Simon Ortiz (born 1941) became one the most respected and widely read Native American poets. His work is characterized by a strong storytelling voice that recalls traditional Native American storytelling.
Simon J. Ortiz
"When I see native people, it assures my existence," expressed Simon J. Ortiz in a 1994 interview. A noted poet and writer with an international following, Ortiz acknowledges his origins from the Acoma Pueblo, or "Aa-co" as it is called in his language. Born on May 27, 1941, he is a member of the Eagle or Dyaamih Clan, his mother's clan—a composition of many individuals including Ortiz's extended family members. As there are no words in his native tongue for "cousin," "aunt" or "uncle," each member is referred to as a "brother," "sister," "mother," or "father." When Ortiz speaks about his family, one senses the deep cultural ties that bind not only the family together, but the people to the land. His father, a woodcarver and elder in the clan, was charged with keeping the religious knowledge and customs of the Acoma Pueblo people. His brother Earl is a graphic artist. Ortiz is the father of three children: a son, Raho Nez, an attorney for the Tohono O'odham Nation in Sells, Arizona, and two daughters, Rainy Dawn and Sara Marie, both students.
A Young Boy in His Community
Ortiz spent his early childhood years in the village of McCartys, or "Deetzeyaamah" in his language, attending McCartys Day School through the sixth grade. It was customary at that time for Native American children to leave home and attend boarding schools, and Ortiz was no exception; soon after, he was sent to St. Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe, but his attendance was curtailed as he became homesick for his family and home. Ortiz began to notice cultural distinctions and conflicts in his life; and he began to collect stories and thoughts at an early age, recording them in his diaries. Reading whatever was available became a passion for Ortiz. He was especially interested in dictionaries, which would allow his mind to travel to a "state of wonder."
St. Catherine's, while attempting to provide Native American children with an education, also encouraged the Indian children to abandon their cultural ways and adopt a more "American" lifestyle. "The fear of God was instilled in each child … penance and physical duty were the day's rigor," Ortiz recalled, "I spoke and knew only the Acoma world." Disillusioned with St. Catherine's, Ortiz heard that Albuquerque Indian School taught trade classes such as plumbing and mechanics, and decided it would be a good experience to transfer schools. Ortiz's father, a railroad worker in addition to his community activities, was opposed to his son learning a trade and encouraged his children to get an education and training in a field other than hard, manual labor. Although Ortiz attended sheet metal and woodworking classes, his interest did not remain in those areas. He liked to read and study, to learn about the world. In retrospect, he claimed that it was "an escape from a hard life. Study, dream and read … escape to fantasy. It became the food for my imagination." Ortiz did not consider becoming a writer—writing was not something Native Americans practiced. When asked why, he replied that "it is a profession only whites did." His thoughts would later change. If whites could do it, so could he.
In the 1950s, public schools were beginning to receive funding from Johnson-O'Malley legislation, which provided opportunities for greater numbers of Native American students to attend school. Ortiz attended one such school, Grants High School in Grants, New Mexico—the largest non-Indian town near Acoma. Education had always been a significant priority with the people of Acoma Pueblo. It was the means by which they could better their own lives and their community. Ortiz believed this approach stemmed from the "indoctrination" of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) which tried to make Indians "good American citizens." Yet, in those days Indian children received no further encouragement to pursue an education beyond high school. While attending high school, Ortiz's leadership skills began to emerge. Although he often refers to himself as a "not too social kid," he became a school leader by "default." He disagreed with the manner and treatment accorded to Native American students and advised them that they did not have to accept a subordinate position.
A Search for Meaning in Education
The day after Ortiz graduated from high school, he began work in the uranium industry at Kerr-McGee as a laborer. Wanting to be a chemist, Ortiz applied for a technical position at Kerr-McGee but was employed instead as a clerk-typist because he was "good at typing." He was ultimately promoted "down to the pit" as a crusher, and later to a semi-skilled operator. His work experience as a mining laborer would later provide the material for his writings in Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, for the Sake of the Land.
Using his savings and funds from a BIA educational grant, Ortiz left the mining industry to pursue a university education. In 1962, he attended Fort Lewis College majoring in chemistry. While his interest in science prevailed, his grades did not. He was more interested in learning about life and being a part of it. The study of chemistry did not encompass elements about understanding or respecting life. Barely passing his biology and organic chemistry classes, he decided to try English because he had been "remotely" contemplating becoming a teacher. "It was remotely because what I really wanted to do was read, think and write," he explained. The prescribed university curriculum did not favor Ortiz's search for knowledge, and he "felt an intuitive resistance to the knowledge being learned." University structure was attempting to change who he was as a natural person. Ortiz began to develop as an artist and expressionist, though. Drama interested him and he auditioned for a part in the university play Death of a Salesman. Drama enabled him to express his thoughts visually, and he temporarily found a new form of artistic freedom.
As a leader of the Indian Student Organization, Ortiz found himself confronting many different issues. No matter where he turned, he was surrounded with the inferior treatment of native peoples. Ortiz began to seek something different, something to answer the questions and reasons of life. He found it in alcohol, which provided a false sense of relief. Security soon faded and bouts with alcohol abuse would haunt Ortiz for many years to come.
Ortiz enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1963 because he wanted something different to experience and write about. Scoring high on verbal aptitude tests, he was assigned to edit the battalion newsletter; however, the army discontinued the publication after its first printing. Following the abrupt end to his journalistic career, Ortiz was sent to Texas as a member of a missile defense technical team. While still in the army, he made plans to return to civilian life and attend the University of New Mexico to study English literature and creative writing. By this time, he considered himself a "writer."
At the University of New Mexico, Ortiz found himself once more confined by the structured curriculum, and he soon discovered that few ethnic writers had entered the semiprivate domain of American literature. He became aware that a new age of Native American writers was beginning to emerge in the midst of political activism. Ortiz credits the political climate and activities of the day as one of the fundamental reasons for altering his writing style. Writing previously from absolute self-expression, he now focused on the unheard Native American voice.
The duration of university life lasted two more years, until 1968, when he received a fellowship for writing at the University of Iowa in the International Writers Program. "I don't have any college degrees," Ortiz explained in a 1993 autobiographical statement. "I've worked at various jobs … and had a varied career, including ups and too many downs." Ortiz served as public relations director at Rough Rock Demonstration School from 1969 to 1970, and edited Quetzal from 1970 to 1973. He taught at San Diego State University and at the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1974, and at Navajo Community College from 1975 to 1977. He also taught at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, from 1976 to 1979, and the University of New Mexico from 1979 to 1981. Beginning in 1982, he served as consultant editor for the Pueblo of Acoma Press.
Returned to Acoma Pueblo Origins
In 1988 Ortiz was appointed as tribal interpreter, and in 1989 he became First Lieutenant Governor for Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. Being connected to his Acoma community has been of major importance in his life. "Helping others in the community are the very reasons for purpose and meaning in life," according to Ortiz's interpretation of traditional Acoma ways. "To help or to be helpful … is a quality associated with the responsibility each individual has to the community," not only in traditional Acoma ways, but with Native Americans in general," observed Ortiz, adding that "leadership is a way of showing that each person is meant for some larger or extended purpose, for the true meaning of his existence is to be helpful to his community. Leadership is not a personal choice; you are appointed to serve the people as completely as possible, and you offer to help achieve happiness and wholeness for all the people." For Ortiz there is a certain element of sharing in coming together with elders to hear their stories and wisdom. Under the guidance and direction of their leaders, Ortiz explained that the "coming together of community members is a responsibility we all have to carry out in order to assure the continuance of our community."
In 1988 Ortiz was appointed to be the Acoma tribal interpreter, but he was not sure what responsibilities this task entailed. He learned through family and community members that he was "working for the people and for the land." These leadership roles in the community afforded him the method by which he connected himself spiritually, in wholeness, with the continuance of his culture. In his "What We See: A Perspective on Chaco Canyon and Pueblo Ancestry," Ortiz wrote: "All human construction involves a relationship between the natural and the man-made. That relationship physically shapes the human cultural environment. In historical terms, the character of that relationship is a major indication of the character of a culture as a whole. It tells us how the human beings who made it thought of themselves in relation to the rest of creation."
Writing with a Native Voice
The writings of Ortiz are emotionally charged and complex. His expressions of anger, passion, love, fear, and threats to human existence make the reader question the backdrop of the society in which he or she exists. Essayists have compared his writing to other present-day poets and authors, but Ortiz stands on his own. Pertinent to both Native and non-Native readers, Ortiz's subjects are those that affect daily life. In his Simon Ortiz, Andrew Wiget noted that Ortiz has "committed himself to articulating what he saw as a distinctly Native American perspective on fundamental human experiences … a consciously assumed purpose which came from a clear sense of the power and function of language derived from Ortiz's immersion in the oral tradition."
Presented with his first collection of poems, Going for the Rain, Ortiz's editors found themselves in an unusual position. They favorably accepted the collection, but could not understand how a person of Native American culture could write with such a style of verse. Although Ortiz himself found it interesting that he could write in such a manner using the English language, a language that had usually only served to oppose Indian favor, his work confirms, verifies and affirms the essence of the land and people together, and their existence based on the concept of "wholeness."
In his collections and stories, Ortiz reminds his readers that "there must exist a reciprocal relationship for humanity to take care of itself as well as for the environment." His storytelling relates traditions of his culture, and conjures visions familiar and foreign to the reader. His second collection of poems, A Good Journey, includes the remarkable Ortiz trait of awakening the reader's senses while leaving a message for his children to always be aware of their Native American traditions and the beauty of nature and the environment.
Ortiz demonstrates many examples of blending experience and oral tradition. In his Stories selections, he illustrates a deep, personal experience about his not speaking until he was fours years old. He then takes the realistic experience and blends it with an oral tradition story involving his grandfather. Having taken a key from his pocket, the grandfather was referring to speech and its importance to knowing the world; he then "turned the key, unlocking language." Later, Ortiz speaks. Ortiz emphasizes that language provides for the "discovery of one's capabilities and creative thought." Language has many uses, and one of those uses implemented by Ortiz is to convey a message with political overtones. In A Good Journey, Ortiz describes his camping trip at Montezuma Castle where he encounters resistance from the National Park Service. Wanting to collect firewood for his camp, he is told that he must first buy a permit. He considers this a ridiculous concept since his grandfathers "ran this place," and ignores the permit request. He cuts his firewood anyway, mumbling along the way, "Sue me."
In considering material for his works, Ortiz relies on the stories that he "likes and believes the most; it's as simple as that." These stories are those that let him know where he has been, or locate for him a place that is distinct, special, and true because everything about it is familiar. Questioned about his subject matter, Ortiz related, "The best stories told are those that provide for me, the listener-reader, a sense of grounding even when I've never been in the locale or setting where the storyteller or writer sets his story." Ortiz often refers to his mother's ability to lead him as a child into envisioning the words of the stories as she told him about days past of gathering and roasting pinion cones. As a child, his father told him stories about the desperation and cold the community had to endure; he knew the essence of those words because "it was the experience of his people and he is part of them." Ortiz further explained that these stories are believable "when we are intimately involved or linked to them because they are who we are, or when we become intimately and deeply involved and linked with them." As a poet, fiction and nonfiction writer, Ortiz captures life on paper. It is not a fancy, superficial life, but one in which words come alive in the heart and mind; they are words that tell the story of Ortiz himself and the world he knows most and loves. Ortiz is a writer of accomplishment who combines the often hurtful knowledge of reality with mythic wholeness.
In each of his travels, he incorporates his journey into his writings. In 1970 he went in search of "Indians." He concluded that Native Americans were not credited with any part of America's history, other than the bare mention of the Native American wars and savagery. He then asked himself if the Native American were a myth. Were there no more Indians? Had the movie industry absorbed Native Americans into savage portrayals? He soon understood that the vanished "Red Man" was vanished only from the public mind; it was intentional, for if Native Americans existed, then there would be claims to the land, water, and all things residing in western civilization. Ortiz traveled to the South where he found 45,000 Lumbee Native Americans living in the North Carolina region, and his writings have debunked the myth of the vanished Indian. Wiget summarizes Ortiz's work with the tribute that "it is not about a race that is vanishing, a way of life that is passing, or a language that is dying, but about a nation of those who have preserved their humor, their love for the land that is their mother, and their sense of themselves as a distinctive people. It is about journeying, about survival, about the many significances of being a veteran."
Ortiz continued writing for both book and television production into the 1990s. His books include 1992's Woven Stones and 1994's After and Before the Lightning. In reading and listening to Ortiz's work, the reader is left with the indelible printed image in Chaco Canyon and Pueblo ancestry that "from the moment in creation, life moved outward, and from that moment, human consciousness began to be aware of itself. And the 'hanoh,' the people, began to know and use the oral tradition that would depict the story of their journey on the 'hiyaanih,' the road, of life. The oral tradition of Acoma Pueblo, and of all the other Pueblos, is central to the consciousness of who they are, and it is basic to their culture. It is through oral tradition that the journey is told … in order that the people may be secure and fully aware within their cultural environment." The works of Simon Ortiz ensure that for generations to come there will be the opportunity to see past life existence as though it were living today.
Further Reading on Simon J. Ortiz
Ortiz, Simon J., "What We See: A Perspective on Chaco Canyon and Pueblo Ancestry," in Chaco Canyon: A Center and Its World, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1994.
Twentieth Century Writers, second edition, edited by Geoff Sadler, St. James Press, 1991.
Wiget, Andrew, Simon Ortiz, Boise State University Printing and Graphic Services, 1986.
Ortiz, Simon J., interviews with JoAnn di Filippo during May and June, 1994.