Have you ever read a book that failed to make an impression on you the first time you read it, but then the book came back to you right when you were ready for it?
That happened to me recently. Last month I traveled to Shiprock, New Mexico, to do a reading at Dine College with Navajo storyteller Erik Bitsui. I met Erik almost 25 years ago when he was a student of mine during my first semester as a teaching assistant at Northern Arizona University.
Erik made an immediate impression with his long black hair, deep collection of black heavy metal T-shirts, and his refusal to write in capital letters. We hit it off and I always looked forward to reading his imaginative essays about growing up on the Navajo reservation.
Many years later, I was writing a book inspired by my experiences working at an Indian casino in San Diego, and I asked Erik to recommend his favorite books by Native American writers from the Southwest. He suggested I read Men on the Moon by Simon J. Ortiz. I read the book, or at least some of it, but it wasn't what I was looking for at the time.
Years passed. While I was packing for my trip to Shiprock last month, I stumbled upon the book, with a letter from Erik tucked into its pages. I stuck it in my bag and off I went. I spent the better part of a week as a passenger in a car traveling all over the Navajo Nation, darting back and forth across the Arizona-New Mexico border over and around the Lukachukai Mountains, with day trips from Shiprock to Canyon De Chelly and Chaco Canyon. At some point I cracked open Simon Ortiz's collected stories and fell into a world that looked a lot like the one outside the car's windows.
Known primarily as a poet, Ortiz comes from the Laguna Pueblo on the Acoma Reservation in New Mexico. The stories operate in a variety of modes and were composed at different times in the poet's long career. Some lean on cultural traditions while others are autobiographical. The same characters appear in multiple stories, some of which clearly draw on the same real-life experiences.
In the title story, "Men on the Moon," an old man named Faustin is given a television by his daughter and tunes in just in time to watch the moon landing. The grandson explains that men have gone to the moon in search of knowledge. Puzzled, "Faustin wondered if the men had run out of places to look for knowledge on the earth."
The next time we meet Faustin, he is standing up to the local sheriff who demands that the community produce an Indian accused of killing a white man.
Ortiz's prose is powerfully clear and his principal theme is cultures in conflict, namely Anglo vs. Indian. Rarely do the two communities live in harmony in Ortiz's tales.
There's a great deal of anger on the page. (I was going to say "white-hot anger" but that's misleading and "red-hot" is even worse.) We're talking Biblical anger. Faulknerian anger. Anger in the age of massacres as cultural memory—but when is that ever not the case?
The anger of Ortiz's characters is the fury of learning that Michigan's governor willfully poisoned his own citizens or that Arizona's school board banned teaching ethnic studies or that North Carolina is going to start policing bathrooms. It's anger in the face of the dim-witted brutality of tin pot bureaucracy. Anger that solves nothing and makes things worse. The anger of Ortiz's protagonist vibrates through the pages, but it's not the only note Ortiz sounds.
Even though my reality is remote from the native experience, Ortiz's stories are both relatable and relevant. I was especially moved by "Woman Singing," which tells the story of a young Indian traveling to town for a night of fun after a season of picking potatoes in the Idaho fields. Yearning for home, he looks forward to the company of other Indians. When the foreman, a white man, uses his power to take advantage of the protagonist's friend, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions unfolds.
Unlike the astronauts in Men on the Moon, I didn't embark on my journey to seek knowledge, but with Ortiz as my guide I came back with a greater understanding than when I left.