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An Acoma Pueblo Indian, Simon J. Ortiz is considered an important Native American writer in contemporary American literature. Considered part of the Native American Renaissance, he draws on oral tradition, folk tales, and other elements of his native culture to address themes of Native American heritage and contemporary identity. Writing poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and literature for children, Ortiz won the Pushcart Prize for Poetry for From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America (1981) and the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Influenced by Storytelling
Simon Joseph Ortiz was born on May 27, 1941, at the Pueblo of Acoma, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, the son of Joe L. and Mamie Toribio Ortiz. His father was a woodcarver, clan leader, and laborer for the Santa Fe railroad, while his mother was a potter. While growing up in a large family, which belonged to the Eagle clan of the tribal people of the Acoma reservation, Ortiz suffered financial hardships but was particularly inspired by storytellers. He was especially moved by stories people told about their lives and social situations, especially those about Native Americans trying to survive in contemporary life. Speaking the Acoma language of Keres at home, Ortiz learned English as a second language at McCartys Day School, his elementary school. He then briefly attended a boarding school, St. Catherine’s Indian School, until homesickness and disillusionment compelled him to transfer to Albuquerque Indian School. By this time, Ortiz was collecting stories and thoughts and was an avid reader.
Though Albuquerque was a trade school, Ortiz liked to read and study, to learn about the world, though being a writer seemed out of the realm of possibility for him. He transferred again to Grants High School in Grants, New Mexico, where he was a successful student who earned awards in both academics and sports and saw his leadership skills emerging. He then briefly worked in the uranium mines and processing plants of the Grants Ambrosia Lake area. His work experience as a mining laborer later provided the material for his writing in Fighting Back: For Sake of the People, for the Sake of the Land (1980). From 1961 to 1962, he attended Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colorado. There, Ortiz studied chemistry but became interested in drama and English studies. Also a leader of the Indian Student Organization, Ortiz became involved in issues of fair treatment for native peoples.
Enlisted in Army
Ortiz enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1963, remaining in the service until 1966. At this time, the United States was becoming more involved in what became the Vietnam War. Vietnam had been divided into a communist North and noncommunist South in the mid-1950s, but communist efforts to gain control over all of Vietnam continued. In the early 1960s, the United States began to provide military aid to South Vietnam, hoping to stop the spread of communism. At first the aid came in the form of advisors, but after 1964, an ever-increasing number of American troops entered the conflict. Though unpopular, the war in Vietnam continued until the early 1970s. Approximately 58,000 American soldiers and two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the conflict.
After his discharge, Ortiz attended the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. Completing his bachelor’s degree in 1968, he then entered the University of Iowa, where he earned his M.F.A. in creative writing in 1969. From 1970 to 1973, Ortiz served as a newspaper editor for the National Indian Youth Council in Albuquerque. His first book of poetry, Naked in the Wind, was published in 1971. Ortiz began receiving national attention as an author when four of his short stories appeared in The Man to Send Rain Clouds (1974), an anthology of Native American writing edited by Kenneth Rosen. Two of them were to become his best-known stories: ”Kaiser and the War” and ”The Killing of a State Cop.”
Native American Conflict
In this time period, some Native Americans were demanding greater civil rights, inspired by the success of the African American civil rights movement. In the 1960s, Native Americans were among the poorest, most unhealthy, and worst educated minority groups in the United States. To draw attention to their plight, Native American activists took over Alcatraz Island in 1969 and a trading post in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. While these tactics won national attention, other activists lobbied the federal government for new laws that would grant them more control over their own lives. By the mid-1970s, these efforts paid off as the federal government returned millions of acres of land and passed the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975.
Ortiz had struggled with alcoholism for many years, and during the mid-1970s, received treatment for the disease at the Veterans Administration hospital in Fort Lyons, Colorado. After his release, Going for the Rain (1976) was published. This volume is regarded as Ortiz’s first significant poetry collection and emphasizes the importance of returning to traditional culture, languages, and stories as a means of spiritual healing in an alienating modern world. A Good Journey (1977) continues this thematic concern. The short story collection, The How-bah Indians (1978), describes the everyday struggles of Native Americans living on reservations in America, while his first children’s book, The People Shall Continue (1978), offers colorful drawings to accompany the story, a panorama of the history of American Indians from before the arrival of the first settlers to the present.
Ortiz also began teaching writing and American Indian literature at various colleges and universities, including San Diego State University, the College of Marin, Institute of American Arts, the University of New Mexico, and Lewis and Clark College. While holding these posts, Ortiz became the consulting editor of Pueblo of Acoma Press, beginning in 1982. He also continued to publish significant books, including Fight Back (1980), which contained poetry, prose, and essays. It was published on the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pueblos’ revolt against their Spanish colonizers in 1680, and was dedicated to the Pueblo Indians. Similarly, From Sand Creek contains more than forty lyric poems, each paired on facing pages with a prose piece ranging in length from one sentence to one page. Next, Ortiz published the short story collection Fightin’ (1983). The nineteen new and previously published works explore the interactions between Native Americans and whites.
In 1989, Ortiz became the first lieutenant governor for the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. He continued to write, publishing his first poetry collection in over a decade in 1992. Woven Stone contains three out-of-print poetry collections—Going for Rain, A Good Journey, and Fight Back—in one volume along with an autobiographical introduction describing Ortiz’s development as a writer. Two years later, Ortiz published After and Before the Lightning (1994), which consists of journal entries written in verse and prose, dating from November 1985 through March 1986, and set on the Lakota Sioux Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, where Ortiz spent a semester as a visiting professor. These pieces continue to explore themes of Native American community and identity, with particular focus on man’s relationship to the land in the harsh conditions of a South Dakota winter.
Returning to short fiction collections, Ortiz put out Men on the Moon (1999), which also focuses on tensions and interactions between Native Americans and whites. After another nearly decade-long break from publishing verse, Ortiz published another new volume in 2002, Out There Somewhere. These poems contain further examinations of the concepts of identity, culture, and history.
Throughout his career, Ortiz published a number of books for younger readers. The illustrated The Good Rainbow Road (2004) relates an original story in the form of a traditional fable or legend about two brothers trying to rescue their village from drought. Ortiz continues to write while teaching at Arizona State University.
Works in Literary Context
Ortiz’s writings 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. Pertinent to both Native and non-Native American readers, Ortiz’s subjects are those that affect daily life. Writing in English, Ortiz uses language to confirm, verify, and affirm the essence of the land and people together and their existence based on the concept of “wholeness.” His storytelling relates traditions of his culture and blends experience and oral traditions. Language is also important, and he often conveys a message with political overtones. Many of his poems warn that the abuse and exploitation of the land ultimately lead to the destruction of all life, including human life. As an author, Ortiz was greatly influenced by historical events involving Native Americans, the oral storytelling traditions of his people, and works of literature.
Coyote In several volumes of Ortiz’s poetry, the poet employs the mythical trickster figure Coyote as a symbol of Native American survival. This recurring figure of the Coyote throughout his oeuvre representative of a fusing of optimistic humor and survival skills. Coyote makes his debut in Going for the Rain and plays a number of roles in the collection: Western rascal, wise Acoma grandfather, and Coyote Lady. Coyote plays a prominent role in four poems in A Good Journey. One poem in the latter collection, ”Two Coyote Ones,” features a speaker who recalls and generates his own stories about Coyote as a way of making sense of his experiences. In another, ”Telling about Coyote,” the Coyote takes on existential meaning.
War and Conflict
In many of his works—including poetry, prose, and essays—Ortiz uses wars and other conflicts as a source of inspiration. The poetry and prose collection, Fight Back, uses the three hundredth anniversary ofthe Pueblos’ revolt against their Spanish colonizers in 1680 as a point of comparison for modern times. The book is divided into two sections. ”Too Many Sacrifices” combines poetic prose and lyric poetry in a series of short pieces set in the ”Uranium Belt”—a region in the Southwest where both Native Americans and working-class whites were exploited as mine workers echoing the relationship between Pueblos and their colonizers. Similarly, in From Sand Creek, the poems and prose pieces are set in the Colorado veterans hospital where Ortiz was treated for alcohol abuse along with other Native American Vietnam War veterans. The title of the volume refers to the infamous Sand Creek massacre in 1864 in Colorado, in which more than a hundred peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian women and children were murdered by the U.S. military. Ortiz juxtaposes descriptions of his own experiences in the hospital with historical events of the massacre. Ortiz’s short stories also employ war as a means of exploring Indian cultural identity. ”Kaiser and the War” features a Pueblo Indian, Kaiser, running to the wilderness to hide from authorities, who have come to draft him into the army during World War II. Although divided in their opinions of Kaiser, the Pueblo community refuses to turn him into the authorities. Kaiser later emerges from hiding and tries to volunteer for the army but is sent to prison. While Kaiser’s motivations remain unclear, his story serves as a focal point for encounters between the U.S. government and the Pueblo community.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have praised Ortiz for his explorations of Native American cultural heritage and for his emphasis on incorporating traditional cultural practices into the lives of modern Native Americans. He is lauded for his integration of oral storytelling traditions from his heritage into his work. Closely linked with oral tradition is the implicit connection in Ortiz’s writing between language, culture, and world-view. Critics have also noted Ortiz’s highlighting of the importance of the land and natural environment in his works and have commended his consistent expressions of hope and optimism in the face of oppression. Also commended is Ortiz’s sense of humor, descriptive language, recurring motifs, unity of theme, political messages, and his drawing connections between Native Americans and those of other oppressed and exploited peoples.
From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America
When From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America was first published in 1981, it was generally well received by critics. The reviewer in the Small Press Review called it ”a gracefully designed and carefully crafted book,” concluding ”The poems are a rare gift.” The critic in Choice also praised Ortiz and his poems, writing ”No one has traveled the paths Ortiz has and returned to tell the tale of his travel. . . . No other Indian poet presently writing can equal Ortiz in evoking such a range of experience and emotion.” Reviewing the volume in the Nation, Harold Jaffe is similarly positive. He stresses that although Ortiz’s poetry refers to the sufferings of Native Americans both past and present, ”the cumulative impression, is, admirably, not of gloom and despair, but of a renewed faith in the prospect of relationship with the land and solidarity among the dispossessed.”
Out There Somewhere
Like many of Ortiz’s poetry collections, Out There Somewhere received mostly positive reviews by critics when it was published in 2002. The diversity of subject matter led a Publishers Weekly contributor to comment that if Ortiz ”moves too easily from the sunset . . . to a series of questions about cultural appropriation, this book still asks crucial questions as much as it argues for beauty.” More positively, Donna Seaman in Booklist praised Out There Somewhere for poems that express Ortiz’s despair and hope. These are verses, she concludes, that are ”permeated by gentleness and in which silence is every bit as eloquent as words.”
- Evars, Lawrence J. ”The Killing of a New Mexican State Trooper: Ways of Telling an Historical Event.” Critical Essays on Native American Literature, ed. Andrew Wiget. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985, pp. 246-261.
- Wiget, Andrew. Simon Ortiz. Boise, ID: Boise State University Press, 1986.
- Brewster, E. Fitz. ”Undermining Narrative Stereotypes in Simon Ortiz’s ‘The Killing of a State Cop’.” MELUS (Summer 2003): 105-21.
- Brill de Ramirez, Susan B. ”Walking with the Land: Simon J. Ortiz, Robert J. Conley, and Velma Wallis.” South Dakota Review (Spring 2000): 59-92.
- Jaffe, Harold. ”Speaking Memory.” Nation (April 3, 1982): 406-08.
- Rader, Dean. ”Luci Tapahonso and Simon Ortiz: Allegory, Symbol, Language, Poetry.” Southwestern American Literature (Spring 1997): 75-92.
- Review of From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America. Choice (January 1982): 628.
- Review of From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America. Small Press Review (November1981): 8.
- Review of Out There Somewhere. Publishers Weekly (March 18, 2002): 94.
- Seaman, Donna. Review of Out There Somewhere. Booklist (March 15, 2002): 120.
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