N.M. Spoken Word Club Explores Indian Identity, History

November 19, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Through verse, members of the Spoken Word Club at the Santa Fe Indian School articulate identities both modern and traditional, and maintain links to the past through native language and culture.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, poetry and the Native American culture in New Mexico. And again to Jeffrey Brown.

STUDENT: I live today.

STUDENT: I live today.

STUDENT: I live today.

STUDENT: We live today.

STUDENT: Practicing our religion.

STUDENT: And speaking our languages.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was an evening of slam poetry on a recent Friday in Santa Fe, with young people offering stories through verse about their identities and experience.

STUDENTS: My native tongue blistered and burned. Cursed wind spit seeds of dead trees, spreading chaos through her skeletal branches.

JEFFREY BROWN: But these teenagers were Native Americans, members of the Spoken Word Club at the Santa Fe Indian School, and their stories — about holding onto a culture — are unlike those heard at most gatherings like this.

HEILERY YUSELEW, student: (speaking native language) I am your Mother Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sixteen-year-old Heilery Yuselew, one of the club’s captains, grew up on a Zuni reservation several hours from Santa Fe.

HEILERY YUSELEW: I just started to write about moments, memories, things that are trying to, I guess, give me a hint to connect myself back to my culture…

SANTANA SHORTY, student: Skyscrapers in cement, ugliness and pain…

JEFFREY BROWN: The club’s other captain, Santana Shorty, also 16, is the daughter of a Navajo father and white mother. When her parents split up, she lost much of her connection to her native culture.

SANTANA SHORTY: In my life, that’s one of the saddest things, like, is the loss of something, especially the loss of something that makes you who you are, like in your blood. So the loss of your culture, and your language, and your tradition is just really bad.

TIM MCLAUGHLIN, teacher, Santa Fe Indian School: If you did not do anything that has to do with your culture, I’m going to challenge you to maybe think in that direction.

Connecting to oral history

JEFFREY BROWN: The Spoken Word Club was founded seven years ago by Tim McLaughlin, a Virginia native, who also teaches creative writing at the school.

TIM MCLAUGHLIN: Sing with wings, nod at God. Do you remember that one?

JEFFREY BROWN: The club, which is voluntary, meets every Wednesday night, and students work through the long process from page to stage, writing their poems, memorizing them, rehearsing them.

TIM MCLAUGHLIN: It's very intensive and very formative, and the kids come out as stronger people. And it's a reconnection for the kids to the oral tradition, to the origin.

I mean, we almost go at things backwards in spoken word. We start on the page and then go into the air, back to sound, to the origin of language, is sound. It's music. And so the kids are reconnecting with that and appreciating their culture in a new way through spoken word.

JEFFREY BROWN: Appreciating the culture is an important part of the work of the Santa Fe Indian School, which is run collectively by New Mexico's 19 pueblos or tribes, and enrolls some 800 boarding students, most of whom have grown up on tribal reservations from all over the state.

The young people here are being prepared for a future that's partly outside the native culture: The school boasts a 91 percent graduation rate, with most going on to college.

But, says board vice president Perry Martinez, a member of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, there's a delicate balance to uphold.

Combining education and tradition

PERRY MARTINEZ, vice president, Santa Fe Indian School Board: We as native people live in two worlds, and there's a bubble that our community, our elders, our traditional way of life exists, and it's a fragile bubble.

My message to the students is, first of all, never, ever forget who you are and where you come from. Go and get an education and bring that experience, bring that knowledge back to help your communities and help your people, because we are protecting our culture here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, our visit coincided with tribal week. When classes in math and other subjects ended, the students watched traditional rites like this buffalo dance and listened to tribal leaders, sometimes in their native languages.

The mix of two worlds is there in the poetry club, as well...

SANTANA SHORTY: To carry myself with respect.

I've kind of lost my language, and yet I write these poems to bring back my language, and so I put it into the poem, and so then I'm using my language again. So in a way it's kind of like a little push to, like, you know, don't lose it, bring it back, or work for it.

HEILERY YUSELEW: And once you start using it, you just keep grabbing more and more and more. All of a sudden, you have all these words in your head. So they're there and you can't forget. Like our poems, we can't forget them no matter how hard we try.

SANTANA SHORTY: Yes, we're not forgetting our poems for a really long time.

REPORTER: They're in there?

SANTANA SHORTY: Yes, I'm not forgetting her poem, and she's not forgetting mine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan Eskeets wrote this poem after his grandfather's death.

NOLAN ESKEETS: Remember when I could understand the ancient words that poured from the Hogan center, ushered gently by eagle feather, through your breath, blessing me?

Students give back to school

JEFFREY BROWN: One of last year's captains, Nolan is now a freshman at the University of New Mexico, but continues to serve as coach and mentor.

NOLAN ESKEETS: I was writing to my grandpa and realizing what I'd lost. And through the process, I realized what I had gained at the same time. I wanted to honor my grandpa in the best way that I knew how, and it came out in a poem.

STUDENTS: We are the voices of your ancestors surrounding you.

JEFFREY BROWN: With so much coming out in poems, the Santa Fe Indian School's Spoken Word Club has been gaining attention at national slam contests. It's now preparing for the 2009 Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam to be held next year in Chicago.

STUDENTS: Listen to the beauty beneath you. Listen to the spirits within in. Listen. We have offered our wisdom.