[this article originally appeared in Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary Native American Poetry, eds. Janice Gould and Dean Rader. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2003. 207-21.]
"Dawn / Is a Good Word"
Naming an Emergent Motif of Contemporary Native American Poetry
Robert M. Nelson
University of Richmond
Three decades ago, in 1973, about the same time Kenneth Lincoln was heralding a "Native American renaissance"(1) in prose and poetry, a child named Rainy Dawn was born to Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz, both of whom were already becoming two of the more powerful voices in the then-young field of published contemporary Native American poetry. Almost twenty years later, in 1992, the nearly four hundred established and emerging Native American writers at the "Returning the Gift" festival in Norman, Oklahoma celebrated five hundred years of endurance and survival of their cultures and literary traditions. Here, a generation of writers who were themselves emerging or becoming established in the early seventies welcomed those of a new generation just emerging or becoming established in the early nineties. In this year also, Rainy Dawn became a mother herself, thereby promoting her parents Simon and Joy to the family rank of grandparent and elder, a rank both had long since achieved in the field of poetry.
In that same year, another elder of Native American poetry, Carter Revard, celebrated the birth of Rainy Dawn's daughter Krista Rae in "When Earth Brings," a poem that appeared first as the final poem of his 1993 collection An Eagle Nation and again in the Returning the Gift anthology published a year later. "When Earth Brings" is a handsomely-crafted text that stands perfectly well in its own right without any reference to the foregoing story. Still, I think it is good to take this historical and familial context into account when reading it, for at least two reasons. For one, Revard directly invokes this context by naming "Joy," "Simon," "Rainy Dawn," and "Krista Rae" in the dedicatory epigraph to the poem.(2) A second reason is that Revard has crafted the poem's controlling motif and core term, "dawn," to function as what I want to call a merge site. By this I mean that, in Revard's use of the term, dawn becomes a place where, and a time when, Harjo's Creek and Ortiz's Acoma and Revard's own Osage origin traditions not only intersect but also merge in the image of a grandchild who is both metaphorically and literally Dawn's offspring, the next living generation of the People.
I think Carter Revard's use of the term "dawn" in this poem may represent and reflect the emergence and establishment of a new, intertribal origin motif, that is, a motif that combines elements of several otherwise disparate Native origin stories. I'm proposing that this motif, itself conceivable as a child of the Native American renaissance, figures particularly strongly in the birth-celebration poetry of several major contemporary poets whose own traditional backgrounds (which include Chickasaw, Acoma, Creek, Navajo, and Osage) are otherwise about as diverse as they could possibly be. Seen against this backdrop, Revard's poem "When Earth Brings" represents the latest phase in the development of a motif that is tribally nonspecific but nevertheless resonantly Native American by both emic and etic criteria, a motif that combines the ideas of emergence, survival, return, and renewal in the image of dawn.
* * * *
One of the earlier manifestations of this dawn motif, in which the concepts of sunrise, the birth of an individual, and the rebirth of cultural awareness and collective identity come to function as metaphors for one another, occurs in Linda Hogan's "Celebration: Birth of a Colt." This poem is one of her earliest, appearing in her collection Calling Myself Home in 1978, twenty-five years ago, when Hogan's now honored and distinctive poetic voice was still coalescing out of her probes into the tangles of mixed-blood identity. In the introduction she wrote for these poems when they were republished in 1991 in the volume Red Clay, Hogan implies some such formative significance:
For American Indian people the journey home is what tells us our human history, the mystery of our lives here, and leads us towards fullness and strength. These first poems were part of that return for me, an identification with my tribe and the Oklahoma earth, a deep knowing and telling how I was formed of these two powers called ancestors and clay. [ . . . ] In these poems live red land and light. [ . . . ] They are home speaking through me. Home is in blood, and I am still on the journey of calling myself home.(3)
Central here is Hogan's sense of her own formation out of "these two powers called ancestors and clay," a doubled siting of "home" that is replicated formally in the subsequent organization of her book. Part 2 of the two-part Calling Myself Home is in fact subtitled "Heritage," and the poems in that section tend to deal with family members and connections. The first section, though, is subtitled "By the Dry Pond" and is characterized by poems in which a more solitary narrative vision attempts to animate a lifeless, dry landscape. "Celebration" is the final poem of this first section; in it, rather than attempting to animate the landscape, the narrative vision is animated by it, learning finally to see past the dry pond and dust to the redness of the clay, the "blood" that home is in. I think it is also important here to note Hogan's 1991 assertion that "the journey home," one way of recovering Chickasaw identity, is also a viable strategy for recovering American Indian identity of whatever tribal background: the antecedent of "us" in the passage is "American Indian people" before it is the people of a particular tribe. This claim about the existence of a real basis for pan-Indian identity would probably have surprised few members of the choir in 1978, when Native authors and savvy critics of their work alike were still struggling to convince academe that a field of contemporary Indian literature even existed. But it comes as some surprise to the choir in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when increased sensitivity to issues of national sovereignty has been accompanied by a tendency to write and critique in terms of tribal rather than pan-Indian identities. My own sense of Hogan's claim is that it points to what the dawn motif has come to signify in the past quarter century: the general recognition that it is becoming possible to confirm and celebrate individual and tribal identity within the context of an idea of Indianness that, in turn, has been communally constructed to emic specifications rather than to the usual etic ones.
But let me return to the proposition that Hogan's poem "Celebration" represents, as it were, the dawn of the dawn motif as a tribally nonspecific merge site. From first line to last, the emergence event being celebrated -- the birth of the colt -- is both formally and temporally embedded within the context of another, equally significant emergence event. This is the event of sunrise, which is already under way in the first lines of the text and which is completed in the last ones, making it possible for the young persona of the poem to finally see
. . . the land
with pollen blowing off the corn,
land that will always own us,
everywhere it is red.
Combined with these events, and informing her narrative representation of them, is a third emergence of sorts, namely the persona's own dawning awareness that she is a part of the story she has been watching: on differing timescales the birth of the black colt, the generation of the yellow pollen, and the evolution of the persona's consciousness are all parts of a more singular and subsuming event. This event is sunrise, the time when the sun appears to emerge from the earth and, in the process, reveals the land's redness, its "blood." And in almost all of these early poems of hers, as in work of the "renaissance" period generally (Carroll Arnett's "Early Song" is a strong example), images of "blood" and "redness" signify Indianness.
In its infancy, then, the dawn motif is strongly constellated with the concept of discovery, and specifically discovery of Native identity. Early on, the motif also incorporates a second tribally nonspecific element: the idea of Native identity becomes grounded in place, in the land. Hogan's "Celebration" celebrates the first element over the second; in the early work of Joy Harjo, notably in "3 AM" and "last song,"(4) the second element begins to come into its own. In "3 am" Harjo, though herself Creek/Muskogee, generates a first-person narrator who claims "old oraibi, third mesa" as "home" in Hogan's Red Clay sense, a term that evokes both "ancestors" and "clay," one's people of origin and one's place of origin. In the narrator's present, "home" -- Indian country, represented in the text by two ancient sites, "old oraibi" and "acoma" -- lies west of where they are. The villages of Old Oraibi and Acoma are generally considered to be the two oldest continually occupied sites in North America. Early in the poem, Oraibi functions as a generic Native American origin place, recognizable as such to Hopis but also to Creeks (though not to TWA attendants). Readers sensitized to issues of tribal sovereignty may agree that the apparent interchangeability of Hopi and Creek here is problematic, but again it is important to keep in mind how early 3 a.m. is, on several metaphorical axes. On one axis 1975, the year of this poem's publication, is a time when the possibility of reassembling an idea of Indianness consistent with emic criteria is only just becoming entertainable. And by the end of the poem, Harjo's pan-Indian vision of return is anchored to the remembered image of a small but promising surrogate sunrise, a memory of
that time simon
took a yellow cab
out to acoma from albuquerque
a twenty five dollar ride
to the center of himself.
By the end of the poem, that is, 3 a.m. has become a time when either a Creek or a Hopi(5) can learn, from the remembered example of "simon," whose beloved Acu was always "the center of himself," that "3 AM is not too late / to find a way back" to a basis for personal and collective Native identity. But to get there, or more precisely to get back there, the narrative "we" need to re-envision their location in time as well as place. At 3 a.m., the hour hand of the analog clock in the Albuquerque airport points due east, directing attention towards the sunrise that, already in motion, will emerge in a few hours: what seemed "too late" now seems, rather, a few hours early.
In this short poem we can also see Harjo expanding the connotational set of the dawn motif by making return to identity a component of discovery (or re-discovery) of identity: the "just two indians" constituting the narrative presence in the poem are "trying to find a way back" to "part of the center / of the world," a destination that by the end of the poem is clearly coterminous with "the center of [one]self." To achieve this return by whatever means (even if it involves using such etic vehicles as TWA planes and yellow cabs) is to effect a transformation from a state of alienation and insignificance to one of identity and centeredness. In "last song," Harjo explores further the elements of discovery and recovery of identity associated with dawn. In this poem, she personifies these two motions in a sort of narrative duet, reversing the order of presentation from that in "3 AM" to give the impulse to return first voicing and, like Hogan in "Celebration," anchoring these elements to a vision of identity with particular place. But by locating Native identity more specifically than Hogan in terms of both geographic and ancestral origins, Harjo in effect introduces an element of tribal specificity to the element of return.
As I have argued elsewhere,(6) geographies as different as those of north-central New Mexico and Oklahoma give rise to different visions of life and how it is to be lived. Such differences of vision are the basis of differences in cultural identities, and in "last song" such a difference underlies the dialogue between the male and female voices about how life gets lived in northeast Oklahoma. From "the last song" of the man, we learn only that he is a native of New Mexico who feels out of place, a man who cannot "stand" the
hot oklahoma summers
where you were born
this humid thick air is choking me
and i want to go back
to new mexico.
The identity of the female speaker, on the other hand, is one with this climate and milieu, and has been from birth:
it is the only way
i know how to breathe
an ancient chant
that my mother knew
came out of a history
woven from wet tall grass
in her womb
Harjo's wording here repeats the idea of human identity with the land that so strongly informs the works of Native American poets from other regions. She invites us to read "her" -- the source of both the "ancient chant" and the very breath of the narrating "i" of these lines -- as either the speaker's biological mother or the earth, whose womb holds a "history" that some humans cannot help but call their own. And, while the male presumably goes on to try to return to his natal New Mexico, the female already knows that "oklahoma will be the last song / i'll ever sing."
In these early works of Hogan and Harjo we can see the emergence of two interesting correlatives to the development and maturation of the dawn motif that continue to figure in other, later dawn poems: the relative maturity of the narrative personae and the expansion of an implied community, a community held together by shared vision, in which these personae are embedded. The narrative perspective in Linda Hogan's dawn poem, for instance, is that of a child (not an adult(7)) who comes to see the red relation between herself, the land, and all that moves at sunrise. Even though the subject of the poem's sentences is "we," suggesting some degree of community in which the narrator is embedded, still the persona's vision comes as more of a private epiphany, a personal revelation of the significance of the event she has both experienced and become part of. By comparison, the narrative perspective in Harjo's early work is more matured, and her parent-aged, tribally specific personae discover common cause (and even a degree of identity) with coevals from other nations, in the process establishing the image of sunrise as a merge site for those differing identities and traditions and also incorporating the idea of return into the motif. Still, the perspective in these poems of Harjo and Hogan is that of a relative newcomer, one who is just discovering the way that tradition and renewal become a single motion at sunrise. In contrast, Simon Ortiz's early (1973) dawn poem "To Insure Survival"(8) is a dramatic monologue narrated by an adult male, a father who already knows something of what Hogan's and Harjo's narrators learn about the relation between self, the land, all that is in motion there, and sunrise. In one sense, then, the narrator of Ortiz's poem can be read as an older, male version of Hogan's narrator, who has survived to become a progenitor of the next generation. In another, equally important sense, Hogan's young female narrator is re-presented in Ortiz's text also by the narrator's newborn daughter,(9) who is as yet too new to the Fifth World to have seen, let alone come to understand, what her father tells her is waiting to been seen "in five more days." Here, Hogan's nonspecific, vaguely communal "us" takes on more solid shape as two people, the narrating persona and his newborn audience of one, together representing two genders from two generations in very private, but also very audible, communication one to the other. Here, too, the child in the poem represents a second generation of Native identity, one that coexists with a representative of the previous generation who is present and able to tell her about her identity's Indian underpinnings.
According to the narrator in stanza one, what the child will see, at sunrise, is the transformation of the land's own life from immanence to visibility,
. . . a stone cliff
blue to red
to all the colors of the earth.
This is also the sequence of colors that the parent is watching his own daughter's body go through at birth. And because this is the very first thing he tells his daughter about her identity we might anticipate that her new name, sign of her identity, would bespeak her kinship to, and identity with, the sandstone mesas whose colors during the motion of emergence are identical with her own. But Ortiz models a narrative vision that has survived and grown beyond this first light and first principle of Indian identity. Embedding the story of his daughter's emergence within the context of his own Acoma origin traditions, the narrator, like the story he goes on to give his daughter, asserts that she is born into identity with more than the land. In the second stanza he introduces the Keresan creatrix figure Spider Grandmother,(10) who, he tells his daughter, has been weaving an identity for her newest granddaughter to grow into ever since the beginning of time and place; in the third stanza the narrator emphasizes the child's kin identity with her own mother, whose blood the newborn child still wears, and by extension the child's identity with her mother's people and traditions; and finally, in the fourth stanza, he tells his daughter of her kin relationship to the katsinas, "the stones with voices,/ the plants with bells" who will gather at sunrise in five more days to dance welcome to the newest member of the congregation of Acoma life. For the poet/parent, as for Spider Grandmother and the katsinas, his daughter is the latest incarnation of the ageless project of Acoma cultural survival and renewal, and her survival insures this joint project of Spider Grandmother, the katsinas, and the People for at least one more generation. And as the poem's dedicatory epigraph gives us to understand, the best single word for "all these, all these," a term that encompasses the need to insure survival of native identity in the current and coming years, a name as strong and ancient as the stone cliffs and as fragile and new as a child still wet with her mother's blood, is "Dawn."(11)
In Ortiz's poem "To Insure Survival," then, we can see a merging of Hogan's and Harjo's uses of dawn -- functioning as a vehicle for the interrelated concepts of ancestry and place of origin, of discovery and return -- with the use of dawn as a name as a means of insuring the survival of native identity. Harjo, too, seems to be working with this aspect of the development of the dawn motif in her 1986 prose poem "Rainy Dawn," the fourth piece in the second section of In Mad Love and War. Like "To Insure Survival," "Rainy Dawn" is cast as a dramatic monologue; but whereas Ortiz's text is addressed to the newborn daughter, Harjo's conflates "[t]hat day so hot" when "we both stood poised at that door from the east" with the time "thirteen years later" when the words are uttered by the narrating mother to her implied immediate audience of one, her thirteen-year-old daughter. Again as in Ortiz's text, Dawn is cast as a child who carries, in her existence as in her name, the promise and the hopes of cultural tradition: as the child aligns for birth in "the bowl of my body," the narrative persona reminds her that "ancestors lined up to give you a name made of their dreams cast once more into this stew of precious spirit and flesh." In this text, as in "3 AM," the concept of an identity that one is born into tends to anchor in a Southwestern rather than Oklahoman traditional cultural milieu: the narrator's vision, like the child's name, comes from "the approximate direction of Acoma, and farther on to the roofs of the houses of the gods who have learned there are no endings, only beginnings." Still, Harjo in 1986 is careful to keep Muskogee antecedents alive and part of the dawn/Dawn story: at the time of delivery, albeit located geographically in New Mexico, "we both . . . listened . . . to the sound of our grandmothers' voices, the brushing wind of sacred wings, the rattle of raindrops in dry gourds" [italics mine]. No less a child of Acoma's Grandmother Spider, Rainy Dawn here is clearly also dedicated to those other grandmothers whose "ancient chant" is re-embodied in the life and song of the persona of "last song"; their life is a part of the "it" that Dawn's first breath is, according to the narrator, a "promise to take it on like the rest of us, this immense journey, for love, for rain."
A fourth major exponent of the cultural values constellated by the dawn motif is Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso. From the perspective both of a mother in "A Breeze Swept Through" and her prose-poem "White Bead Girl" and from the perspective of an elder, literally a grandmother, in her birth celebration poems "Shisóí" and "Blue Horses Rush In," the dawn visions of Tapahonso's personae provide a bridge between the relative naïveté of the generations represented by the personae of earlier dawn poems and the wisdom generally attributed to the elders, themselves intermediaries between the uninitiated young and the ancestors.
The title poem of Tapahonso's 1987 A Breeze Swept Through is inscribed "For my daughters, Lori Tazbah and Misty Dawn"; like Hogan's "Celebration," Ortiz's "To Insure Survival," and Harjo's "Rainy Dawn" it is a birth poem, formally celebrating the birth of the first daughter in the first half of the poem and the second daughter in the second. It is also a dawn poem, in which Navajo and Acoma ancestries, different as they are, are brought into delicate balance through the agency of dawn imagery. Lori Tazbah, though born at the time of an "August sunset," is introduced as "The first born of dawn woman," aligning the narrative persona with dawn and her firstborn, "named for wild desert flowers" in the Navajo way, with her mother's people, a child of the dawn despite her evening emergence time. The second daughter, Misty Dawn, is, like her cousin Rainy Dawn,(12) strongly identified with Acoma in the poem: at the moment of her mid-November emergence during "early morning darkness," as "outside / the mist lifted as the sun is born again," we are told that "east of Acoma, a sandstone boulder split in / two." Like every misty dawn, this daughter "is born of damp mist and early sun"; like every newborn Navajo girlchild, including her sister Lori Tazbah and her mother, "she is born again woman of dawn"; still, like her cousin Rainy Dawn, who "come[s] forth / the color of the stone cliffs at dawn," Misty Dawn is "born knowing the warm smoothness of rock. / She is born knowing her own morning strength." As a figure in contemporary poetry, Dawn here functions not only as a name bearing a certain ancestral cultural burden but as a site for the amalgamation of tribal identities as disparate as those of the Diné and the Acu-meh, the people of Acu.
In her most recent collection, Blue Horses Rush In (1997), Tapahonso continues to enrich the connotations of "dawn," understood as a name, an event tied in complex ways to both time and place, and a metaphor for both discovery and recovery. Nested between two poems in which a female persona celebrates newborn granddaughters, the story "White Bead Girl" bears several interesting resemblances to Harjo's "Rainy Dawn": formally, both are narrative monologues cast typographically as prose pieces; thematically, the narrators of both are mothers living through the anxiety of separation from their adolescent daughters, and in both cases the narrator anchors both the child's identity and the promise of her return in an image of dawn that is part of the daughter's name. In both, though perhaps more overtly in Tapahonso's piece, dawn is becoming a story as well as an emergence event. As Tapahonso makes clear elsewhere in this collection,(13) "Each morning, White Bead Girl arrives," and this is also "white dawn girl." In "White Bead Girl," the story begins with one dawn and ends with another. The narrative opens with the words "This morning the sun shines bright," and during this first dawn the narrator realizes that her daughter, "just fourteen," "has run away"; in the last words of the narrative, delivered sometime after receiving a police phone call at "3 :15 the next morning" and then going to bring her daughter home from the station, the narrator "pray[s] for the future that, at this moment, in the pure glow of the moon, shines on all of us like nothing I've ever seen."(14) In between, in the spirit of story invoked by the epigraph by Li-Young Lee ("The characters survive through the telling, / the teller survives / through [her] telling . . .") and very much in the spirit of the story about a "yellow cab" that helps "just two indians" make it through the dark predawn hours in Harjo's "3 AM," the narrator retells the story of her daughter's name. We are to understand that the narrator's internal monologue is, like the Hózhójí, or "blessing ceremony," the narrator recalls having been performed over her daughter a year ago, part of a ceremony working for recovery and return. Compared to the description of the child given in Harjo's "Rainy Dawn," the identity Tapahonso's narrator attributes to her departed, and recovered, daughter is at once more densely tribally specific and more explicitly mixed blood or pan-Indian. This specificity is especially telling in the narrator's description of how her daughter's Navajo and Acoma names align her identity with both of these places and cultural traditions:
On her fourth day, my [Navajo] parents presented her to the sun, our father, and named her "At'ééd Abíní" in memory of the early winter morning that welcomed her. Her name means the billows of morning mist that fill the valley above the winding river. Her name means woman of the morning -- the first spark of creativity, the first ray of sunlight, the last glimmer of the white moon before it melts in the west. Her name means the world waited for her then rejoiced, as we did at her birth. Later that month, we took her to her nalis, her father's [Acoma] parents, and they, too, had a naming for her. [. . .] Her name at her father's village is ceremonial and is called aloud when the katzinas and the sacred clowns present to her and the other children baskets of fruits, nuts, sweet treats, and pottery. Various katzinas call her several times a year [....] She walks out shyly to the center of the plaza and nods thank you as the whole pueblo watches. When the dancers call her, it is to remind us all of the happiness she brings to the family. These are her names -- my slender daughter who now is in place I am afraid to imagine. [. . .] I think that the bright morning sun recalls naming her years ago. Watch over her, I whisper. ("White Bead Girl" 66)
Like White Bead Girl and White Shell Woman in Navajo origin traditions, the daughter's name draws attention to the eastern horizon at dawn and to the motion of airborne moisture at the moment before sunrise -- in Navajo as in Acoma experience, misty dawn, a time of emergence that is also a time of re-emergence, regeneration, and return. In this passage we can begin to see, too, that a term like "mixed blood" is, finally, a pale and misleading description of the state of such an identity -- "enriched," or "augmented," comes closer. As Tapahonso's Hózhójí singer puts it while he is explaining "the sacred stones and the ears of corn": "'This,' he said, 'represents Changing Woman. This represents you. It shows us that young girls like yourself are strong because you're Navajo. You have extra help, too, because of your Pueblo side,' he said" ("White Bead Girl" 69).
To the extent that every Navajo woman is Changing Woman, the narrator of "Blue Horses Rush In" can be understood as a more mature or riper version of both the runaway daughter of"White Bead Girl" and her mother. Strategically situated as the first poem in Sáanii Dahataal. The Women Are Singing (1993) and the last in Blue Horses Rush In (1997), a formal reminder perhaps that every ending is also a beginning, Tapahonso's birth poem "Blue Horses Rush In" heralds a third generation of Navajo consciousness and identity formation. Like the father who speaks his daughter into identity with Acoma in "To Insure Survival," but also like Grandmother Spider who in the same poem "speaks" a life for her newest granddaughter to grow into, the grandmother who narrates "Blue Horses Rush In" crafts a statement that is both a prayer for the child's survival and a vision of cultural tradition -- an identity -- for the child to grow into. "Blue Horses" is also a text in which the sacred directional colors of Navajo tradition converge at the moment of the child's birth, harking back to the colored mountains in the four directions,(15) the boundary markers of Dinétah put in motion by First Man prior to the advent of the Glittering World, these four directions correlate also with the four stages of female identity (daughter, mother, grandmother, ancestor) through which, if all goes well, the child will sunwise move. In Navajo tradition, "blue horses" are aligned with the second stage, generative motherhood(16); this is the phase the narrator moves beyond when she becomes shimásani, grandmother, and which, when blue horses rush in at dawn, becomes an immanent part of the life of her immediate audience, the newborn child, Shisóí 'aláaji' naaghígíí (my daughter's daughter who lives furthest away).
I want to close this essay as I began it, by drawing attention back to Carter Revard's poem "When Earth Brings." "When Earth Brings" is the most recent of all the texts discussed in this essay; it is also, I think, the most inclusive of them all. Like both Ortiz and Tapahonso, Revard begins with a dedicatory epigraph celebrating the event of individual human birth, and in the body of the poem he embeds his presentation of the event within a specific nation's emergence traditions. To be more precise: in the spirit of the 1992 Returning the Gift festival, the poem presents the 1992 birth of Rainy Dawn Ortiz's child Krista Rae, Creek and Acoma on her mother's side and Navajo on her father's, as the fulfillment also of the Washashe Osage account of the unending, constantly rehappening emergence of the People. In this way the poem celebrates birth, mixed-blood or pan-Indian identity, and specific tribal tradition simultaneously.
Formally, in a structure that echoes both Hogan's Red Clay and Harjo's "last song" duet, "When Earth Brings" is composed of two sentences of seventeen and sixteen lines each respectively, the lines center-justified on the page. Strategically located at the center of the text, on both its vertical and horizontal axes, looking all the more central because it is also easily the shortest line in the poem, is the single word "Dawn," the first word of the second sentence. In the first sentence the stars, who are also ancestors to the Osage, speak to the Little Ones, the People, whom they address as "grandchildren." They remind the Little Ones that the sun watches over them on behalf of its relatives, the other stars, until such time as earth brings the night again and the starlight that is the source of life on earth again becomes visible. In the second sentence, the poem's choral narrative voice goes on to remind us again that we come from the stars, and that "children come into a world / again and again," and that again and again the grandparents speak through the "rainy light" at dawn. Dawn, they give us to know, is one of those special times when "the earth meets heaven," a time when each child, who is also a grandchild, can see what the grandparents have prepared for each and all of them to see in "a small pool," where rain and daylight combine on earth to form a natural mirror. What is given for her, and us, to see is a vision of herself as a child in the company of the stars who, for now, are "go[ing] quietly into the / blue air" at sunrise, at dawn. It is a moment in which she is given to see herself as she truly is, as the living bridge between "the world and heaven in which [we] live / and move and have [our] being," this day as every day.
One interesting way this poem adds to the dawn motif is by incorporating a noncorporeal narrative persona into the tradition. In Hogan's and Harjo's early work, narrative personae are left to learn about their native identity pretty much on their own: that is, dawn is a time of discovery for them. In Ortiz's and Tapahonso's birth celebration poems, however, the story of the child's identity as one of the People is given to her as part of the event of her birth by a blood relative, either a parent or grandparent; that is, dawn is less a time of discovery than of regeneration, when a child's birthright is fashioned into a story that is both given to her and also, as it were, comes to be held in trust for her by her relations, human and otherwise. Now, as though to insure the survival of the People beyond even the possibility of loss, "When Earth Brings" has a whole host of ancestors, as numerous as the night-sky stars, first whispering reminders of identity to the newest Little One as she is making the transition from starlight to human life and then, in the second sentence, prophesying the day she will re-see her status for herself, at dawn, in a pool of water and light. That is, we are given to understand that, like Plato's human "soul" at its purest, the child auditor in this poem already knows where she comes from, and how transformation and emergence are aspects of one another. Beyond discovery and regeneration, dawn for such a child brings reassurance of one's own immortal identity. The dawn poems of Ortiz, Harjo, and Tapahonso emphasize the tremendous importance of storytelling as a primary means of transferring Native identity, first from one generation to the next and then across two generational divides; "When Earth Brings" holds out the hope that, even in the absence of human storytellers, any child of the dawn carries the knowledge of her origins and her ancestors within her, awaiting only the moment when light, water, and vision interact to awaken her to it, and it to her. In this way, perhaps "When Earth Brings" can be read also as an interpretive gloss on Hogan's early dawn poem "Celebration: Birth of a Colt."
One final word about Revard's expansion of the dawn motif in "When Earth Brings." Like Hogan's "Celebration" and Ortiz's "To Insure Survival," Revard's "When Earth Brings" ends by relating sunrise to vision. In Hogan's and Ortiz's poems, at sunrise the land is revealed to us as the source of life, and life originates in the land in Harjo's and Tapahonso's dawn poems as well. In Revard's poem, however, the source of life is revealed to lie elsewhere: consistent with the Washashe origin story, the stars (including the earth's sun and moon) are the beings whose light becomes life, human and otherwise, when that light interacts with water and the stuff of earth in a place called hoega. The land, by Osage reckoning, is the vehicle, not the source, of our being as humans. But whether the source of life is Revard's starstuff or Tapahonso's earth, in contemporary Indian poetry the grandparents, the parents, and the little ones agree that the best time for illuminating our origins and all our relations is sunrise, and that for all three generations "Dawn / is a good word" for that event.
1The term is Lincoln's: see his Native American Renaissance (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983). I am aware that the term "renaissance" has recently incurred criticism from those who believe it falsely implies that Native literary production was somehow dormant prior to the boom of print-text publication beginning around the 1960s. Perhaps "efflorescence" would be a more correct term; I still prefer Lincoln's, warts and all. [return to text]
2The epigraph reads, in full, "For Joy and Daisy, grandmothers; for Simon, grandfather; for Rainy Dawn and Chris, parents; for Krista Rae, child; and for all our relatives." [return to text]
3Hogan, Red Clay (Greenfield Center NY: Greenfield Review, 1991) 1. [return to text]
4These two poems, which appeared originally in Harjo's chapbook The Last Song (Las Cruces NM: Puerto del Sol, 1975), are reprinted in Geary Hobson, The Remembered Earth (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1980) 109-10. [return to text]
5Or even a Laguna -- see Silko's memorable poem "Toe'osh," where once again in the last lines "Simon" serves as a role model for, as Vizenor puts it, survivance. Interestingly, the date given in this poem's dedicatory line -- "for Simon Ortiz, July 1973" -- is the same month and year given in the dedicatory lines of Ortiz's "To Insure Survival" as the birth date of Harjo's and Ortiz's daughter, Dawn. [return to text]
6See Nelson, "Place, Vision, and Identity," American Indian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues, ed. Dane Morrison (New York: Peter Lang, 1997) 261-79. [return to text]
7Or more precisely, not an adult at the time in the narration, as perhaps distinguishable from the time of the narration. This kind of narrative play (a species, perhaps, of dramatic irony?) between "time in" and "time of" seems to me to characterize much of what is best in contemporary Native American poetry that overtly or implicitly appeals for its authority to the idea of oral traditionalism. [return to text]
8Originally published in Going for the Rain (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), this poem is reprinted in Hobson's The Remembered Earth (271) and, more recently, in Ortiz's Woven Stone (Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1992) 48-49. [return to text]
9In case it is not obvious, I am presuming here that the antecedent of the pronoun "you," the grammatically-identified audience in the text of the poem, is the subject noun of the dedicatory lines of the poem, "for Rainy Dawn / born July 5, 1973" -- or, if the "you" of the subsequent lines is understood to be plural, that Rainy Dawn is part of that projected audience. [return to text]
10Readers may quickly, and correctly, recognize Ortiz's Spider Grandmother as identical with Leslie Silko's "Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought-Woman" (Ceremony) and Paula Gunn Allen's "Tse che nako" (The Sacred Hoop 13) or "Sussistinaku, The Spider, Old Woman"(The Woman Who Owned the Shadows 207). [return to text]
11More precisely, the name "Rainy Dawn" conjures the image of dawn coupled with the blessing of rain. In the context of Acoma traditions this rain can in turn be understood as shiwanna, the ancestor spiritstuff that works for growth and regeneration. [return to text]
12As it happens, Misty Dawn's father, Earl Ortiz, is brother to Simon Ortiz, Rainy Dawn's father. [return to text]
13The poem is titled "A Song for the Direction of North." In it, Tapahonso works with the propinquity of north/black/death/ancestors to east/white/birth/childhood, as constellated concepts in Navajo tradition: on a circular spectrum, the midpoints of black (night, death) and white (dawn, birth) are 90 degrees apart, rather than 180. Compare Shelley's' classic observation (in "Ode to the West Wind") regarding the relationship of winter to spring. [return to text]
14Luci Tapahonso, "White Bead Girl," in Blue Horses Rush In (Tucson: U of Arizona P, 62-71); see pages 62 and 71 for the opening and closing words of the story. [return to text]
15I say this with some trepidation. There are several rather important, though perhaps minor for most critical intents and purposes, variations in the two published versions of this text. In the 1993 (Sáanii Dahataal) version, "For Chamisa Bah Edmo, / who was born March 6, 1991," the sequence of colors and directions from which the herds of spirit horses arrive is given as white/west, yellow/east, blue/south, and black/ north; in the 1997 (Blue Horses Rush In) version, "For Chamisa Bah Edmo, Shisóí 'aláaji' naaghígíí," the sequence is white/east, blue/south, yellow/south, and black/north. The sequence of combinations is not only different in the two versions but also both versions differ from the traditional (as I understand it) sequence, which would be white/east, blue/south, yellow/west, and north/black. [return to text]
16</ A>Cf. Nia Francisco's allusion to this motif in the title of her collection of poetry, Blue Horses for Navajo
Women. [return to text]
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
-----. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1983.
Arnett, Carroll [Gogisgi]. "Early Song." Tsalagi. New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1976. Rpt. Hobson. 130.
Francisco, Nia. Blue Horses for Navajo Women. Greenfield Center NY: Greenfield Review, 1994.
Harjo, Joy. "3 AM" and "the last song." The Last Song. Las Cruces NM: Puerto del Sol, 1975. Rpt. Hobson. 109-10.
-----. "Rainy Dawn." In Mad Love and War. Middletown CT: Wesleyan U P, 1990. 32.
Hobson, Geary, ed. The Remembered Earth. An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Literature. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1980.
Hogan, Linda. "Celebration: Birth of a Colt." Calling Myself Home. Greenfield Review: 1978. Rpt. Red Clay. 16.
-----. Red Clay. Greenfield Center NY: Greenfield Review, 1991.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
Nelson, Robert M. "Place, Vision, and Identity in Native American Literatures." American Indian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues. Ed. Dane Morrison. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. 261 -79.
Ortiz, Simon. "To Insure Survival." Hobson. 271. Rpt. Woven Stone. Sun Tracks 21. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1992. 48-49.
Revard, Carter. "When Earth Brings." An Eagle Nation. Sun Tracks 24. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993. 123.
Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.
-----. "Toe'osh: A Laguna Coyote Story." Storyteller. New York: Seaver, 1981. 236-39.
Tapahonso, Luci. "A Breeze Swept Through" A Breeze Swept Through. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1991. 2.
----- . "Blue Horses Rush In." Sáanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. Sun Tracks 23. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993. 1 -2. Rpt. w/ changes in Blue Horses Rush In. Sun Tracks 34. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1997. 103-04
-----. "White Bead Girl." Blue Horses Rush In. Sun Tracks 34. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1997. 61-71.