Twenty Navajo Preparatory School students presented poetry written as part of a two-week residency program in February and March with poets Venaya Yazzie and Tina Deschenie at the Saad Ákeé’lchi'i poetry reading Monday, April 3, at Totah Theater in Farmington.
There is no perfectly equivalent word for poetry in Navajo, but Yazzie that Saad Ákeé’lchi'i was chosen to represent poetry because it refers to the “aspects of words or expressions that are decorated or adorned.”
More than 30 students submitted poetry at the end of the workshops. The poems were compiled into the “Ba’ Hané” bilingual poetry zine, which was highlighted at the reading. Students and attendees of the reading received copies of the zine.
Ba’ Hané refers to the act of telling or “talking history,” and the zine serves as a way for students to share part of their history with others.
Yazzie, who has conducted artist presentations and workshops with Four Corners schools in the past, discussed the idea of a residency and poetry zine with Northwest New Mexico Arts Council President Flo Trujillo.
As the former youth services coordinator at Farmington Public Library, Trujillo created “Blended,” a zine for the Teen Zone that was published three times a year. Yazzie said her experience working with Trujillo at the library and the “Blended” zine provided a map to work from for the “Ba’ Hané” zine.
The residency and zine production were funded by Navajo Transitional Energy Co., the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation and Northwest New Mexico Arts Council.
During the residency, Yazzie and Deschenie worked with students in Cheryl Wolfe’s junior and senior language and literature classes to write and workshop poems in English and in the students’ native languages. Deschenie, who is fluent in Navajo, assisted students with translations when needed.
Yazzie said the goal of the residency was to focus on language and culture in order to “perpetuate them as a cultural people.” A major component of that was encouraging students to write in the language that best expressed their ideas and not limiting them to English.
Code switching is a practice most people use situationally to varying degrees, but it is often more pronounced in bilingual speakers. A person code switches when they move between languages or types of language, such as technical phrasing and jargon over everyday terminology.
For people who speak multiple languages, which language to use often depends on culture and personal meaning attached to words and ideas. Yazzie said that with Native American languages, it’s difficult to translate particular words into English, so using the native word may be more precise or hold more meaning to the speaker.
Yazzie called this mixing of English and Navajo words “Navlish,” and though it is often discouraged when it comes to language revitalization, she did not want to dictate or limit the students’ voices as they wrote. Many of the pieces included in the zine incorporate English and the student’s native languages.
Another aspect of code switching that Yazzie acknowledged was the Navajo cultural practice of using different words and language styles depending on the who is being spoken to. She said that Navajo language is gendered, and the Navajo culture also has gendered roles, both of which influence how people speak to one other and what words they use.
Allowing students the freedom to express their ideas in a way that reflected cultural norms and personal language styles was an important aspect of workshopping poems.
Yazzie said that another area she expected gender to play a role in the workshops was willingness to participate, but she was pleasantly surprised to see male students engaging with the content. In other workshops with students of various ethnicities and cultures, Yazzie said it can be difficult to get male students to participate because poetry is often seen as a feminine art form.
Yazzie theorized that because many medicine people in the Navajo culture are men, there is less stigma about young men participating in poetry. Medicine people sing songs of healing, and singing is a form of poetry Yazzie said, which makes poetry part of the culture.
Male students like Watson Whitford jumped right in, contributing two poems, one in Cree and English on the elements of life and a second poem on love which incorporated stylized art into the structure.
Marcus Nahalea, a student of Navajo-Hawaiian descent, submitted a poem about Nightmarchers titled “Hauka’I po,” which included the Hawaiian language. During the reading, he explained the poem’s significance and how his heritage has shaped him.
Other students paired their poetry with photography, drawings and other mediums, which allowed them to add additional layers of meaning to their work.
The students’ eagerness to participate in workshops impressed Begay. She said she didn’t have to tell them what to write or push them one direction or another. “They already had something they wanted to share,” she said.
Giving students free rein on topics provided Yazzie and Deschenie with a unique view into what “young generations of Native Americans are dialoguing about in current times.”
The result was a diverse range of topics, from the flow of time and life to “rez dogs and cats” to family connections, identity and what the future might hold for the students.
Starlit Begay’s poem “Ghéé” drew laughter while Makayla Yazzie’s poem “Shimasaní anigoo, Shinaliíanigoo” brought up deep emotions for the young poet, causing her to take a moment to collect herself and receive comfort from classmates.
A surprise addition to the evening’s roster included Navajo Prep student and recent New Mexico State English Expo Poetry Slam first place winner Landon Succo, who read his winning poem in both Navajo and English. Succo also won second place in original storytelling and first place in short stories.
Yazzie spearheaded compiling the students’ work into the zine. She was given creative control of the formatting and artistic elements, though she said she was grateful for Trujillo’s experience and guidance on the project.
Yazzie expressed how pleased she was with the project as a whole. She said Navajo Prep was very supportive of the residency and of organizing the reading event, and that the students driven and focused attitudes made them a pleasure to work.
Family, friends and community members attended the reading. Yazzie and Trujillo expressed particular thanks to San Juan County Commission GloJean Todacheene for attending the reading and supporting the students.
Both Yazzie and Trujillo hope to see a subsequent edition of the zine and are reaching out to other organizations which might be interested in funding and distributing.
Yazzie said she hopes the project encourages students to continue to explore their native languages and cultures, and to share them with others.
“I really believe that our children have our language to keep them strong,” she said.