Native American Literature, Intro by Duane Niatum

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Introduction by Duane Niatum

The writer's path is a strange journey. When someone asked me why I became a writer during the last four decades when it became a major preoccupation and obsession of mine, seldom was my answer understandable or coherent either to my listener or me. But today it seems that I understood intuitively that it was the only way I could make sense of my life and survive it. In the Sixties, as a novice writer in my early twenties, I knew I had to write to stay alive. The pain and inner chaos needed to be dealt with and taken out of me, the way one might extract a poison. In my case it was a spiritual poison, the deadliest kind.

Fortunately, this ugly picture began to change with the years, thanks to the Muse and the aesthetic itch. The Muse hinted that whenever I started to spin inward like a self-destructive top I needed to search way, way beyond myself. So I did. I began to remember the wonderful stories of my Klallam-Swinomish grandfather, Francis Patsy, of Port Hadlock, on the Olympic Peninsula. His stories and friendship gave me an image of hope when nothing else did. Therefore, I consider his presence in my life to be the central force of both my literary voice and my private one. There is no question that his values and life, anchored to the beach, forests, and sea around Klallam country, offered me the tools and the vision for my art. I am indebted to this great man for more than my art; I owe him my life.

This gift is not mine alone, however. I would be the first to admit it. Over the decades, several other writers, painters, and sculptors from Indian country, have told me that they would never have become artists if it had not been for the nurturing guidance and wisdom of a grandparent. As our luck would have it, we Indian writers and artists meet new grandparents wherever we travel in Indian country. This fact has been a healing path for us all and an occasion for joyous expectation.

What my grandfather from the forest and sea gave me that changed my life and gave form and meaning to my art was the tribal belief that I needed to humble myself, body and soul, before the spiritual reality of every moving, living creature in the universe, from the sculpin to the Evening Star. And another Coast Salish elder, Andrew Joe, of the Skagit Tribe, came as close as we may ever get to sum up the uniqueness of the American Indian spirit. He said: "When we can understand animals, we will know the change is halfway. When we can talk to the forest, we will know that the change has come." This is the voice of oral tradition that is older than time and that is the backbone of consciousness.

Thus, many of my works, both poetry and fiction, have their roots in this aesthetic belief and worldview. On the beach where Old Patsy, my grandfather's grandfather had the last potlatch on the Olympic Peninsula in 1891, he told me the story of this sacred path. While carving a power figure from within a stick of red cedar, he said this style of creation was passed down to him on the wings of the longhouse stories. I take up the poet's staff only if I see it is an art of being and seeing that suggests I live with mud on my feet and sea salt in my breath and song. This elder showed the best path to follow in order to ride out the psychic storms that have their own cycles, their own seasons. From its songline and vantage point I would discover the only certainty at my command, that my dance is the writing of sand on the white drifting blanket of the shore, and that it is best to learn the rhythms that whirl me through the long darkness to the tiny hole of light, while I can.

And I feel it is a great honor to play a small part in this destiny, this wealth of energy and light coming from every direction. But as Joe Bruchac has pointed out, it is not really a renaissance we are experiencing coming from native North America so much as a continuum of a literary tradition that goes back thousands of years. And it is my guess that other writers such as James Welch, Ray Young Bear, Leslie Silko, Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, Maurice Kenny, Wendy Rose, Lance Henson, Paula Gunn Allen, and N. Scott Momaday, would probably agree that this was the case. For our little literary round dance stands in beauty because laughter and imaginative play enrich our souls as much as our names. Our journey from the dream into the creation of our days is the gift we most desire to leave the children of our children's children.

Copyright © 2000 by Duane Niatum

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