narrative deftly closes with an English translation of the Spanish inscription and we, as readers, come to understand how mothers have been honored as sources of wisdom and love, for generations in the narrator’s family.

“Brown Sugar and Vanilla,” Montoya’s companion piece to “Madre,” links growing up with grasping social secrets associated with “pretty backpacks, pretty clothes, pretty skin” and the scent a girl must find for herself. Again Montoya brings us back to family and it is the memories and words of the narrator’s father that help the young girl of the story negotiate the secrets of the world. As the narrator grows older she remembers how her father brought her back to who she was:

At times I catch the scent in the wind, blowing off of me and into my mind. It reminds me of standing in the aisle of the store, just a few years ago, studying each scent as carefully as I had concocted my own. I remember my dad coming over with the shopping basket and joining in, telling me once again about the honeysuckle. He sprayed mists in front of him, looking at me smiling. At last he handed me Exclamation, telling me, “This is you.”

Both of Montoya’s narratives honor mothers and fathers in memory and the importance memory holds in understanding intergenerational relations, but Montoya’s stories also reveal how over time, as we grow, memory often solves problems and unlocks seemingly impenetrable secrets to show us who we are.

Jayni Anderson’s story, “The Blanket,” delves into the memories of an adoptee. In the story, the narrator looks back to the past and tells of finding a journal in an attic. That journal holds an important account of her past and in the end that account provides the adoptee with the story of how she came to be adopted. Anderson also effectively uses an interesting narrative technique by presenting a story within a story; each story entails remembrance, so that memory spirals from one narrator, the adoptee, back to another narrator, her adoptive father, the author of the journal.. The whole narrative is held together, again, by intergenerational memory, symbolized by the blanket, which appears in both the father’s and the adoptee’s stories. As in many other stories in this issue of the Tribal College Journal, Anderson’s story conveys an appreciation for the love and security a child receives from dedicated loving parents. And, once again, realization through recollection establishes the appreciation the narrative imparts to us.

Family relations stand at the of center of Delores Tourtillott-Grignon’s story “She Took the Sun with Her,” as well. In this piece the narrator reflects on a day in her life as a young girl. Throughout the story the narrator’s observations convey humor and insight about relations between sisters as they try to decide what to do on a “gray day,” on a day when their mother is gone. Tourtillott-Grignon also presents the world of the young narrator with imagination and a believable sense of the way sisters influence each other as they negotiate experience without the direct influence of an adult whose absence shadows the very physical reality the girls must contend with. This is no small feat. By presenting the world through the eyes of a middle sister, a child narrator, Tourtillott-Grignon displays an understanding of experience and she conveys that understanding through character and voice to us, as readers.

Katrina Montoya’s imaginative poem, titled “Golden Arches and Indian Tacos,” deals with the cultural ironies many contemporary Native people face as we move between cultural sites of seemingly incongruent realities: “to become modern, as they say, rolling into drive-thrus.” Moreover, Montoya’s artistic representation of such ironies sings with a powerful, often musical, sense of the flow of language even as that language depicts hyperbolic images of natives exploding from fast food excess:

They sprinkle white dust like anthrax, choking us from the inside as our bellies spill from our blue jeans onto the floor, expands into the ceiling Hissing and popping golden liquid pull us from Earth to corner windows And we swarm around it, busy bees to honey and suck on fleshy fingers and gnaw on the Colonel’s bones

Through Montoya’s imagery and commentary we see the debilitating ends of overconsumption of poison food which is not “our own.” And we come to Montoya’s smart, insightful closing lines which will be our end, unless we change our thinking:

hush for a story someone once told me, Until we allow ourselves to think, we are still not able to survive with this it is not our own, and we are consumed.

Anna Nelson’s “Letter to June,” promises a different end. This piece offers a glimpse into the life of a character who is writing of her own end, of being “taken by my own hand” in a room she will “haunt until the sun sets it aflame.” With an ability to write empathically, Nelson has created a powerful epistolary vision of a character who’s lost relation to affection, who cannot understand death on the news, who is writing a letter to another who has already died. Nelson’s letter is a haunting, powerful statement on loss of relations. Without a sense of purpose, such loss pushes us to a “void of references to the past: a few pictures of kids who’ve moved on.” Yet, while Nelson’s “Letter to June” renders a bleak reality, the imaginative empathy such a piece demands speaks to better possibilities for understanding and releasing the emotions conveyed by the character writing the letter in Nelson’s work.

“Red Fox,” by Loga Fixico also depicts disturbing moments of human behavior, but in this case, dangerous consequences are connected with “blind,” dispassionate human acts. “Humanity,” kills while obliviously travelling a “black road,” a road of haste, in a state of urgency, but without a vision about where humanity is headed and why humanity is traveling that way, toward an unknown end. Further, this lack of vision, this human blindness, portends a sense of destruction. The road humanity travels “devours” life ignorantly, without seeing or hearing what has been devoured in the process of this blind travelling. Fixico’s poem serves as a reminder then; she aptly constructs a symbolic warning about humanity’s relations to the larger world of nature, or of life associated with the Red Fox. Though “Red Fox” seems to establish a fixed end on a black road of a devouring way of life associated with human activity, Fixico’s poetic statement calls out to humanity with a poet’s sense of more appropriate, life-affirming possibilities. The critical language of the poem and the critical eye of the poet, suggest a broader vision.

By the time I finished reading the works by the students, I realized the gift and wisdom of their accomplishments. Their work reflects knowledge, insight, empathy and creativity, as well as craft and skill.

Each nation represented by these writers, each community these writers have drawn from and lived in, each tribal college these writers have attended, each teacher who has worked with these writers, should take pride in and celebrate the student work published in this issue of the Tribal College Journal. We should all admire the skill, the wisdom, and the vision displayed in these student works. They have shown us their gifts and we should be thankful for the work they are doing and for all those who’ve supported them and helped them bring this work out. For my part, I am inspired and honored to be part of this issue and I wish each of these writers the best as they go on in the spirit of creation.

Gordon Henry, an enrolled member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota, is the director of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University.

24-1 STUDENT COVERWe All Look Alike By Jamie Figueroa
Thunder and Lightning By Jennifer Whitewolf
Of Hand Blooming By Monty J. Little
A Collection for My Mother and Father By Katrina Montoya
The Blanket By Jayni Anderson
So She Took the Sun with Her By Delores Tourtillott-Grignon
Golden Arches and Indian Tacos By Katrina Montoya
Letter to June 2032 By A.M. Nelson
Red Fox By Loga Fixico
Where the Ancestors Cried By Stephanie A. Fisher
Mix Tape Singing My Tunes By Beatresea Kien
The Bike By Chasity Ann Vigil
The Whisper By Jayni Anderson
Intersections on the Journey to Higher Learning By Chad J. Reynolds
Smoke Signals By Elizabeth Sam
I Am Made of Cardboard By A.M. Nelson
Daisy By Loga Fixico
Statistically Speaking By Millicent M. Pepion
Artwork By Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl Demientieff
Artwork by Burdette Birdinground

Share This Post

You must be logged in to post a comment Login