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Oregon's Poet Laureate is Hapa Navajo: Elizabeth Woody


Elizabeth Woody (Courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust)

I need poetry to live sometimes. Yesterday, I went to Powell's bookstore hungry for it and found three books of poetry that I could not live without. 

One was Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, the second was Luci Tapahonso's Blue Horses Rush In and the third was by my own state's poet laureate, Elizabeth Woody, Seven Hands, Seven Hearts.

I've been fortunate to meet her a few times since I've lived here in Oregon and hear her read. Like me, she's half Navajo (which I like to call Hapa Navajo) and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She is enrolled in the Warm Springs Tribe here in Oregon (her other half). I admit, reading her work I was immediately drawn to the poems about her Navajo-side. And yet, when I first moved to the Southwest (which is ostensibly my homeland) after college, the lack of water (the Rio Grande was not grand--just a trickle in the desert) was a shock to me and every night, I had intense dreams of salmon swimming in the river I grew up on, the Columbia or as she describes it in her book Chewana. The salmon of my dreams were always showing themselves in close-up with their multi-colored scales glinting as they crowded together into a writhing mass. I was experienced in my dreams fully the fear I had of living in a world without water--an environment so stark that my husband and I used to play a game of chasing rainclouds in our car out in the open desert just outside of Albuquerque. We'd park our car under a particularly dark one overhead and wait for the rain to fall on us. We'd laugh when only a few thick sandy drops would reach us as the rest evaporated in the sky above us never reaching the ground. 

So I connected deeply with her poem "In Memory of Crossing the Columbia" and I'd like to share it here:

In Memory of Crossing the Columbia
For Charlotte Edwards Pitt and Charlotte Agnes Pitt

My board and blanket were Navajo,
but my bed is inside the river.
In the beads of remembrance,
I am her body in my Father's hands.
She gave me her eyes
and the warmth of basalt.
The vertebrae of her back,
my breastplate, the sturdy
belly of mountainside.

"Pahtu," he whispered in her language.
She is the mountain of change.
She is the mountain of women 
who have lain as volcanoes 
before men.

Red, as the women much loved,
she twisted like silvery Chinook
beyond his reach.

Dancing the Woman-Salmon dance,
there is not much time to waste.


This next poem is named after the Navajo city of Chinle. My husband loved the phrase "a River woman walking in dust." This poem captures so well the experience of having ties to two very different lands and to two very different Native nations.


Chinle Summer

Loneliness for me is being the daughter of two landscapes,
distant from the horizon circling me.
The red earth completely round.
The sky a deep bowl of turquoise overhead.
Mother and father. Loneliness
rising up like thunderheads. The rain pours over
the smooth rocks into the canyon that is familiar.

This is the road that leads to my father's home.
After twenty years I stand on the threshold of his mother's hogan.
Grandmother sits in the cool dark, out of the light 
from the door and smoke hole. She talks softly
in the Diné language.

Talking to me as I grew in her warmth, my mother
lowered herself in this canyon, barefoot and unafraid.
She walked miles in high heels to church by this road
that runs alongside Canyon de Chelly.
She was a river woman walking in dust.

The Recumbent Woman whispers inside different languages.
I am one story. Beauty walked South and then North again.
Beauty sparked physical creation.

A strong and wild will draws up the land into the body.
My journey circles back, unraveling, unmaking itself
like the magnificent loom work of my grandmother's center.
My grandfather once told me, "Lizzy, I was busy singing
over there...you were here. So I came home to see you."
Jacqueline Keeler
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