“The Diné Reader” is obviously a labor of love with the gestation period taking over a decade of devoted research and collaboration. The four editors have wide backgrounds: Esther Berlin is Navajo and in 2000 won the American Book Award for her first published book, “From the Belly of My Beauty.” Jeff Berglund is a professor of English, with a focus on Native American literature and film at Northern Arizona University. He has written and collaborated on four books. Connie A. Jacobs has written and edited two books with more books in production, and she is a professor emerita at San Juan College. Anthony K. Webster has written and co-edited four books and he is an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Navajo/Diné (also called The People) are neighbors to the south and west of Durango. The Navajo Nation, Diné bikéyah, is bordered by four sacred mountains. It is the largest reservation in the country with 16 million acres. That is 25,000 square miles with about 300,000 residents. The Nation is located in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its language is Diné bizaad.
“The Diné Reader” includes 30-plus writers from all areas of the Navajo Nation. Each writer is introduced with a black-and-white photo and an interview. Each writer/artist (because many featured in this book have multiple areas of creative expression) were asked these questions in their interviews:
What do you hope readers learn from your poems/writing?How does the Navajo language influence your work?Who or what inspires you?What advice do you have for beginning writers?Who was the first Navajo you read?What was your favorite book in high school? What are you reading now?After the interviews, the writers’ works are featured. This well-structured format allows readers to learn and compare each writer’s experience and perspective, which can add more insight into and appreciation of their work.
The variety and scope of the work included in this volume is vast – much like the land that created its people. There is massive diversity in the landscape on the reservation, from verdant mountains and streams to the arid and seemingly empty deserts and everything in between.
The life experiences of the Diné also has a massive influence on these writers. The Diné were rounded up and imprisoned in America’s first concentration camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In 1863, they were herded from their homeland 400 miles in what is remembered as the Long Walk. Many, many died. In 1879, the first boarding schools were started, and the young were taken from their families and were forced to lose their culture and language. In 1937, the U.S. government came to the reservation and slaughtered the people’s livestock. Then in 1956, the Indian Relocation Act sent Native Americans from the reservations to the big cities, which also contributed the loss of language and culture.
But the soul of the people cannot be quieted. Even during hard times, the spirit will come out. An example was written in 1937 by a group of children, not named, at a boarding school in New Mexico:
If I were a pony,
A spotted pinto pony,
A racing, running pony,
I would run away from school,
And I’d gallop on the mesa,
And I’d eat on the mesa,
And I’d sleep on the mesa,
And I’d never think of school.
And then there is “Female Rain” by Laura Tohe, the second named Navajo Nation Poet Laureate in 2015. She was preceded in this honor by Luci Tapahonso in 2013.
Dancing from the south
cloudy cool and gray
pregnant with rainchild
At dawn she gives birth to a gentle rain
flowers bow with wet sustenance
luminescence all around
The first published book in 1967 by a Diné author was “Miracle Hill: The Story of a Navajo Boy” by Blackhorse Mitchell. An excerpt from this groundbreaking story is in “The Diné Reader.” The experience and credentials of these authors are impressive: Most have college degrees and masters and Ph.D.s with many having years of teaching at colleges. The poems and stories included are haunting, insightful and full of longing, love, loss and humor. The editors hope to spread the word about the writers from the Diné Nation, and their goal is to get this beautiful and captivating book into the hands of as many young Native American people as possible. All readers are welcome to savor “The Diné Reader” as well. It will be an unforgettable experience.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.