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Groundbreaking anthology of Native American poetry covers a broad arc of time, cultures and traditions

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A literary milestone is occurring this week – the publication of the first comprehensive anthology of Native poetry.

The book carries this lyrical title – “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.”

Just how comprehensive is this anthology? It is inclusive in many ways.

The collection is packed with works by more than 160 indigenous poets dating from the present day going back to a 17th century poet by the single name of Eleazar, identified as a Harvard senior whose tribal affiliation is unknown.

US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

In all, 91 Native nations are represented in the anthology. “This speaks to the powerful presence and practice of poetry within our communities,” Joy Harjo, the anthology’s executive editor and the current U.S. Poet Laureate, writes in the main introduction.

These poems represent diverse styles of writing. They range from the ceremonial, like the opening “Prayer for Words” by Kiowa poet and Santa Fe resident N. Scott Momaday to a remembrance of pain inflicted in trying to form words in (Diné) Orlando White’s “To See Letters.”

Harjo explains that the poets range in age from high schoolers whose poems appeared in tribal or community newspapers more than 100 years ago, to spoken-word artists, to the late Louis Little Coon Oliver (Mvskoke), whose first collection was published after he turned 80.

Harjo acknowledged what she terms “ancestor anthologies.” Despite previously published n ative poetry anthologies, “there are no other anthologies that attempt to address the historical arc of time and place of indigenous nations, as this new book does,” she writes.

The anthology is divided into five geographical regions of the United States. Several famous pueblo and Diné (Navajo) poet/writers are included in the Southwest and West region. They are Leslie Marmon Silko and the late Paula Gunn Allen (both Laguna), Simon Ortiz (Acoma), and Luci Tapahonso and Sherwin Bitsui (both Diné).

Plus there’s an abundance of younger Diné poets represented in the region, among them are White, Emerson Blackhorse Mitchell, Laura Tohe, and Hershman R. John. Among other poets in this region with mixed tribal ancestry are Crisosto Apache (Mescalero Apache, Chiricahua Apache and Diné) and Julian Talamantez Brolaski (Mescalero Apache and Lipan Apache).

Each region has its own editor. Deborah A. Miranda is the editor of the Southwest and West region. Her native ancestry is identified as Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen and Chumash.

The majority of the poems in the anthology are in English. In her region’s introduction Miranda writes that “the presence of Diné language in their poems is no less than a miracle given the decimation of indigenous languages in the Americas.”

At the same time, she notes, these particular poems remind non-Natives “of the long historical presence of Indians in this place and send a vital message to Native and dominant-language speakers alike: Indigenous languages are living, valid, valuable methods of creating literary works.”

Harjo (Mvkoske) is the first U.S. Poet Laureate who is native. A Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident, she has three poems in the book. Harjo graduated from and taught at the University of New Mexico.

Momaday wrote a brief blessing to open the anthology. It states that “the songs, spells and prayers of the Native oral tradition are among the world’s richest examples of verbal art. The present collection is a comprehensive celebration of that tradition and that art.”

Harjo’s introduction expands on that celebration by declaring the anthology is a way to share and pass on the vitality of “the rich traditions of the very diverse cultures of indigenous people from these indigenous lands…”

W.W. Norton & Co., known for its literature anthologies, published this anthology.

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