American Indian Slam Poets

06/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When a team of Slam poets from the Santa Fe Indian School compete in the Brave New Voices International Youth Festival in Washington, DC next month, it will mark their second straight year in the competition. This year, though, they're garnering far more attention. The group's talents have already earned them a write-up in the New York Times, and an HBO crew is profiling them for an upcoming documentary on the competition.

The team, made up of seven American Indian high school students, borrows from its roots to present a unique and powerful form of slam poetry. Slam poetry -- which values both writing and performance -- is more commonly recognized as a venue for city poets focusing on the triumphs and struggles of urban life. But it's proven to be an excellent fit for American Indian youth as well. Slam poetry gives them a chance both to explore and express their rich culture and to celebrate the music and rhythms of American Indian languages.

The Times has a great page where you can experience the performances for yourself.

In one of the featured poems called "Kinaalda," April Chavez invokes the imagery of birth to describe the joy of attaining womanhood.

"...I am a changing girl.
Age marks sit on my skin
like scribbles in the sand
and scream for me to find my woman name,
so I may journey to the Eastern tree of grandmothers.

Changing woman arrives first
and with her cupped hands filled with medicine water
she feeds me.
My body aches with motions of eruptions
in my womb, the embryonic seed of womanhood

She gives herself over to the power of her performance, and, as she puts it, "worlds of ancestors shudder from the vibrations of my feet."

Fellow team member Nolan Eskeets takes a different tone in his "Letter to Grandpa," wherein he says, "I write to tell, not necessarily my story, but rather the story of my brothers and sisters, my relatives." In the reverent and nostalgic poem, Eskeets describes to his grandfather (now deceased) how he has found strength in poetry. It is "a way to weave prayer into my hands," he says. "I have learned to wield my language as my weapon, my art, my essence."

There is precedence for the students' success. Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian and a well-known poet of the more traditional, written variety, was in his younger days -- I was surprised to learn -- a three time poetry slam champion. Alexie is terrific on stage. He's funny, and he often uses humor in his poems to combat or complicate grief. He told the British newspaper The Guardian, "I was always the depressed guy in the basement. But I've borrowed [a] sense of humour and made it darker and more deadly -- a weapon of self-defence. Being funny you win hearts quicker; people laughing are more apt to listen." You can see this in his poem "Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World" (from Thrash by Hanging Loose Press):

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He's astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. "Hey, Ma,

I say, "Can I talk to Poppa?" She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. "Shit, Mom,"
I say. "I forgot he's dead. I'm sorry--

How did I forget?" "It's okay," she says.
"I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table--
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years--

And I didn't realize my mistake
Until this afternoon." My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

I'm sure Alexie would agree that it isn't just grief that "calls us to the things of this world." There is, of course, the power of artistic expression.

In a poem the Santa Fe Indian School team performs together called "Writing," they refer to poetry as "the sun feeding us" and "the dancing cornstalk." They're impressive metaphors. And for a people trying to hold on to a culture and a language, poetry is proving to be a very real means doing just that.