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On a Mission for Preservation, Poet Natalie Diaz Returns to Her Roots

June 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After spending several years away from home, poet Natalie Diaz felt a calling to return to her reservation to help preserve the Mojave language, which is rapidly being lost.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a story of poetry, basketball and the preservation of a native language. It begins with a trip down the Colorado River.

HUBERT MCCORD, Mojave Tribe: (SPEAKING MOJAVE)

NATALIE DIAZ, author: What’s that?

HUBERT MCCORD: (SPEAKING MOJAVE) is rattlesnake fangs.

NATALIE DIAZ: If you look at the peaks there, they almost look like rattlesnake fangs.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Mojaves, this part of the Colorado River, California on one side, Arizona on the other, is (SPEAKING MOJAVE) the place where the spirits live. And on our early-morning boat trip, before the heat of the desert reached 105, we saw bighorn sheep, wild donkeys, sharp cliffs and rock formations that all are part of the Mojave story.

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NATALIE DIAZ: (SPEAKING MOJAVE) is the people who change into the mountain.

JEFFREY BROWN: So they’re — they’re sitting up there forever?

MAN: It looks like they’re standing and sitting?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if the stones continue to stand, the stories and the Mojave language itself are in danger of being lost. And that’s the reason for these trips, to bring young people together with elders like 85-year-old Hubert McCord, one of a handful of fluent speakers left in the Fort Mojave Indian tribe.

The language preservation effort is being organized by 33-year-old Natalie Diaz.

NATALIE DIAZ: They are constantly reminding us of the time crunch. You know, we have this many years and we’re supposed to do this, this, this and this. How are we going to get there? But. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: It is a race against time, they’re saying.

NATALIE DIAZ: It definitely is.

One of the most probably crushing moments for me was listening to Hubert. He said, what are we going to do? What are my people going to do? Meaning, when he’s gone, he’s not going to be able to help and to teach them anymore.

This is (SPEAKING MOJAVE). This is (SPEAKING MOJAVE).

JEFFREY BROWN: Diaz herself only heard bits of the language from her grandparents as a child and has no formal training in linguistics.

In fact, this calling to preserve her native language is a recent one; 16 years ago, she left the reservation here to pursue a completely different passion, basketball, first at Old Dominion University in Virginia, then professionally in women’s leagues abroad.

NATALIE DIAZ: It was kind of my way to navigate between the different cultures. On the reservation, if you were good at basketball, you could do anything. You know, fit into any group, and then off the reservation as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was at Old Dominion that she also began to write poetry.

NATALIE DIAZ: I thought, hey, writing can offer me something, some sort of — again, some sort of quiet that I have always kind of been looking for.

For me, writing — it’s kind of a way for me to explore why I want things and why I’m afraid of things and why I worry about things. And, for me, all of those things represent a kind of hunger that comes with being raised in a place like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Diaz’s first book, titled “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” has just been published, with many poems that deal with the harsh realities of reservation life: poverty, teen pregnancy, and the methamphetamine drug addiction that plagues many young people, including one of her brothers.

NATALIE DIAZ: “Now he’s fresh-released from Rancho Cucamonga, having traveled the Mojave trail in chains, living with your parents, and you have come to take him to dinner, because he is your brother, because you heard he was cleaning up. Holler upstairs to your brother to hurry. He won’t come right away. Remember how long it took the Minotaur to escape the labyrinth.”

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s a way of processing I guess a real experience, but through — I hear Minotaur myth, all kinds of things.

NATALIE DIAZ: Yes. I think there’s more truth in myth than there is in truth.

I mean, I can sit here and tell you, you know, Jeff, this is — it’s terrible having a brother like this. It’s really bad. It’s awful. But that’s not going to register with you. But, for me, poetry allows me to kind of break down images and kind of see what they’re made of. And so I’m able to reinvent images and colors and sounds, and, you know, and all of the senses kind of come together to give you a more truthful picture of what’s happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was two years ago that Diaz decided to return home and work to revive a language that’s been in decline since the late 1800s.

Even into the 20th century, Native children were put in a government-run school near here that was intended to take and even beat the language and culture out of them. Today, some of the elders can still recall those days.

HUBERT MCCORD: My mother could tell you that, because they came around with horses and tied them up like and then put them in wagons and then took them to school. And you’re not supposed to even talk Mojave anymore up there. If you do, you get punished.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hubert McCord, who is one of the last of the tribe’s bird singers, has watched as the language drained away over several generations, from men leaving the reservation for work, extended families no longer living together and handing down rituals, and, of course, the bombardment of media and culture from the larger Anglo society.

NATALIE DIAZ: Okay. So we will get you miked up then.

JEFFREY BROWN: He and several other elders are now working with Natalie Diaz to record words, stories and songs.

HUBERT MCCORD: It’s a long time ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Helping her create a talking dictionary for students to use on computers.

NATALIE DIAZ: Hubert, how do you say creation mountain?

HUBERT MCCORD: (SPEAKING MOJAVE)

NATALIE DIAZ: Yes. So that’s one of the most important places that you guys have as Mojaves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of those students join the elders in a weekly workshop. It’s a small program, still in its infancy, but one that’s striking a chord.

Are you surprised that there’s this interest now in coming to you to hear your stories and get you to translate?

HUBERT MCCORD: I’ll tell you the truth. I am a little — I am surprised. I am.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

HUBERT MCCORD: And, in my heart, I feel good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natalie Diaz says that, for her, this effort is really part of a much larger reconnection and sense of identity, especially for young people in the tribe.

NATALIE DIAZ: In Mojave, everything passes through your dreams. All your gifts come from dreams. And so, what they worry about, in one of our workshops, they discussed maybe the dreams are coming to the kids, but maybe they’re coming in Mojave, and maybe they don’t understand that. And so they’re not going to know what their gifts are. They’re not going to know what they should be doing. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow.

NATALIE DIAZ: . . . because they don’t speak the language.

JEFFREY BROWN: The next step is a larger summer workshop, where elders, including Hubert McCord, will continue to pass on Mojave words and songs of the river, the rocks and the birds.

And there’s more online, where you can watch Natalie Diaz read several of her poems. That’s on our Art Beat page.