The Sacred Politics of Building Community Out of the Everyday

By Derwin B. Begay, Khara Ellasante and April D. J. Petillo

Luci Tapahonso has stated that she believes that her writing is not hers alone, but instances of creation molded with the help and inspiration of a larger community of culture, family, students, other writers and the events of her life.

The Sacred and the Everyday

Tapahonso takes inspiration from a number of everyday sources—such as a female friend often allured by pointy-toed boots and deep hued eyes (“Raisin Eyes”) or sharing happy moments and random bits of the everyday with loved ones (“I Remember, She Says”)—and uses it to connect to the sacred past and traditions.

Consider the title poem of her 2008 collection, A Radiant Curve, in which the poet recognizes her grandson’s first laugh—a special yet, in some ways, every day moment—as part of a bridge spanning between the story of Yoolgaii At’eed (White Shell Girl) and the first expression of joy. First Laugh Ceremonies mark the laughter of Diné children throughout time long after grandson Isaiah’s 1998 ceremony. These ceremonies create reason, purpose, balance and harmony of philosophical thought within the child and everyone else’s life.  Remembrance of the child’s first laugh brings relations together to apply the teachings and “…essential tenets that Changing Woman and the Diyin Dine’ outlined at the beginning of Navajo time…” (8). This is part of the politics of A Radiant Curve. It is a politics expressed as a way of life –a common sense understanding of relations, obligations, and responsibility placed upon the people in order to maintain a state of Hozhò.

Tapahonso’s work documents the links between the past, present, and future in the celebrations marking every day moments as well as the moments themselves. It is this manner of connecting the sacred story to everyday life that Simon Ortiz describes as more than remembering, but instead a call to active connecting; creation steeped in cultural tradition (American Passages: A Literary Survey). Through this connection to everyday life, the performative power of language re-establishes balance for those who follow traditional ways. The direct connection and application of the story to everyday circumstance is educational and transformative. The interactions between the story, the storyteller, and the audience provide additional layers of meaning and application, spoken or not. In considering the Diné emphasis on the careful crafting of what is spoken, the tension between what is said or not and why it is said or not is made even more powerful.

Shared Language, Vision and Purpose

The use of the Diné language in Tapahonso’s work is important on many levels. As she eloquently explains, the oral histories of the Diné people are a center point, a marker of a time within time, the foundational roots of cultural identity. The use of the Diné language is a political statement that expresses the sovereignty of a people. The role of language in sparking remembering is foundational to Tapahonso’s work. Stories, songs, and prayers incorporating indigenous language are keys that open the doors to information within oral history revealing the importance of remembering identity, philosophy, and purpose of life. Remembering gives readers freedom to move between worlds, as well as the gift of seeing beyond the modern world of technology and paved roads to visioning through their clan eyes, the world of the Holy People. This is a ceremony that is conducted every second of our lives.

This process is exemplified in the line “Always wear the songs they gave us” from “We must remember,” the last piece in A Radiant Curve.  Contained within it is the notion that song can be worn, a loving source of warmth given from those before us as a source of protection. When asked about the significance of song in her work, Tapahonso observed that praying, talking, singing, laughing, and crying all exist together and that they are universal. The universality of song as a part of the cycle of communication between the past, present, and future is part of its significance in her work.

Relationship and the Beauty of Shared Experience of “Getting By”

Tapahonso also focuses on weaving as a means of connection, specifically creating relationships, in particularly vivid ways throughout A Radiant Curve. Here, weaving connects the Holy Ones and to the continued generations of Diné with the loom as the point of connection between earth and sky. The sestina, a poetic form often chosen by Tapahonso, also functions as a type of loom upon which lines and language are woven. We learn from her work that, as we live our lives, full of shared laughter, pain, love, and loss, we are weaving the sacred from those experiences as well as infusing the sacred into our everyday. When considered together, the diversity of these minute life experiences enables us to recognize the beauty of the whole—another foundation of Tapahonso’s political aesthetic. There is a joy in the shared experience of everyday difference, even of everyday poverty and “getting by,” that breeds familiarity and ultimately rings true for anyone who has been part of it.

In addition to her focus on the beauty of the shared diversity of life experience, Tapahonso also considers the shared experience of difference.  People of difference— who have the imprint of cultures other than Western or U.S. mainstream culture—have long been navigating small and large issues with beauty and grace.  People who share the same difference—culture, skin color, gender, etc.—share commonality by nature of the fact that they share difference as a group.  At times, there is joy in knowing that some of the difficulty is common to a group—one can learn to laugh at and find joy in that shared experience of difference.  By recognizing that joy, it is possible to gather strength from that shared difference as well. Thus, some of the most impoverished, most marginalized communities are full of laughter, fierce love, and song even at the most difficult times of suffering. This theme of strength gathered through shared joy in the experience of difference also echoes throughout A Radiant Curve in works such as “A Tune Up,” “Náneeskaadí,” “K-Tag Ceremony,” “The Canyon Was Serene,” and “Tsílii.”

This theme is underscored by the vividness of the colors and the emotions addressed in each piece. From this perspective, there can be joy in the shared experience of leaving behind a chapter of one’s life.  As invoked in “K-Tag Ceremony,” there are pieces of certain experiences that travel with you through your life stories, your sacred stories, and the shared sense of belonging together with others in that time and place; there is a portability of the notion of home.  As such, the continued shared life and sense of belonging is, in a sense, continuing the ceremony initiated by remembering then beginning anew.   This sense of belonging and a continued shared life outside of a person’s home of origin coats the efforts of family pulling together to soothe the fears that plague in “A Tune Up,” offering the main character, Emma, a sense of safety that you can drive back with you.  There can also be joy shared in the creation of something culturally specific, patted together just for you from seemingly little, as in “Náneeskaadí,” or the memory-tinged-jealousy of those who remain at home that creeps in with your dreams as in “The Canyon Was Serene.”

Lived Tradition

Tapahonso’s continued embrace of the traditions on which she was raised, with no attempt to hide or alter in order to fit into an academic institution, is also a political act.  This blending is potentially the most challenging political act of all those demonstrated eloquently in her work.  One obvious example of this is in her use of Western traditional literary forms, such as sestinas and other fixed verse poetic forms, to talk about the small instances of imposed assimilation and acculturation that can have profound psychic effects culturally (“Back Off,” 2011 Poetics & Politics Reading); the smells, sights, and traditional comforts of Diné womanhood (“Near-to-the Water”); or observance of the modern urban world through indigenous eyes (“Red Star Quilt”).  She mixes the everyday experiences of different worlds outside of the four sacred mountains while continually invoking the Beauty Way.

An Invitation to Journey or A Quiet, Unified Voice

Overall, we left this experience of Luci Tapahonso and her work with the feeling that we had been graciously invited into our responsibility to the Beauty Way.  Whether it is on the page or being read aloud by the poet, the poetry of Luci Tapahonso is filled with light and illuminates. It has the ability to convey deep and moving emotions to a universal audience. It is able to create community.  All of the instances to interact with the poet or her work—conversation in person, attendance at the reading, her written poetry and prose—each moment of contact feels as though it was crafted for the continued creation of balance and  beauty.  More than Team Tapahonso felt it, too.  As she read that night in February, the occasional audience member could be heard murmuring lines of poems that were familiar as she spoke them from the microphone at the front of the room. The audience was so diverse but by walking different paths they came to their own appreciation of Luci Tapahonso’s work.  She had woven us into a common thread.  By taking her place at the podium, sharing the pieces that she chose to share and sprinkling the urge to laugh together throughout the night, the poet created a community and gave us a unified voice.  And with that, all were welcomed into the radiant curve of sacred, ancestral wisdom and care.

May 11, 2011