The Transformative Power of Writing (print version)

Aug 14th, 2012 | By | Category: Student 2012
By Gordon Henry

I am honored to write the introduction for the 2012 issue of TCJ Student. As a former tribal college teacher and administrator, I am aware of the breadth of opportunities and the wealth of human, social, and cultural resources tribal colleges provide for tribal people and our tribal communities. The reach of those resources is evident in this collection.

As a writer, I have experienced the transformative potential creative work brings to the lives of individuals and communities. The world has literally opened up to me through creative expression and writing. Through my poetry, fiction, music, and performance I revisit the past, connect more deeply and intimately with my own tribal culture, and reach even the most distant of audiences. Creative work has also given me the opportunity to travel and meet people I would never have met otherwise. Over the past few years, I have had the good fortune of meeting and even reading with some of the most celebrated American Indian writers, academics, activists, and artists working today. Recently, I was invited to perform my work in accompaniment with jazz musicians from Detroit. That performance required me to re-experience my own words; to adapt to new zones and spaces of sound, words, and people; and to open myself to new ways of working, creatively.

My experiences speak directly to the ways creative work and artistic expression open us to possibilities for personal growth and human liberation. Art, creative expression, writing, music, and performance throw us into an imaginative (perhaps transcendent) world, where story, words, sound, and image communicate beyond notions of self and the limits of time, space, and body. That world has no horizon or vertical limits, yet it is informed by the honesty of our expression, by the playfulness of our sounds, by the flow of our graphic representations, by the intensity of our accounts of experience, and by the liberating energy of our thoughts.

Innovative creative work—like our traditional stories, songs, and ceremonies—turns consciousness. And in those turns, we learn to re-engage, to see the world anew, to dwell upon the unknown, to empathize, and to move toward becoming those people the first creative sparks of our imagination called us to be. But creative work doesn’t hold transformative, consciousness-turning possibilities for only the writer, storyteller, or artist. Imaginative, inspired work engages the audience and offers new ways of seeing and experiencing our world. So it is with the writing in this edition of TCJ Student. The student work here carries that imaginative spark—that inspired delivery—that reminds us of who we are, how we survive, and what we are capable of as we continue to learn and grow as human beings.

In her story “We All Look Alike,” Jamie Figueroa shows us life with a child’s sense of insight, as her character/ narrator develops a growing understanding of the behavior and motives of her mother. More than that, her story brings us into the social and cultural milieu of the child’s life with an imaginative array of details. In one beautifully crafted passage, the child sees herself behind her mother in a mirror, but can only see herself once the mother moves a certain way. As the story goes on we learn, as the child learns, that her mother’s distractions are driven by a desire to provide for her daughter. In the end, this story created a strong feeling of empathy in me for Mamí, the mother character. I understood her as forging, through sacrifice, a way of survival for herself and her daughter.

“Thunder and Lightning” by Jennifer Whitewolf, also offers a story of survival, but in this case survival hinges on relationships with our relatives, and in the energy and forces of the greater natural world. Further, the story draws us to universal themes of loss, of longing for lost loved ones, and the possibilities of regeneration through “vision.” “Thunder and Lightning” reminds us that who we are and how we survive stands in relation to our visionary capacities and is evident in our relations in the natural world.

In the visionary piece, “Of Hand Blooming,” by Monty J. Little, the world opens through an up-close view of the main character’s bleeding hand. Initially, the hand sparks memory, reminding him of “thirsty reservation washes.” The studied view of blood on the hand transforms then, as Little takes us through a variety of poetic analogies and artistic configurations. Little’s metaphors and use of language are astounding and imaginative; his work resonates with a strong sense of imagery and complex, concussive strains of musical language, and poetic perception.

Katrina Montoya’s “Madre,” from “A Collection for My Mother and Father,” speaks poignantly of the bonds within family and the deeper histories hidden in language. As the narrative deftly closes with an English translation of a Spanish inscription we, as readers, come to understand how mothers have been honored for generations as sources of wisdom and love.

“Brown Sugar and Vanilla,” Montoya’s companion piece to “Madre,” links growing up with grasping social secrets associated with “pretty backpacks, pretty clothes, pretty skin” and the scent a girl must find for herself. Again Montoya brings us back to family and it is the memories and words of the narrator’s father that help the young girl negotiate the secrets of the world.

In Jayni Anderson’s story “The Blanket,” she looks to the past and tells of finding a journal in an attic. Anderson effectively uses an interesting narrative technique by presenting a story within a story; each story entails remembrance, so that memory spirals from one narrator, the adoptee, back to another narrator, the writer of the journal. The whole narrative is held together by intergenerational memory, symbolized by the blanket. As in many other stories in this issue, Anderson’s conveys an appreciation for the love and security a child receives from dedicated, loving parents.

Family relations stand at the center of Delores Tourtillott-Grignon’s story “So She Took the Sun with Her,” as well. Throughout the story the narrator’s observations convey humor and insight about relations between sisters as they try to decide what to do on a “gray day” when their mother has gone. Tourtillott-Grignon presents the world of the young narrator with imagination and a believable sense of the way sisters influence each other as they negotiate experience without the direct influence of an adult. This is no small feat.

Katrina Montoya’s poem, titled “Golden Arches and Indian Tacos,” deals with the cultural ironies many contemporary Native people face as we move between cultural sites of seemingly incongruent realities: “to become modern, as they say, rolling into drive-thrus.” Montoya’s artistic representation of such ironies sings with a powerful, often musical, flow of language even as that language depicts hyperbolic images of Natives exploding from fast food excess. Through Montoya’s imagery and commentary we see the debilitating ends of overconsumption of poison food which is not “our own.” And we come to Montoya’s smart, insightful closing lines, which will be our end, unless we change our thinking.

Anna Nelson’s “Letter to June 2032,” promises a different end through a glimpse into the life of a character writing of her own end. With an ability to write empathically, Nelson has created a powerful epistolary vision of a character who has lost affection, who cannot understand death on the news, who is writing a letter to another who has already died. Yet, while Nelson’s poem renders a bleak reality, the imaginative empathy of such a piece speaks to better possibilities.

“Red Fox,” by Loga Fixico also depicts disturbing moments of human behavior and seems to establish a fixed end on a black road of a devouring way of life. But her poetic statement calls out to humanity, with a poet’s sense of more appropriate, life-affirming possibilities. The critical language and eye of the poem suggest a broader vision.

By the time I finished reading the student work published here, I realized the gift and wisdom of their accomplishments. Their work reflects knowledge, insight, empathy, and creativity, as well as craft and skill.

Each nation represented by these writers, each community these writers have drawn from and lived in, each tribal college these writers have attended, each teacher who has worked with these writers, should take pride in and celebrate the work of the tribal college students published in this issue of the Tribal College Journal. We should all admire the skill, the wisdom, and the vision displayed in these student works. They have shown us their gifts, and we should be thankful for the work they are doing and for all who have supported them. For my part, I am inspired and honored to be part of this issue, and I wish each of these writers the best, as they go on in the spirit of creation.

Gordon Henry, an enrolled member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota, is the director of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University.

Due to space constraints within the print edition of the magazine, the staff at Tribal College Journal could only print a portion of Gordon Henry’s original essay. We would like to thank Henry for his generosity of spirit in recognizing the student writers featured in this year’s issue of TCJ Student. Read Henry’s essay in its entirety.

We All Look Alike By Jamie Figueroa
Thunder and Lightning By Jennifer Whitewolf
Of Hand Blooming By Monty J. Little
A Collection for My Mother and Father By Katrina Montoya
The Blanket By Jayni Anderson
So She Took the Sun with Her By Delores Tourtillott-Grignon
Golden Arches and Indian Tacos By Katrina Montoya
Letter to June 2032 By A.M. Nelson
Red Fox By Loga Fixico
Where the Ancestors Cried By Stephanie A. Fisher
Mix Tape Singing My Tunes By Beatresea Kien
The Bike By Chasity Ann Vigil
The Whisper By Jayni Anderson
Intersections on the Journey to Higher Learning By Chad J. Reynolds
Smoke Signals By Elizabeth Sam
I Am Made of Cardboard By A.M. Nelson
Daisy By Loga Fixico
Statistically Speaking By Millicent M. Pepion
Gallery of Artwork By Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl Demientieff and Burdette Birdinground

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