Natalie Diaz Interview with John Hoppenthaler
Natalie, I don’t even know where to begin. First, I guess, I want to thank you for all you do, not only for the Native community but also for the human community. If it weren’t for young activists like you, willing to put your words and body out there as you do, there would be no hope in the world.
Why don’t we start here: what do you think a Donald Trump presidency means for Native Americans? I mean, in a Facebook post you made in early December you write, “ Even as our American and Native veterans are continuing to protect America from itself, DAPL and Morton Co Sherriff are still at it. Barricading and blocking. Driven by whiteness and anger and power and money. Don't sleep on things yet America. Stay fighting this. Stay leaned into this. It's the start of many battles that we will need to fight for one another. Don't do what we always do and fade away, stay present, stay open and giving.”
In a time when facts lack currency and, more overtly than ever before, those “driven by whiteness and anger and power and money” are recklessly barreling this red, white and blue Hummer down the highway, what does it mean to stay “present” in a way that will alter the spirits of those still capable of saving their own lives?
As I’m talking with you, I’m driving across America, from Princeton back to my rez. Yesterday we drove past the exit for a Frontier Culture Museum. Frontier Culture… Add the word “Culture” to a fucked-up thing and immediately erase the violence it was built from, the same violence which throbs in American gestures and values today. Americans like to forget that what is American is violent, is stolen, is looted, is bloody, is a heavily edited story.
As we drove past the exit, I asked Saretta, “What do you think they know and collect and do at the Frontier Culture Museum?” She Googled their website and read me the text: “To tell the story of early immigrants and their American descendants…” She went on: “The outdoor exhibits are located in two separate areas: the Old World and America. The Old World exhibits show rural life and culture in four homelands of early migrants to the American colonies. The American exhibits show the life these colonists and their descendants created…” The Old World, the world before America, doesn’t include indigenous people. At least not at the Frontier Culture Museum. Which makes sense, since the point of Frontier Culture was to supplant indigenous culture. By supplant, I mean massacre.
Below is a quote from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s Decolonizing the Mind , a book that has meant much to me this past year. He is discussing African literature and writing in his African language versus the language of the colonizer. This point he makes has been tolling in me for a long time:
Post election, it is important for us to remember Donald Trump is American. He didn’t suddenly happen. He isn’t an anomaly—he is one of many. America has always been what it is today. Americans have largely ignored the ugly parts of our American identity, looked away, kept on keeping on, because America was only breaking and killing non-white people, or poor people, or strangers across an ocean.
After reading wa Thiong’o, I thought: America is a cultural bomb—it always has been. I don’t believe there are any real Native Americans. Indigenous peoples were here long before America was a bad seed looking to dig into some good earth. But can there be a native of this America? Can the colonizer, the crusher, the conqueror become native, or are they always the invaders, the invasives. Maybe Trump is actually a “Native” American, the true product of this country and the teeth and tails it trembles with. Indigenous peoples are not native to America, we are the survivors of it, we are the defenders against it.
When I say “water,” how will you respond?
The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States. It is also part of my name, part of who I am. When a Mojave says, Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, they are saying I am a person made of this river—the water runs through me. That is what ‘Aha Makav means, the water/river runs through the middle of our body the same way it runs through the middle of our land. Without the river, the Colorado River, we will not be ourselves, we will not be who we are. If I am a person made to hold the river, a body the river was made to run through and into, how can I say who I am if the river is gone? If the river is a ghost, am I a ghost?
Many indigenous peoples live carrying American-made ghosts inside—yes, made in the U.S.A. Will the Colorado River become an American ghost? I think the answer is yes, and soon.
A phrase that became popular or more well-known to non-natives during the Standing Rock encampment was, Water is the first medicine. And it is true. It is a medicine. At home, we cleanse ourselves in the river. Not like a bath with soap and water. I mean we make ourselves good and strong and able to move forward, through the water. We cannot live good, we cannot live at all, without it. Even Christians use water to baptize their bodies. Maybe if we made bumper stickers that said: Protect the Water for Christian Baptisms, more white people would begin defending the water, air, land.
We think of our bodies as being all that we are: I am my body. This thinking helps us disrespect water, air, land. Because we think water is external or separate from our body, our self. But my Elder says: Cut off your ear, and you will live. Cut off your hand, you will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our water: we will not live more than a week. The water we drink the air we breathe are part of our bodies, even when they are external to our bodies. What is more who we are than our body is who we are? What we do to one—to the body, to the water—we do to the other.
America is a land of bad math and science: the right believes Rapture will save them from the violence they are delivering upon the earth and water; the left believes technology, the same technology wrecking the earth and water, will save them from the wreckage or will help them build a new world on Mars. What is similar to both perspectives is neither group, not the right not the left, is willing to take responsibility for their actions. The earth is being destroyed at a faster pace than most of us are willing to acknowledge—I doubt God is going to reward people for their greeds and violences upon the earth, and I doubt technology is going to find an alternative for water.
How has your work attempting to preserve the Mojave language—a project chronicled on PBS NewsHour in 2012—been going? As the PBS piece—and Mojave elders—makes clear, time is of the essence. Those who can pass the language down are dwindling in numbers.
One of the many reasons I’m excited to be spending my spring semesters teaching at Arizona State University is that I’ll be closer to my two Mojave teachers, and I’ll be able to lean into our language work again. It’s one thing to process audio and video and build curriculums and archives while I’m away from my desert and my land, but it cannot replace being with my Elders and learning from them. I am better because of the things they have shown me and taught me.
Those of us who find your debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), one of the decade’s most compelling and important collections of poetry can’t help but wonder when your next volume of poems will appear. Copper Canyon was supposed to do it in 2015. In a divedapper interview you say it’s been delayed because “it took a few turns so I gave myself a little bit more time with it.” Maybe I can get a scoop. Is the book close, and can you speak to those “turns” at all?
I am patient. I have a second book. I’m not sure what to do with it yet. I’m very interested in flexing the idea of a book. I keep asking myself, What does a book mean to you? What is your book? When I was young, I remember how I felt about the books I brought home, into my chaotic house, with all my brothers and sisters and cousins—it was hard to keep a book safe from crayons or torn pages or bottle drips. A book meant something to me then that it hasn’t meant to me in a while. A book was a precious thing, a thing I held in my hands and knew—the texture of the page, the scent from deep in the spine, the sound the pages made turning, the weight of the book in my hand, beneath my arm, against my chest, even what it was like to wake up with your body lying on top of a book. I think I need my book to be more than just two covers holding a group of poems together. It is a thing in me to figure out. How can I break a book so it means something new to me.
Following your movement on Facebook is dizzying. You seem everyplace all at once. Being in great demand is one thing, but is this also a sign of some inner restlessness? Do you feel, sometimes, that this pace has affected your work as a poet, or is activism, testifying, and being there in a corporeal way part and parcel of your poetry? I mean, your having been a college and professional basketball player must make you more aware than most of us how body and spirit connect as art and spectacle.
The ways you phrased it above are ways of looking at it.
I have been traveling for the book for almost four years. A book written by a queer, Latin@, indigenous woman who grew up on a reservation. I have been willing to take it everywhere, to say in those places, I, we, this book exists, and it can be in conversation with your life, even your white academic life.
I do travel a lot, and far, for my art, for love, for friends, for family, for my indigenous community, and sometimes just for curiosity and wonder. We say at home that when you fly or drive fast to some new far place, it takes time for your spirit/your self to catch up with you. And of course, I feel that sometimes, that I am still some other place, one of the many places I have traveled, that my body is waiting for me to come back to it. But my body was made a strong body, so I do with it what it tells me it can do. My body knows my mind and spirit, is a good friend to my mind and spirit—they always reconnect, and they rejoice when they do. Sometimes this rejoicing is a poem.
It is lucky to be in so many places, to carry this gift some god gave me of poetry, to read poems to strangers and friends and mean: I love you, stranger, I love you friend, to say, I won’t make it very far into a single day if you don’t love me back or acknowledge that I am capable of love.
Maybe the best answer to this set of question is an answer we were all given by Cornelius Eady, in his poem “Gratitude.”
Even when my travel schedule is physically grueling, I feel lucky for it. It’s a lucky thing for us to even wake up in the morning. This is also a poem, a prayer, a song:
And it’s true. The simple miracle of this. To know you woke up in the morning. And even luckier to wake up and be a poet. I mean, a poet. I don’t even know what it means sometimes except to get up and do it. Like a job. Like a love. Like eating. Like my father has been saying to all nine of his kids our whole lives: I don’t care what you do, but if it’s what you do, you have to do it. I do what I do, now you get your ass out there and do what you do. And do it like there’s no tomorrow. This day doesn’t owe you anything you aren’t willing to give it.
We are grateful for the guest-edited congeries of Native poets you’ve assembled for us in this edition of Connotation Press. Can you speak to the process? Why did you want to do it? Was the experience enlightening or engaging in a way or ways you can tell us about?
I feel grateful that my own work puts me in conversation with so many talented, thoughtful, artistic indigenous peoples. I am from a generation of indigenous writers who sometimes seem vexed by the question of who or what determines what indigenous or native poetry is. The quest for an answer begins to create factions and hierarchies and an almost blood-quantum-like competition.
The question: What is indigenous/native poetry? is an interesting question, and important. But I am uninterested in the answer, and even less interested in the person giving the answer. Maybe I just mean this gathering, and the space you generously gave to us, to be an iteration of the question: What is native/indigenous poetry? And maybe I mean this gathering of voices to be the anti-answer.
I’d like to finish up with a question about the long poem, “cascabel,” that is featured in this month’s Congeries. It is a concrete poem, the lines snaking down the page like the venomous creature that gives it its title. The poem is complicated and engaging as it works through—as it can—matters of spirituality, identity, sexuality, and the nature of poetry as the speaker attempts to read the rattlesnake as “text.” It is explication dancing with the ineffable. Part homage, part ghazal, part ars poetica. Can you tell me how this amazing poem reflects your poetic interests right now?
I am very interested in the body of the page right now. I want to imagine everything as having a body, a life, an energy—don’t all things have these? I am right now compelled by the structure of the bodies I work with and touch with my hands and eyes most hours—ink as body, letter as body, word as body, line as body, page as body, light falling on the page as body, book as body, and on and on. I am at once doubtful and filled with faith for what I am doing on a page.
With “cascabel” specifically, I think of this early draft as more body and less poem. It will most likely change—shed its skin—grow, contract, morph, before it becomes itself. Letting it loose here, like I might let loose a real rattlesnake, is an important part of my process lately. To not know what it might do. To not quite trust it. Only to trust its power, not its rationality, not its perfection, not its willingness to answer to me, not even that it won’t strike out and hurt me. It is a lucky thing to be able to let myself and my art live in this chaos, “the confusion” as my friend Roger Reeves calls it. Language is an energy, a tension, is a hundred bright horses I hope to harness and be harnessed by. I want to live somewhere in that tension—I want to write always under the hoofs.
Photo by Cybele Knowles