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Wendy Rose’s poetry has been praised for capturing the pain and confusion of the Native American experience and for making these experiences accessible to a non-Native American audience. An activist and academic as well as a poet and a painter, Rose has been an important figure in the so-called Native American Renaissance that began in the late 1960s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Young Activist
Wendy Rose was born Bronwen Elizabeth Edwards in Oakland, California on May 7, 1948. She is of Miwok and Hopi ancestry, but because she was raised in a predominantly white community near San Francisco, she was alienated from her Native roots throughout her youth. Her mother, who was of Miwok heritage, refused to acknowledge her Amerindian heritage. Although Rose’s father was a full-blooded Hopi, she was denied membership in her father’s tribe because acceptance is determined through the mother’s bloodline.
Rose had a lonely childhood. Her peers often teased her about her Native American background, which caused Rose to express herself through writing, painting, drawing, and singing. Her disconnection with the people around her led her to drop out of high school, at which point she became connected with some of the bohemian artistic circles in San Francisco. She joined the American Indian Movement—at the time an activist, sometimes radical, political organization—and later took part in their protest occupation of the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.
Finding Her Heritage Through Poetry
As she navigated her way through the tumultuous environment of the 1960s, Rose continued to develop her interests in the arts. She also traveled to the Hopi homeland in Arizona to get more in touch with her father’s roots. The trip deeply moved her and instilled in her a strong desire to connect with her ancestry through writing. in fact, her earliest poems date to this period, although some were not published for many years afterward. Her art began to focus on a common theme, that of self-identity as a Native American, and of fighting exploitation of her culture.
Rose’s professional writing career began with the publication of poetry in journals and anthologies under the pseudonym Chiron Khanshendel. in fact, Rose has written under a variety of names, reflecting her ongoing quest to find an identity of her own. Her birth name, Bronwen Elizabeth Edwards, was far too European-sounding for her tastes and was rejected early on. Her earliest pen name, Chiron Khanshendel, was chosen for its symbolic nature—”Chiron” was the name of a wise centaur from Greek mythology and reflected Rose’s of love of horses; Khanshendel was a made-up name that sounded suitably exotic. in the end, Rose went with a shortened version of Bronwen—”Wendy”—and took the surname of Rose after the last name of a man she had a relationship with in her youth.
It was under the name of Chiron Khanshendel that Rose’s first collection, Hopi Runner Dancing, appeared in 1973. In 1976, she graduated with a B.A. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also earned a master’s degree in 1978, and later became a lecturer in Native American studies.
An In-Demand Poet
Between 1966 and 1980, Rose published five volumes of poetry, including Lost Copper (1980), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. After completing her master’s and doctorate degrees, Rose focused on the world of academia, acting as a teacher, anthropologist, advisor, and lecturer. She has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, Fresno, currently coordinates the American Indian Studies program at Fresno City College, and edits the American Indian Quarterly. She has continued to publish poetry as well, putting out six volumes between 1982 and 2002. In addition to writing, drawing, painting, teaching, and researching, Rose has been consultant, editor, panelist, and adviser for community and academic projects. She is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and has served on the local executive council of that organization. She has also been consultant-bibliographer for a federal recognition project, seeking formal recognition of the status of the North Fork Mono Tribe, and has served as facilitator for the Association of Non-Federally Recognized California Tribes. Rose is in demand for poetry readings, which have taken her to all parts of the country on trips that have also inspired new poems. Rose also occasionally exhibits her artwork around the United States and provides designs for various Native American organizations. Rose’s poetry has been featured in an impressive number of American and contemporary literature anthologies. More than sixty anthologies, poetry collections, and prize volumes contain one or more of her poems—these include feminist collections such as In Her Own Image (1980), small regional publications such as Dreaming of the Dawn (1980), and comprehensive anthologies of American literature, American Indian literature, and literature by women, including The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), The Sound of Rattles and Clappers (1994), and Women Poets of the World (1983). Her work has been translated into French, German, and Danish. She continues to live and write at her home in Coarse-gold, California.
Works in Literary Context
In addition to treating ecological and feminist issues, Rose’s poetry incorporates her own experiences and those of other mixed-blood Native Americans who, separated from their tribal culture and alienated by the white society in which they live, are searching for a sense of identity and community. Paula Gunn Allen, in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, states that ”while her enforced distance from her people grieves and angers Rose, she writes poetry that does not fall into suicidal bitterness on the one hand or radical excess on the other. Rather, it hews a clear line toward her understanding of her position, illuminating in that clarity the position of all who are dispossessed.”
Native and “Half-Breed” Literature
Much of Rose’s work employs elements of Native American songs and chants and is preoccupied with spirituality, communion with the natural world, and the encroachment of white culture on Native society. In such poems as ”The well-intentioned question,” from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Lost Copper (1980), Rose documents her feelings of marginalization and her desire to be part of the Native community. Rose’s background in anthropology and involvement with various Native American organizations inspires much of the imagery and history employed in her poetry. In The Halfbreed Chronicles, and Other Poems (1985), written while she was studying anthropology as an undergraduate at Berkeley, Rose’s focus on the marginalized mixed-blood Amerindian was expanded to include other minorities, such as Japanese Americans and Native Americans from Mexico. She has stated: ”You don’t think of these people in the same sense as you usually think of half-breeds. But my point is that, in an important way, the way I grew up is symptomatic of something much larger than Indian-white relations. History and circumstance have made half-breeds of all of us.” Despite her success, Rose has expressed disappointment with the way in which her work—and the work of other ethnic artists—has been received. For example, she has complained that academia tends to view Native writings as a fad rather than as serious literature. She has also expressed her disapproval of the way in which her poetry has been embraced as an anthropological curiosity rather than as art. ”The deferential treatment accorded to Indians in artistic and academic settings is just as destructive, ultimately, as out-and-out racism,” Rose has said. ”It is startling to find your book of poems in an anthropology section of a bookstore instead of in the poetry section.”
Works in Critical Context
Although some commentators assert that Rose’s use of language masks her feelings, others note a sense of urgency and bitterness in her work and maintain that it is fueled by raw, unbridled emotion. Jamake Highwater has commented in the American Book Review, ”[Rose’s] lines are haunted by an unresolved search for a personal as well as a tribal sense of identity. That search gives her words strength and spirit. It dissolves the barrier of race with which she cautiously surrounds [herself], and it gives us access to her pain. In that pain we are all related.”
The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other Poems
Almon, writing in Choice, states that The Halfbreed Chronicles is a ”strong and well-crafted collection of poems on Native American subjects.” Almon calls Rose’s verse both ”fresh (because it is vivid) and traditional (because it evokes fundamentals of life and earth in the Indian tradition).” The reviewer writing in Publisher’s Weekly observes that the title of the collection ”aptly points to the complexion of her poems. … [S]he carves a place for herself amid the cultures surrounding her.” Of Rose’s poetic voice, the reviewer calls it ”sometimes ironic, sometimes angry” and concludes, ”the writing is at times prosaic, rhetorical or gimmicky, but the spirit rings true.”
Critics have singled out Rose’s lyrical command of language, particularly in her book Lost Copper. N. Scott Momaday said in his introduction to Lost Copper that the book was ”not made up of poems, I think, but of songs.” Writing in Parnassus, Kenneth Lincoln says that Rose’s poetry in Lost Copper, ”mixes metaphors and ideas and inks and emotions in bicultural compost, a living poetic mixture unlike any other.” Lincoln concludes his review by saying, ”This artist, finally, works with her hand on words, chips away at America’s intractable rocks of ignorance regarding Indians.” Jamke Hightower’s review of Lost Copper asserts that despite her lyrical prowess, Rose’s ”language never quite manages to overcome her rage. Yet that very paranoia may be the ultimate virtue.”
- Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1986.
- Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
- Giroux, Christopher, ed. ”Wendy Rose (1948-).”Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 85. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
- Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays of Native American Writers. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
- Jocks, Christopher Ronwaniente. ”Spirituality for Sale: Sacred Knowledge in the Consumer Age, in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 20, 1996, pp. 415-17.
- Tongson-McCall, Karen. ”The Nether World of Neither World: Hybridization in the Literature of Wendy Rose, in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 1996, pp. 1-40.
- ”Going to War with All My Relations.” Publishers Weekly 240.n6 (Feb 8, 1993): 81(1).
- Nelson, Cary. Wendy Rose (1948—). Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.english.uiuc.edu/ maps/poets/m_r/rose/rose.htm.
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