Elizabeth Woody: Transcending Chaos Through Art

“Warm Springs River. Daylight moves the wind
while the river fastens on a cloak of rippling tensions. Through the weeds,
sage blossoming, skin shivers from the distance
of heat in the pinto sky. Bright with expectations. Thirst has fingertips of grief over remnant scaffolds
of small flowers. As one markless palm of thunder
at the rimrock, the broad pulse of the body
has been overwhelmed. A filament of light wavers
on the liquid turn over lichenous stone. It sinks in its own gravity. It is a quick fin and tail.” Well, the Warm Springs River
goes from the mountains to Kah-Nee-Ta
to the Deschutes River. And this place is a distinctive
one in my childhood because the longhouse is here,
the He He Butte Longhouse. As a child, I would spend time
here looking at the rocks, looking at the spirals
on the surface, the water skippers. The land is like, as my uncle
describes it, the long memory. You know, it’s what brought us
our teachings. My name is Elizabeth Woody, and I am Navajo and Warm Springs
and Yakama Nation. I’m born from
the Bitter Water Clan. [ birds chirping ] You can see here
my grandfather’s mother. This is her beadwork,
and she’s posing with all of it. I like to introduce myself as
my mother’s people, or Wyampum, and Watlala and Wasco. My father is Todich’inii, and I’m also a descendent
of the Coyote Pass Clan. For me, I love to write,
I love words, I love sounds, I love songs,
I love stories. CATHERINE STIMAC:
In 2016, Governor Kate Brown appointed artist, educator, and award-winning writer
Elizabeth Woody as Oregon’s eighth
poet laureate and the first Native American
in the position. WOODY:
“The ancestors sing. This is not one voice, but the beginning of all voices
in unison. Yes, crescendo waves
of spiral utterances of the plateau canyons. Blue herons rise from the river. The river returns pervasive
with silver and red Nusoox.” I think my work is very much
embedded in this landscape. [ ♪♪♪ ] And embedded in these times. I also think that my work
as a poet laureate — well, anything that I do
is always shaded by being a Native woman. Elizabeth was selected by the Native Arts & Cultures
Foundation to receive
the 2018 Artist Fellowship, a prestigious position which
provides additional support to showcase her work locally
and nationally. I thought, well, if it happens,
it’ll just be — it’ll be good for me. It’s intended to happen
this way. And I got the fellowship. (voice breaking)
My mom died in 2015. And I know that my auntie
and my uncle are really proud of me. I know that. But I know my mother would be
busting your buttons. [ laughs ] She would just love
to tell everybody what I’m doing, where I’m at. And I think that that’s probably
what makes it so special for me. [ river rushing ] She says she comes from
a group of storytellers, and I think that’s really true. [ ♪♪♪ ] Liz says that during
those times, she had to be a good listener, and has listened to all those
voices from the past that are so important and that
also make up part of her poetry. WOODY: As a child,
I spent most of my time not reading so much,
but listening. My grandparents told stories and spoke quite lyrically,
powerfully. Everything about language
was important. And in the Navajo tradition, sacredness emanates
from the tip of your tongue. I think that’s a beautiful way
of thinking of it, is that when you speak, you’re actually participating
in something significant. – This is what poetry can do for
you or the poet can do for you. A lot of people have this
inside, at the tip of their tongue, but they don’t get a chance
to express it. WOODY: I went to the Institute
of American Indian Arts eventually, after I took all
the classes at Portland State, and was a creative writing
major. And we had a literary magazine
and a press that we published in and received a national award
for. I have three books of poetry. The first was Hand Into Stone. The second and third were
Luminaries of the Humble and Seven Hands, Seven Hearts. And then I go the American Book
Award, and later on, I got the William Stafford
Memorial Award for poetry for Luminaries of the Humble,
which was my second book. And I was very proud of that, because Bill Stafford
was so important to me. He was very influential. One of her favorite poems
is about David Sohappy and She-Who-Watches. [ ♪♪♪ ] And David Sohappy was this
religious leader who fished along
the Columbia River and was a real spiritual leader and who believed in practicing
the old ways. WOODY: “She-Who-Watches,
The Names Are Prayer. For David Sohappy,
April 25, 1925 – May 7, 1991. My humanness is
an embellished tongue, the bell, a yellow mouth of
September’s moon beats outward. She speaks for all the names
that clang in memorial. There is Celilo, dispossessed,
the village of neglect and bad structure. The falls are faint rocks and rippled in the placid lake
of backwaters. With a sad stone,
grief and wisdom, I overlook the railroad. The tight bands rail along
the whirls of the Columbia. Drowning is a sensation fishermen and their wives
know of. Men who fished,
son after father. There are drownings
in The Dalles, hanging in jails and off-reservation
suicide towns. A strange land awaits
the fishermen as it had for the Nez Perce,
the Navajo, the Cheyenne. Those who wailed
in the long walks keened open the graves
of their families, the dead children,
my children, with names handed down
and unused — Nimiipuu, Dine, Tsitsistas. The people, pure in emergence. The immense mother is crying. Human beings. The words are tremors
in the ribcage of hills. The consumption of loneliness
binds us. Children lie
on the railroad tracks to die from the wail
of night and spirits. I watch for the rushing head
of chaos, and flat hands grope
from the cattle cars, clamor in the swift,
fresh air. A sky is clicking
through the regular slats. The tail whips the dusty battles
of the Indian Wars, unsettling itself, nude and raw. Celilo Falls sank unwillingly
in the new trading, and everyone dissolved
from the fall.” [ ♪♪♪ ] I’m writing because I want
to make my mother laugh, and I want my auntie to feel
some sort of connection. I want my uncle’s children
to read my work and see things that I’ve seen
that they may never see. Poetry is… like ringing
the bell. It goes, woo, and it keeps
ringing. And sometimes there’s
experiences that are like that that just keep ringing in you. And I’m able to put it
into writing in a way that hopefully other people
can feel it as well.

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