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

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exoticization or fetishization of the Native person as a relic of the past, as a romantic figure, as something outdated or very other,” she said.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.

“There’s a certain physicality that I associate specifically with the Inupiaq language … I know of more words in Inupiaq that have to do with the body or the natural world,” she said. “It’s not until I’m looking at old texts or talking to elders that I have access to more specific kinds of language.”

Hear Kane read “Compass” in both Inupiaq and English. Below it is also written in both languages.

Compass

I let him do what he will to me—
we are traveling into the waves
and the ocean is torn by swells.

I am cautious. The moon,
it can barely be sensed,
it cannot be helped.

I learned something, I am learning.
I am untangling a rope.
I am caught by a breaking wave.

The boat is rolling from side to side
I tell of my going to town—
What he threw broke through,

it has broken away.

Translated into English from Inupiaq by the poet.

Taktugziun

Manimaiga—
maliŋniagratugut
mallatuq.

Nuyaqtuŋa. Taqqiq,
ikpiŋanailaq,
iluilaq.

Ilisiruŋa, ilita.tuŋa.
Ilaiyairuŋa akłunaamiik.
Qaaġaaŋa.

Uaałukitaaqtuq umiaq.
Quliaqtuŋa aptauqtuaŋa—
Iitaaga pularuq.

ilaŋa.tuq.

Joan Kane is the author of “The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife,” “Hyperboreal” and “The Straits,” for which she has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, an American Book Award and the Alaska Literary Award. Kane graduated from Harvard College, where she was a Harvard National Scholar, and Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of a graduate Writing Fellowship. Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary’s Igloo, she raises her sons in Anchorage, Alaska, and is MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. New work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in “The Best American Poetry 2015,” Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and South Magazine in conjunction with documenta 14.

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