The Power of Story
In the Fall 2018 semester at Arizona State University, the Turning Points team approached our storyboard and asked, “How can we shed light on ASU’s amazing Indigenous faculty and staff?” The answer to that question was a section within our content titled “Faculty Highlight.” One of the two faculty highlighted in the Fall 2018 is renowned poet Natalie Diaz, where she highlights her advice to Native American college students on seeking mentorship, the notion of visibility, and “acts of resistance” as an Indigenous being.
Congratulations on being named one of the 25 winners of this year’s MacArthur Foundation fellowships. What does this fellowship mean to you as an Indigenous, Latinx and queer woman, and what does it mean to Indigenous communities?
Natalie Diaz: Gracias for the congratulations. It has been a lucky set of months. I am still realizing what it means to me. I think it means connection — not so much a connection to me, I am the least of it. What I mean is that I think it gives people a way to begin connecting the many Indigenous women who are doing meaningful and powerful work in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. When I was in junior high school my aunt was tribal chairperson of our Mojave tribe and I worked alongside Grace Thorpe to fight a nuclear waste dump on the reservation where I grew up, Fort Mojave. So this maybe means most to my communities, a light I can reflect from me to them, because I am part of a long line of strong, intelligent, and imaginative women. I was raised at Fort Mojave but I am enrolled at Gila River. (Shout out to District 3.)
What role does Indigenous languages play in your life?
Diaz: Indigenous language is more than a role, it is a blood in me, a river. It is who I am. It is always who I have been, even when the language was quiet in me, before I learned to bring it out, before I had the luck of so many teachers, in particular my uncle and teacher Hubert McCord. I am more “me“ now that I have my language. English was designed to let me be only a part of myself. Now that I have my other languages, including Spanish and Makav (Mojave), I am the most me, and closer to the person I am still becoming. My language makes me strong in the ways that it has made my people strong for hundreds of years, since it was first given to us.
You are an award-winning poet, linguist and essayist who holds many recognition and awards under your belt. You also teach in the Creative Writing MFA program at ASU- what has your experience been in teaching on the traditional homelands of the Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh peoples?
Diaz: These are my homelands. I am enrolled at Gila River, and also Mojave. I am walking in the energies and storylands of my people. This is where I dream best, where I think best, and where I am strongest. It is important for people to know this land and the people who were built up from this land, as well as the language this land formed and the water that this land gave birth to. They are all connected — body, land, water.
You have previously talked about “the power of story and the necessity of stories to make us visible.” Writing our stories may be difficult truths to confront and discuss with others- what advice would you pass onto students who wish to incorporate truth into their work?
Diaz: I think it’s important to know that truth belongs to each one of us, and so it will look different to each one of us. But know that ASU is a place full of people and instructors who are here to make space for you to tell your stories. I believe that ASU is a place where you can contribute to the future that only you can make possible here, a better future. There is not future of America without acknowledging and heeding the knowledges and wisdoms of Natives of these lands and waters.
Your work discusses the importance of visibility. On October 26th, Native people took to Twitter to discuss how invisibility is a modern form of racism and used the hashtags #NativeTwitter, #WeAreStillHere, #InvisibilityisRacism, #IllumiNative, and #NativeTruth. How can students reclaim visibility while in college?
Diaz: Visibility is difficult to claim since it relies on the “sight” or “gaze” or vision of another in relationship to you. What I mean by this is that Indigenous invisibility is often not our problem, rather it is the problem of non-Natives and institutions. Native invisibility is a principal America was founded on — to erase us — so it is still present in the bloodlines and thoughtlines of American institutions, practices, etiquettes (such as words like civilized or intellectual or educated or mastery), etc.
That being said, we first and foremost have to make one another visible. ASU is a campus filled with amazing minds and hearts, including Indigenous professors and faculty and staff — we need to reach out, to begin to fill the spaces that are here, spaces that have always been Indigenous. I have found ASU a place where my own work and wonders can become more possible — and this is what I have to offer my Native students, those same avenues and paths to your futures, whether they involve returning home or leaving home. And we must support one another. Often, because we have become used to there being so few spaces for us, so few recognitions or awards, we tend to bump each other out of the way, competing for those few prizes. What if we instead linked arms and demanded we all arrive in those spaces together, as more, not as a homogenized group of Natives, but as autonomous individuals with nuanced imaginations and questions. We would then be visible, in numbers, in our own self recognition, and they would have to make more space for us, because we were making it for ourselves.
Indigenous scholars discuss the term “activism” and say Indigenous students attending institutions is a form of rhetorical sovereignty, meaning attending institutions that weren’t originally designed for us is a form of activism in itself. What are your thoughts on this?
Diaz: I grew up on a reservation. Reservations were not built to shape my future. They were built to ensure I had no future. That I would be erased. Here we are, how many hundreds of years later? We are thriving. We are dreaming. We are making love. We are teaching. We are traditional and modern. Every day I wake up, even when the morning is heavy-feeling, even when the day feels like it might be too big for me, I find a way to leap into it, to make it mine, to share it with others, to find ways to be kind to myself and to people around me. This is maybe one of the greatest acts of resistance, that I live, and I try hard to live the best that I can and to share that with my families and communities. Some days I think the greatest act of resistance isn’t necessarily to write a poem critiquing America but instead to love myself in the midst of America, and even sometimes despite America. Because even though I am more than America, because I come from what existed before it, I am also American. And to love yourself in this country is a revolutionary act.
One of the themes Turning Points Magazine strives to pass onto our readership is the importance of mentors and mentorship in academia. What is your advice to students on how they can seek mentors and maintain relationships with them?
Diaz: I was raised in a culture in which we didn’t ask questions — we were taught to listen. This made it hard for me to seek out mentorship when I was in grad school. I’m much more comfortable making a joke than asking someone for a help that might inconvenience them. I mean, when I was little, even when we were on trips, if someone offered us food, my mother had trained us to say, No thank you. Even if we were hungry. But since leaving home I’ve been lucky to meet so many generous mentors who noticed this in me and reached out first. I try to be that type of person with my students, the type of mentor who reaches out, who tells a story or a joke, to make it clear that I am interested in you and how your heart is doing today, that I am invested in the wonderful things you might build or make happen in this world. All this to say, yes, it’s great to reach out, but I also know that culturally, some of us have a different way of understanding this.
What tools and resources would you recommend that students utilize on expressing themselves through their selected majors?
Diaz: I’m going to advertise the classes I teach in creative writing, such as poetry, or fiction. We put a fancy word on it, and call it creative writing, but really, it is just storytelling. And we Natives know how to tell stories. Stories are the reason why we have survived. We have a humor like no other. Our imaginations are timeless — it’s hard for non-Natives to understand how we can be traditional and rooted to our pasts while also modern and living in and contributing to this contemporary world. We are the true America — what was and what can still be. One of the ways we can understand and question history and imagine our futures is through writing. So, look me up, find me and take a course with me, even if you aren’t majoring in English or creative writing. I teach with an Indigenous lens because it is one of the many lenses I live by. And my colleagues are also incredible teachers. Our creative writing program will only be made better by bringing Indigenous stories, the stories that are rooted in the very earth ASU is built on, to the community at large. I hope that we soon see more majors in creative writing and more Indigenous students in the MFA program.
Who are some Indigenous writers and artists you’d recommend students to check out?
Diaz: Shoot, the lists are endless. A few quick ones.
Poets: Michael Wasson, Jake Skeets, Layli Long Soldier, Bojan Louis, Henry Quintero, Tracey M Atsitty, Joan Kane, Orlando White, Sherwin Bitsui, Laura Tohe, Simon Ortiz, Heid Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Kimberly Blaeser, Sara Marie Ortiz, Laura Da’
Prose: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Louise Erdrich, Terese Mailhot, Tommy Orange, Rebecca Roanhorse, Cherie Dimaline, Debra Earling, Eden Robinson, Susan Power, Erika Wurth
Artists: Nicholas Galanin, Postcommodity, Nani Chacon, Cara Romero, Laura Ortman, Maria Hupfield, Christine Sandoval