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Indigenous poets visit Haskell to inspire students with writing workshops

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Eleven Indigenous poets visited Haskell Indian Nations University Wednesday to host writing workshops with more than 300 Indigenous college students. 

The poets came to Lawrence during their visit to the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, which is in Kansas City this year. 

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Haskell’s head librarian, Carrie Cornelius, Prairie Band Potawatomi, saw an opportunity in the conference’s proximity to Lawrence and worked on securing funding and making arrangements for Indigenous poets to visit Haskell students and for students to experience the conference. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Tacey Atsitty (left), Peqwas Hernandez, Heid E. Erdrich, and Carrie Cornelius

Trina Tsinnie, Navajo Nation, is a sophomore in the business program at Haskell and is one of the nine Haskell students attending the conference this week. She dreams of opening a bookstore and publishing company to create a space “where Indigenous writers will always have a place.”

Tsinnie manages the Agindaasowin book club at Haskell, writes short stories and wants to someday write a book. She hopes attending the conference and being surrounded by writers will help her push through her anxieties and help her become a successful writer.

Dinè poet Tacey Atsitty just published her second book, (At) Wrist, and is about to defend her dissertation in creative writing at Florida State. She’s presenting at the AWP conference on Friday, but she came to Lawrence ahead of the conference to speak with young Indigenous writers. 

As a young writer, Atsitty had to seek out other Indigenous writers. Having this writing workshop at Haskell is an “opportunity to be inundated with a bunch of Native writers. That’s really cool.”

Atsitty wants students to know that their voice matters and that “every person has an important story.” 

“I think sometimes growing up on reservations or border towns, or even off reservation away from our communities, we can feel disconnected or alienated, or that our voice doesn’t matter,” she said. 

Even if they’re not doing “glamorous things” like traveling and seeing the world, she encourages students to not discount their experiences as being “too normal” or “too boring.” She said that what they think is normal and boring might be attractive to someone else because their normal isn’t someone else’s normal.

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Atsitty also spoke on the importance of writing for our children as future ancestors, adding that “we (all) have ancestors that we wish we knew more about.” She mentioned that even journaling could be a benefit to future generations who want to hear about our lives through our own perspectives and words rather than through the interpretations of others. 

The desire to know more about previous generations is especially important to Atsitty because her mother died when she was young. Her mother attended Haskell in the 1970s when the institution was a junior college. She doesn’t know much about her mother’s time at Haskell but hopes to find more information through the American Indian Records Repository, where all Haskell records are kept.  

Mary Leauna Christensen, enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is a lecturer at the University of Tennessee. She always pursued artistic endeavors as a child and was particularly encouraged by her second grade teacher, who called her parents to tell them she was a talented young writer.

Throughout her adolescence, Christensen struggled with speech delays and depression but always found solace in writing. In college, she fell in love with poetry, realizing that there was much more to poetry than what is usually taught in high schools. 

She found inspiration in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, which explores the complexity of a mixed race identity through poetry. Christensen has since used poetry to help process her own identity, make sense of complex emotions, and process family deaths.

In her workshop, Christensen spoke to the students about narratives in poetry, prose poems, and hybrid work.

If you include Native thought or Indigenous languages, “you’re still hybridizing it because we’re not supposed to be here.”

She also discussed how a lot of poets play with English, such as through lowercase lettering, “but when it comes to your Native language, don’t do that because it needs to be the forefront,” she said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Heid E. Erdrich (left), Kimberly Blaeser, and Tacey Atsitty

Anishinaabe writer Kimberly Blaeser teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is a previous Wisconsin poet laureate and just published her sixth book of poetry.

She is the founding director of Indigenous Nations Poets (In-Na-Po), described on its website as “a national Indigenous poetry community committed to mentoring emerging writers, nurturing the growth of Indigenous poetic practices, and raising the visibility of all Native Writers past, present, and future.”

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Blaeser has worked in varied mediums of writing and visual art, including blending visual art with poetry. 

“I feel like it’s an Indigenous thing to be inter-art,” she said.

Heid E. Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Objiwe (Bear Clan), is poet laureate of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She joined Blaeser in the Haskell auditorium to talk to students about inter-artwork, collaborative work, and careers in writing. 

They showed students a film made during a recent In-Na-Po mentoring retreat that focused on eco poetry. The film collaged poetry with images from Overpass Light Brigade, a resistance organization that uses light and photography to share messages. 

Blaeser wants people to know that Indigenous poetry “carries cultural knowledge and cultural understanding” through meanings embedded within the poetry. Working in this medium is “a way of honoring our ancestors, carrying forth our traditions, and giving back.”

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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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