Why Native poets, and their languages, are so often misunderstood

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Why Native poets, and their languages, are so often misunderstood

by Corinne Segal  November 23, 2015 at 11:20 AM EST

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Poet Joan Naviyuk Kane. Photo by Brian Adams

Alaskan Native poet Joan Naviyuk Kane’s poems grow from one word.

In the case of the poem “Compass,” that word is “Uaałukitaaqtuq,” an Inupiaq word that describes the feeling of being “in a boat, and the waves are rocking you back and forth,” Kane said.

Kane writes in Inupiaq, one of the languages spoken by the Native Alaskan people. Many of her poems are inspired by the sound or feel of one word; then, she “build[s] the poem, either through sonic value or tone or emotional value, or intellectual resonances that come up through language,” she said. Kane, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, often asks her mother, who taught her and her sons Inupiaq, to suggest certain words or phrases.

The act of writing in a Native language is one tool against the misconceptions that exist about Native people in the U.S. — those that do not account for the reality of diverse, thriving Native cultures, she said.

“There is something that is very troublesome to me about … playing into this continued exoticization or fetishization of the Native person as a relic of the past, as a romantic figure, as something outdated or very other,” she said. “Native people from very different parts of the United States are expected to have similarities because we happened to be colonized by the same government — there’s something problematic there.”

The work that Native artists produce speaks to the diversity of Native people in the U.S., she said. “In Alaska, we still call ourselves Eskimo people. We’re very different, culturally, linguistically, socially, geographically, than what people consider the American Indian population,” she said.

“Compass” began as an exploration of her mother’s relationship with her sons. But “it became instead, like many of my poems, a more terrifying psychological exploration of what it means to be a woman,” she said.

The poem outlines the speaker’s physical reality in short declarations, a linguistic pattern that which Kane said reflects her understanding of Inupiaq. Read more…

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