Writing the Diné Presence into Existence: An Interview with Laura Tohe

toheby Clare Magneson

We were incredibly fortunate to host poet Laura Tohe at the 2018 Northern Arizona Book Festival in Flagstaff where she led a poetry workshop at Firecreek Coffee and read selections of her work at Bright Side Bookshop.  Laura Tohe is a distinguished poet, author, and editor from the Diné community whose creative work challenges the public perception of the Diné experience. Tohe has been published extensively and won myriad awards, including being named Navajo Poet Laureate in 2015.   Tohe was the first Diné to receive a doctorate in English and currently teaches at Arizona State University. In this interview, Laura Tohe generously responds to our questions about stories that need to be told, new writers to watch, and how political history of the 60s and 70s influenced her.

Through memoir, poem, essay, and interview, you chronicle some of the most significant events in the last 200 years of Diné history in your writing– Canyon de Chelly as homeland and battlefield, the Long Walk to Fort Sumner, forced assimilation at Indian Schools, and the stories of the last Navajo Code Talkers.  You have a skill for retelling stories that have not been written from the Diné perspective, and in doing so you are able to reclaim Diné history. What stories do you look forward to telling in the future?  What stories do you feel still need to be told?

I’m looking forward to finishing my libretto for an oratorio that will be performed in France in 2019.  An oratorio is like an opera but not as full blown with an elaborate stage setting and costumes. It’s called Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World and I’m collaborating with Thierry Pécou, a French composer.  The theme is about healing using the Navajo philosophy of restoration and balance.  I’m interested in applying Navajo aesthetics to writing in the oratorio genre. I’m also looking forward to writing another book of poetry and perhaps essays.

In the introduction to Tséyi’/Deep in the Rock: Reflections on Canyon De Chelly, you write that you could hear the canyon calling to you, “‘Hago, hago,’ Come here, come here, came a powerful voice, one that I couldn’t ignore.”  Do you often feel a calling before you begin writing?

I think it was the canyon’s voice that called to me and showed me the layers of poems, stories and history embedded within her.  I couldn’t ignore the voice of such a magnificent and historic place. I haven’t experienced such a “calling” to write about a place since then.  Although, I hear lines of poetry that are beginnings of poems or stories.

You explained in a 2015 Arizona Highways interview that you gravitated toward writing, specifically poetry, to write your Diné presence into existence through language.  Since the Diné language was traditionally solely a spoken language, recording your stories in writing has become an invaluable contribution to Diné youth.  As an active writer in your community, it seems you have a unique opportunity to help build and curate the Diné body of literature. Have you felt a sense of responsibility for documenting the oral tradition of your people?  

That sounds like a great project, especially with so many upcoming Diné writers publishing and contributing to the growing body of Diné literature.  I don’t have plans at this time to take on such a project.

Who are some of your favorite writers?  Which up-and-coming writers are you excited about?

Some of my favorite writers are Leslie Marmon Silko, Pablo Neruda, Sandra Cisneros, Melissa Pritchard, Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe.  I was introduced to Poe by my 4th grade teacher who told us “The Tell-Tale Heart” and a few others that he read in class that thrilled me.  Up until that time I’d only heard stories that my family told, so Poe’s horror stories were something completely new and extraordinary.  Not long ago I was at a museum at the University of Texas in Austin and got to see the desk upon which Poe wrote his stories.

Navajo writers are currently experiencing a writing renaissance.  There are a large number of Navajo writers, perhaps the largest number of Native American writers publishing and winning awards.  I’m excited by Jake Skeets, who just won a couple of poetry awards this year, Tacey Atsitty, Natalie Diaz, and Bojan Louis. This past summer Navajo Tech University at Crownpoint, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation homeland sponsored the 2nd annual Emerging Writer’s Institute where young Navajo writers were invited to attend workshops and listen to panel discussions.  I expect the next generation of Navajo writers will come from these kinds of hands-on events. It’s also an opportunity for those who become teachers to learn who the Navajo writers are and apply what they learned in the workshops to teach their students.  

In the introduction to Sister Nations, you write about how one of your goals in compiling these stories by Native women from around the country was to take back and redefine the long stereotyped “Indian maiden.”  You go on to say that today, the Native woman has come to represent “what western culture has lost and is trying to regain.” Do you feel these detrimental stereotypes are being broken down?  What advice do you have for young Native women?

I don’t know that these kinds of stereotypes are being broken down because Native peoples and Native women, more so, are invisible in this country, therefore it’s difficult to show that stereotypes are being redefined.  What is alarming about the invisibility factor is the large numbers of Indigenous women going missing or being murdered in this country and in Canada. Most of it goes unreported in the news media, records of the missing and murdered women are not kept, or the judicial system doesn’t act rigorously in obtaining justice for the victims or their families.  On the other hand, Indigenous women like Winona LaDuke, environmental activist helped lead the resistance movement against DAPL, Dakota Access Pipeline, and she was also a Vice-Presidential candidate; Annie Wauneka, health care activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee; and Deb Haaland who could become the first Native American woman to be elected to Congress, and many others are the antithesis of the “Indian Maiden,” neither silent nor a western patriarchal construct.  Rather these are women warriors acting on behalf of their communities, who seek social justice and are actively working to make changes for the betterment of all. My advice to young Native women and all women, regardless of their race or ethnicity, is to look to women like these courageous and strong-minded women who are activists and express “we” instead of “me” and are models for all.

I read in another interview that your work was influenced by the dynamic political landscape of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  How do you feel your creative work is being influenced by our current political landscape?

I grew up during the 60’s and 70’s and lived through the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement and in college the American Indian Movement, the brown movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war protests.  It was a tumultuous time in this country and also a stimulating one. I came into political consciousness when I took a literature class during my first year in college. Reading about oppression and colonialism made me open my eyes to my own history in this country. Prior to that I didn’t have the words, the vocabulary that expressed growing up Diné, Native American, in the boarding school and in the country that worked to erase Native people, culture and language.  It made an indelible mark on me and what I wrote after that. I’m still influenced by that erasure in what I write.

You have written in practically every genre: poetry, memoir, story, non-fiction essay, children’s story, interview, academic paper, and as an anthology editor.  In addition, a number of your works have been “translated” into modern dance, theater, and music.  Which genre has been the most natural for you to work within and which the most challenging?  Which form has had the greatest impact on public discourse surrounding the Diné experience?

I think poetry has been the most natural, the one I feel most comfortable writing, even though my first publication was a short story.  In the world of poetry there seems to be greater choice to create images, to use and experiment with language and form in new ways. I think poetry, at least the poetry I’ve been writing, lends itself to collaboration with photographers, musicians, composers, and choreographers.  Writing my first libretto was most challenging as I’d never written one and didn’t even know what it was when I accepted to work on it for Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio.  My current project Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World, is also a collaborative piece.  “Nahasdzáán” is a Diné word that translates to Mother Earth.  I think our biggest challenge is not being able to talk over ideas in person as we live in separate countries.  Performances are scheduled for 2019 in France and I want the audience to see beyond the stereotypes of how native peoples have been constructed in the past, that American Indigenous peoples have unique tribal nation identities and are not simply relics of the past.  This is the other challenge I’m facing from an audience who will attend the performances.

Probably my first full-length book of poetry, No Parole Today, has been a major contribution to living and surviving the boarding school era.  It’s been taught in colleges and universities throughout the US and in parts of South America and is in its 4th printing.  The book is prose poetry or narrative poetry and brought attention to boarding schools from a young Diné female point of view.  At some of my readings the Diné audience tell me they are still traumatized by their boarding school experience and others find humor in the poems about growing up that they can identify with.  Nevertheless, trauma from assimilation is one of the greatest challenges that Diné and Native Americans are struggling to survive. Whether it’s through poetry or through ceremony, or other ways of healing, we need to find ways to overcome the trauma of the past.