American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Ortiz, Simon J.

One of the most accomplished Native American poets of the twentieth century, Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo, b. 1941) often is credited as one of the grandfathers of Native American literature. Ortiz is a widely published poet, short story writer, and oft-cited essayist. His incorporation of Native oral traditional stories and his insistence on the creative maintenance of indigenous American philosophical traditions are among his contributions to the intellectual and literary culture of indigenous Americans, as well as to American literature as a whole.

Ortiz was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and raised in Deetseyamah (McCartys) on the Acoma Pueblo Reservation. He received his early education at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. After working in the uranium mines and processing plants of New Mexico, he briefly studied chemistry at Fort Lewis College before enlisting in the U.S. Army. After his service, Ortiz studied at the University of New Mexico, where he began to publish poems in small magazines. He received his master's of fine arts as an International Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1969. The same year, Ortiz was given a Discovery Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. He has since taught and spoken at numerous universities and literary festivals worldwide.

Among his best-known works is Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, for the Sake of the Land (1980, reissued in Woven Stone, 1992), a collection of poetry and prose in which Ortiz draws on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 to illuminate similar conditions existing in modern-day America, specifically in the Southwest. Ortiz examines the 1680 revolt, in which Native Pueblo peoples, Apaches, and Navajos, along with people of mixed ethnic heritage, were successful in overthrowing the colonial Spanish power and asserting sovereignty over their indigenous homelands. The poet uses this historical occurrence to emphasize the need for solidarity among marginalized peoples in present-day America to fight oppression, particularly with regard to the land.

Ortiz again recalled American history in his 1981 collection from Sand Creek, this time using the war in Vietnam to explore the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, when over 130 Cheyenne and Arapahoe people were slaughtered by U.S. troops at Sand Creek, Colorado, as part of the American westward expansion. As Ortiz writes in his introduction to the 1999 edition, from Sand Creek represents his attempt to "deal with history," particularly the history of America that he maintains has excluded and marginalized Native American peoples (Ortiz, 1999, Preface). According to Ortiz, the genocidal aspects of American history are a facet of the American past that is generally unacknowledged by the dominating Euro-American culture. As such, from Sand Creek represents not only Ortiz's attempt to "deal with history," but serves as a reminder to the wider American public of its historical treatment of Native peoples. Ortiz examines the ties between two wartime massacres—Sand Creek and My Lai—and the reccurring themes involved in Euro-American imperialism: "splattered blood/along their mad progress; they claimed the earth" (Ortiz, 1999, 89).

Simon J. Ortiz is the author of two short story collections and has edited the acclaimed Earth Power Coming (1983), an anthology of indigenous short fiction from across the Americas. He has also written two books for children. One of them, Speaking for the Generations, which Ortiz edited in 1998, is a major collection of Native authors writing about their craft. Among his many achievements, Ortiz was an Honored Poet at the 1981 White House Salute to Poetry. Ortiz has three children, has served as lieutenant governor of Acoma Pueblo, and was the recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters degree from the University of New Mexico in 2002. Ortiz's work, including his most recent collection of poetry, Out There Somewhere, continues to be an integral indigenous literary response to the history of the Americas.

Daniel Morley Johnson


Further Reading
Coltelli, Laura, ed. 1990. "Simon Ortiz." In Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, 103–120. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Ortiz, Simon J. 1999. from Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. [Originally printed in 1981 New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.]; Ortiz, Simon J. 2002. Out There Somewhere. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Smith, Patricia Clark. 1983. "Coyote Ortiz: 'Canis Latrans Latrans' in the Poetry of Simon Ortiz." In Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs. Edited by Paula Gunn Allen, 192–210. New York: MLA.
 

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