Canku Ota Logo
Canku Ota
Canku Ota Logo
(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
pictograph divider
A Map Of Language Charted By Navajo Philosophy
by Heather Hansman - High Country News

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.

Esther Belin (photo by Paul Bikis)
Esther Belin
Age: 49

Hometowns: Los Angeles, California; Durango, Colorado

Vocation: Poet, writer, artist, teacher, addiction counselor

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 be Indian.

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 point."

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 Book Award.

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 of marginalization.

Belin 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 structure."

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."

Esther Belin's poems are presented in a graphical way. (image Of Cartography)

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

pictograph divider
Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us
Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us
pictograph divider
  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  
Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000 - 2017 of Vicki Williams Barry and Paul Barry.
Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo
The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the
Copyright © 1999 - 2017 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.

Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!