Five questions for Joseph Bruchac

In the remarkable Voices of the People (Reycraft, 12 years and up), Joseph Bruchac writes thirty-four biographical poems about notable Native people, spanning approximately 1000 C.E. through the twentieth century. A reproduction of a piece of contemporary fine artwork by various artists, which resonates with the person or the theme, is thoughtfully paired with each entry. See also our National Poetry Month tag and the Guide/Reviews Database subject tag Poetry.

1. What was your research process like for these thirty-four biographical poems?

Joseph Bruchac: I could write a book in response to this first question! In some ways, my research process for those poems was the past half century of my life. That is how long I’ve been immersing myself deeply in learning the Indigenous histories of “America” that were not taught to me in any school. I knew personally some of the people I chose to write about — such as Wilma Mankiller, who was in a creative writing workshop I taught decades ago with the Cherokee author Robert J. Conley; or Maria Tallchief, who was a fellow teacher at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute; or Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who was a dear friend. I’d already written entire books about others, including The Peacemaker, Pocahontas, Tisquantum, Handsome Lake, Sacajawea, Sequoyah, Ely Parker, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Jim Thorpe (three books and a documentary film), and Chester Nez. And every other person I chose to include was someone whose life I already knew about, often for decades. So, in many cases, what I wrote came not from present-day research, but from memory. Further, that past research was not just done in libraries or online. It was often through hearing stories from descendants and tribal members of that person.

My biggest problem in choosing which people to write about was not a lack of subjects, but (on the one hand) too many of them and (on the other hand) my desire to spread it out across the continent and through a wide range of tribal nations. I can name, for example, at least a dozen or more Lakota people I might have included. Red Cloud, for example. (Luckily my friend S. D. Nelson wrote a superb picture book about him.) Usually, I would write my first draft of each of the poems purely from memory — then go back and carefully fact-check everything. I created files on each of the thirty-four people who ended up being selected.

2. How did you choose poetry as the way to tell their (and your) stories?

JB: I chose poetry for several reasons. First of all, I think that poetry is one of the most effective ways to say a great deal in a memorable way in a short time. My favorite poems have been like that for me, imbedding themselves in my mind and seeming as fresh and new as the first time I read them — such as Shakespeare’s sonnets or almost any poem by Mary Oliver. Secondly, I think that the short lines I chose for these poems make them more accessible to younger readers. I tried to have them match the cadence of speech. In fact, in every case, my first draft was actually dictated into my cellphone, then downloaded and revised. So it really did have the flow of the spoken word. Further, as one who sings traditional Wabanaki songs and has been part of a family drum group, I tried to compose poems that echoed the rhythms and movement of traditional Native music and dance. As in my poem for Maria Tallchief (with a bit of Stravinsky mixed in, perhaps).

But, maybe, I just should have said: I’ve always loved poetry.

3. Your book covers important individuals up through the late twentieth century — who are some twenty-first century Native people whose names everyone should know?

JB: In selecting the people to spotlight in Voices of the People, I only included those who had finished their journey through this life and walked on. The list of Native people who remain among us in this twenty-first century — still acting as important voices for the people — is incredibly long. It would have to include many who already were known in the twentieth century. The wonderful activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe) is one. Another is N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), the first Native person to win a Pulitzer Prize, whose work has inspired a generation of Native authors. There is not space enough to list them all, people in every walk of life. Of those who have first come to public prominence in this new century, dozens immediately come to mind. Even if I just wanted to limit it to Native people from Oklahoma, such as Sterlin Harjo (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma), a filmmaker and comedian whose FX series Reservation Dogs has provided a wonderfully truthful picture of contemporary Native life, Joy Harjo (Mvskoke), the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2019–2022, and John Herrington (Chickasaw), the first Native astronaut. If I skipped over to Laguna Pueblo Nation folks there would be Deb Haaland, former member of Congress and current Secretary of the Interior, and Dr. Lee Francis IV, activist, educator, and comic book creator, who founded Native Realities Press. I could also back up to the twentieth century again to include Leslie Silko, poet and writer, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. And I could go on, and on, and on.

4. Can you describe the selection process for the outstanding artwork and how art was paired with text?

JB: The idea of pairing contemporary Native art with these poems was a decision that my editor Wiley Blevins and I made together. I suggested artists and places where their work could be found and then much of the work done after that was on Wiley’s part. Some of the artwork was directly related to the subject of the poem — such as the painting of Jim Thorpe — while other pieces had no direct relationship other than waking the mind and eyes of the reader and introducing them to the rich, diverse nature of Native reality — including the sense of humor that’s very much a part of all our cultures. Our hope was that it would not just introduce these artists to our readers but deepen their experience as they read the poems. I approved the final choices, but most of the credit goes to Wiley for getting us there.

5. How can we best support these amazing visual artists?

JB: We’ve included bios of each of the artists in the back of the book. Virtually all of them can be Googled if you want to see more of their work. You can also find places — such as the National Museum of the American Indian which has branches in NYC and Washington, DC — where some of their work may be seen. I urge people to support them in whatever way they can — perhaps by buying original works or prints and by going to shows where you can see their art. Or by letting others know about the exciting, original, whimsical, serious, creative ways in which our visual artists of this new generation help us see the world through “Indian” eyes.

From the March 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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