Esther Belin is
trying to shape a uniquely Navajo way of writing.
Outside her office at the Peaceful Spirit Treatment Center
on the Southern Ute Reservation, Navajo poet Esther Belin takes
in the thin late-fall sun. Here in the Four Corners of southwestern
Colorado, where the Southern Ute, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute and Jicarilla
Apache reservations come together, the landscape is both beautiful
and brutal in its spareness, much like Belin's poems. She's also
an intake counselor at the addiction center, and she lives and works
in that world of intersectionality, where language and identity
overlap with the triumphs and failures of addiction.
Belin (photo by Paul Bikis)
Hometowns: Los Angeles, California; Durango, Colorado
Vocation: Poet, writer, artist, teacher, addiction
On picking up inspiration from Berkeley slam poets in
the '80s: "It was so brash and in your face. All the poems
I was thinking were quieter. I had anger. It wasn't that same
kind of anger, but I really liked the sonical quality, and
it inspired an idea for the form of poems."
How her poems are like road trips: "Road narratives
are typical of Navajo people. We travel so much, especially
for work or school. You gain an appreciation for your culture
and the land and the landscape as you're driving and telling
stories. Natural markers are universal to people; it's connection
with a place."
On teaching: "Kids can't necessarily relate to Emily
Dickinson, but if you're talking about stuff that's right
outside their window, that's an entry point to language."
|Her new book, Of Cartography, is framed by the four
cardinal directions and their symbolism in Navajo history. It
digs into the cultural and physical representation of Navajo
language, how landscape shapes identity and what it means to
Her poems try to capture the rhythm and storytelling intrinsic
to the Diné language. "I wanted to investigate whether
there was a Navajo meter or diction, and how that voice could
come out," she says. "It's not just a collection of poems
squeezed together. This was about pairing identity politics
with Navajo philosophy, which is all very orderly, and then
telling my story through the structure."
That structure shapes the reading experience: Some of
the poems are lists, others are questions. Some are wordless
grids, X-marked within four quadrants. As a reader, I felt
initially uncertain how to read the book, almost queasy. That's
deliberate: Belin wants to show Navajo readers that they don't
have to conform to English standards while giving outsiders
a sense of the complicated poetics of tribal storytelling.
"It's for the person who is willing to engage with the pieces,"
she says. "Which can be difficult, but that's kind of the
Belin's first book, From the Belly of my Beauty,
was published in 1999 after the birth of her second daughter.
It was a more linear look at being an Indian woman growing
up in a white world, stretched between two landscapes: Southern
California, where her parents were placed through the federal
Indian relocation program, and the Navajo Reservation, where
she's now spent 20 years with her husband and four daughters.
That book, a highly visceral depiction of an off-reservation
Indian (Belin says she's comfortable with that word), challenged
the stereotypes of Native identity, rebuking the kind of questions
she's been asked since kindergarten. It won the 2000 American
In the nearly two decades since, she's taught college and
high school writing, finished an MFA program, started counseling
and settled into the Southwest. Of Cartography is a sweeping
reflection of all that, showing how tribal language can translate
feelings and how poetry can help heal the wounds from a history
twists up her long black hair as we talk, revealing big turquoise
earrings. Our conversation skips between critical race theory, road
trips, her daughter's college syllabus, and the arcane knot of reservation
land-use policy. Her poems braid disparate lines together, too,
juxtaposing small-scale details, like evening chores, with the history
of Indian relocation policy.
That bundling of ideas draws on Diné language and culture.
"The written tradition for us started in boarding school," she says.
"Tribal language is not compartmentalized; it's about how you're
connected to all these things. Tribal people have a history of trauma
from learning that communication form, of reformulating to fit the
Because of that, she says, she started Of Cartography
with form instead of content. She sought to reflect the fluidity
of tribal language, in which there's no single linear way to tell
a story. Many of the poems can be read in several directions, and
in poems like "Before we Begin," she plays with line breaks and
blank space, to show motion and connection.
She has several other poetic projects in the works, including
a biography of Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe, a member of the
Sac and Fox Nation, which looks at Native masculinity, and a book
about the history and federal policies of Navajo land. "The easy
piece is doing it through poem. Or at least it is for me," she says.
"That's my natural voice."
Belin's poems are presented in a graphical way. (image Of
She's also working with three other writers on a Diné
reader, an anthology of works from 20 Navajo writers, which she
sees as a resource for Navajo students and teachers who come to
the reservation without a background in tribal scholarship, a way
to bridge the gap between state curriculum and Navajo culture.
Belin says she wants Of Cartography to show how structure
and language can start to form a tribal canon, and to charge the
reader with connecting the dots and understanding the history that
shapes Indian life. The last poem, "Assignment 44," holds that directive:
"Analyze the above conversation. Read it aloud. Read it Loudly.
Weave / a thread through it."
Heather Hansman lives in Seattle. She's currently writing a
book about water management and the Green River. Follow @hhansman