29 June 2012


"Those Spaniards believed in a mongrel whiteness. But they overestimated their semen and that was their mistake. You just can't rape that many people. It's mathematically impossible. It's too hard on the body. You get tired. . .the semen of those Spaniards, who thought they were titans, just got lost in the amorphous mass of thousands of Indians."
Roberto Bolaño, 2666

My life is characterized by violence: physical and ideological. Violence is my heritage.

Heritage: a) something handed down from one's ancestors or the past, a culture, a tradition, etc., b) the rights, burdens, or status resulting from being born in a certain time or place; birthright.

"The poisonous world flows into my mouth like water into that of a drowning man."
Franz Kafka, Diaries

I'm often asked: are you still here? In waiting rooms, in conversations, in response to my steadfast refusal to accept the number I've been assigned. I'm a believer. I believe. What I write (my content) and how I write (my form) reflects my refusal to fade away, my refusal to accept the terms of the day (English and exploitation—of women, earth and children). As a thinker I'm not in favor. I understand that. I'm stubborn, not daft. I ask a great deal from the world. My grandparents asked a great deal from me. We have high expectation. They provoke anger. Often that anger is directed at me. I face it. It hurts. It empties my soul and my bank account. I am free to change. I know that. I am free to turn my back on everything I know. I am free to forget myself and my relations. Always at home I knew the truth: there was no freedom without responsibility. Even during our most violent moments we grappled with ways to be more beautiful than broken.

"It wasn't enough to claim our lands, we had to claim our ways of thinking, acting and living."
William L. Hensley, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

Everything I do has its origin in the power I was given at four, five and six years of age. Faith. Audacity. Anger. Resilience. We lived a very inspired life in San Francisco violating every code (health, penal, cultural) in the county. I was not a witness to their artistry I was a pivotal participant. Lying to animal control. Helping with the piece work. There was work to spare, so I took my place in the project of asserting our right to exist—then, there, on our own terms, in the face of urban poverty and cruelty. I have no home to go home to. But I have this heritage. I use it to speak to our legacy of slavery, alcoholism and colonization.

28 June 2012


"If the novel should really disappear, it will do so not because it has exhausted its powers but because it exists in a world grown alien to it." (Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel)

Skins, Whiteclay, Alcoholics and Alcoholism

Alcoholics need to stop drinking. There is nothing easier to say or to accomplish. We all have our own way. Some take the steps. Other's take the waters. Some just white knuckle it and end up being sober a-holes everyone avoids or hands a cold one.

There's nothing poetic about pissing your pants and waking up somewhere you don't remember going. Before they knew me, someone told me, "alcoholics tell the best stories." Someone else answered, "that's 'cause they're liars."

Lately I've been following the popular debate about Whiteclay. The heat got turned up with Ms. Sawyers's report and the Lakota response "We're more than that!" I watched the youth's response first. I don't have a television, but their video was making its way around the electric circuit. Then I spent a day slowly dragging my way through Sawyer's original segment on You Tube. I made notes, sent out several inquiries, planned an essay for my blog K'é. Frustrated I destroyed what I had done, threw out my notes and here I am writing about the same ole shhht. I can't shake it. More important I can't loose myself from the magnet of mass media that relentlessly pulls me towards it: should we boycott the brewers? how do we deal with Whiteclay? How did we come to this? Why these people? What can we do about them?

I am one of them.

I come back to the fact that alcoholics need to quit drinking. Keep it simple. No one can do it for you.

If you want to talk about Pine Ridge, Whiteclay or Indians you need to talk about colonization. And who wants to talk about that?

Adrian C. Louis does.

For starters read his novel: Skins

Make the commitment to open it and read it. Don't watch the movie! (If you really need to see Eric Schweig watch Big Eden, you won't be disappointed.)

Where to find it: Louis's Website or Ellis Press

Read the novel.

Kundera's words challenge—writers and readers. Can we sustain the energy and the care necessary to follow where a writer leads. If we follow them into their world, our world may take the shape of something we are, at our core, afraid of. The novel's world may ask more from us than we care to give, even in waking moments. A good reading involves stepping into the novel's language and being changed.

"I have always, deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality." (Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed)

Read the novel. Put yourself among the people of Pine Ridge, not above them, or beneath them, but face them as the human beings they are.

Kundera wrote, "If the novel should really disappear, it will do so not because it has exhausted its powers but because it exists in a world grown alien to it," in 1986. In the same paragraph he asked "Hasn't it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms?. . .Isn't it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals?"

Kundera is especially tuned to the appeals of: play, dream, thought and time.

Louis's work makes several appeals, appeals to metaphysics and personhood. What constitutes a person? And what shapes our place in the cosmos? His world is familiar to me, and still I am changed. Yet I have not answered the question: has our world grown alien to it? To answer that we must look intimately at specific novels and our willingness to allow them space in our lives—paying for them, reading them, considering them sincerely enough to allow them the power to change who we are and how we live. In effect giving ourselves over to them in a way utterly impossible via electronics or propaganda documentaries.

27 June 2012


Mikhail Bakhtin's "works in print can in fact be seen as ripped-out segments of one vast philosophical project. . . on the nature of language, literature and moral responsibility."

My own work, on the page, follows a similar course. My ideas have been shaped by my grandmother's nightly reading of the St. Joseph's Missal and my grandfather's constant songs and stories. I was the bridge between their worlds and the distance was vast, indeed.

"What can be said with certainty is that for Bakhtin, to translate was never to betray; on the contrary translation, broadly conceived, was for him the essence of all human communication."

The essence of all human communication.

Considering translation as the essence of all human communication has forced me to allow considerable space in all my relations, a loving attention to ways we can be in the same place at the same time with no shared experience of that moment at all. How then can we speak? How then can we hear? If we understand translation as the essence of communication we need to lovingly tend those spaces, those gaps between everyone involved. Even the me involved, the me that is at once 4 years old at my grandparents side and the me that is now forty years older and without them.

"Crossing language boundaries was perhaps the most fundamental of human acts."

I see people talking at and around each other, often. With no consideration of the boundaries they drag themselves across carelessly and without the slightest caress.

Molloy is my favorite literary figure. Beckett's work always points to a project of words, even for a self that is always a word behind, a thought ahead. The earth surrounding them in a sea of image, of silence, of sound. I desire to share those images and sounds. The necessity of your understanding—is sometimes life threatening. I have survived several of those moments myself.

"These languages are not just the bluntly distinct national languages. . .that exist as the normative materials of dictionaries and grammars, but also the scores of different 'languages' that exist simultaneously within a single culture and single speaking community."

I write in and about English, Black English, Spanish, Diné Bizaad, and Sahnish. But the linguistic issue is more complex. I want readers to understand those complexities; they shape my understanding and experience of the world. Especially when I am speaking in the same national language of my listener only to have them say they can't understand me (not my content, but my words themselves, claiming I have an accent—my accent is only San Franciscan).

"In fact, Bakhtin viewed the boundaries between national languages as only one extreme on a continuum; at the other extreme, translation processes were required for one social group to understand another in the same city, for children to understand parents in the same city, for one day to understand the next."

I ask all of us to consider the reality and implications of this continuum. And acknowledge the way this process shapes the kind and character of daily communication. This world requires sympathy, patience and psychological strength. We must speak and listen with these skills, and this knowledge, always in mind.

"These stratifications of language, Bakhtin argued, do not exclude one another; they intersect and overlap, pulling words into various gravitational fields and casting specific light and shadow. Living discourse, unlike a dictionary, is always in flux and in rebellion against its own rules."

These posts already reveal some of these fields. The shadows and light unique to my own rebellion against the rules.

All quotes are from page xxxi of Caryl Emeron's preface to Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 8)

26 June 2012

Language: Íishsjání ádoolnííł: Make Things Clear

Íishsjání ádoolnííł: Make Things Clear

Paul Chaat Smith's essay, Lost In Translation, begins with a discussion of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt. Hewitt had several rules for successful television. One being: No Indians. "Indians talk too much, too slowly, and what they say is always complicated."

Smith continues: "[Hewitt] realized the Indian experience is an ocean of terrifying complexity. We are reputed to be stoic, but in reality it's hard to get us to shut up."

A long time ago I heard the Honourable Justice Robert Yazzie say, "the most important piece of paper in the Navajo Peacemaking Court was—the Kleenex®."

Peacemaking on the Navajo Nation involves several principles. The two most important being: talking things out and making things clear.

"Navajos know from experience that people cannot engage in respectful, meaningful, and relevant discussions and move toward a consensual resolution of a problem unless they understand each other's positions." (from Raymond D. Austin's Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law: A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance)

I know, from my own experience, not everyone is working toward a consensual resolution, but I offer this as a way to speak about language and a glimpse into my understanding of our need to talk things out and make things clear.

"Maybe this is where I got the notion that if I could tell the story clearly enough then all that was taken, including the land, might be returned." (from Leslie Marmon Silko's The Turquoise Ledge)

Clarity is a challenge not everyone is willing to pursue. Clarity requires a willingness to listen and the skill of honest appraisal (of self and other). I find myself circling the same issues in several languages in an attempt to be clear. When someone does not understand me I am angry. That's why Justice Austin reminds us to use and practice Íishsjání ádoolnííł. If you don't things get funky fast. "The 'make things clear' rule requires individuals to express points clearly while 'talking things out' to prevent perturbation and confusion among the peacemaking participants."

Expressing points clearly is required of life. Our expressions, clear or not, shape each of our relations. Done well expression makes the peacemaking process something we may find ourselves rarely in need of.

Often we talk about difficult things. Often we don't even know who are we? Often the stated we does not include me. I may not share the same idea of talking or the same relationship to listening. My time frame is often so different that some believe I do not even have one.

Language: we live inside it. We are using it at this moment. At this moment many require brief, quick, and comprehendable messages in swaths of three to five minutes, or 140 characters. How can I maintain clarity in those terms?

In my desire to connect I am trying to articulate this, my world, with clarity. Everyone is not searching for such brevity.

No one lives in isolation. No word is spoken in isolation either. These are my beliefs, they shape what I write, when I speak, and the words I use.

25 June 2012

How It Works

"I think all writers live off of obsessions. Some of these come from history, others are purely individual, and still others belong to the realm of the purely obsessive, which is the most universal thing a writer has in his soul."
the Paris Review: Carlos Fuentes, The Art of Fiction No. 68

When I was five my mother lived next door to Jesus. I lived at home with my grandparents. On certain days my Grandma would let my mother take me for a sleep over. As the year wore on I stayed with her for a few days at a time. I spent these days waiting for Jesus. He'd leave early and come home late. I'd sit by the window and watch for his head. We were on the ground floor on Naples. He lived in the unit around the corner. To get to his door he had to walk down the hill a few feet, so his head would pass by the window and he'd grow miraculously smaller.

Jesus was famous, and he lived next door to me. I wanted to ask him a question. I don't remember what my question was, I only remember that I waited for hours to talk to him. I never did. My mother moved from Naples and on her last day I stayed up till two in the morning waiting for nothing. I went back home where all we read was St. Joseph's Missal and True Crime Magazines.

the Axe: Language, Translation, Novels and Obsolescence

We didn't have books. We had music. Every room had at least one stereo (my Uncle specialized in hot ones). My mother had a hi-fi console and when she moved in with me she brought her records: Neil Diamond, Johnny Mathis, Janis Joplin and Barbara Streisand. I was nine. My world was Fosse and Dolly Parton. My Grandmother and I watched Lawrence Welk every weekend and my Uncle kept me up with him to watch Creature Features. I was used to spending my days with my Grandfather walking through Dogpatch. He was in for wine from the corner store. I was in for toys at the junkyard. Chances are things were gonna be different.

I didn't understand that Indians could write until I went to college and found Custer Died For Your Sins on the shelf at Cody's.

"If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need books to affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."
Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, Franz Kafka

(Chapter 5) How it works:
1. the Axe will post five days a week.
2. Monday through Thursday I will post once a day. Each statement will be titled: Language, Translation, Novels or Obsolescence.
3. On Fridays I will answer three Letters to the Editor. To send me a question simply send me an email (the address is in my blogger profile). I will select three questions a week and answer them in a post titled: Letters to the Editor.

"Samuel Beckett has obtained the most extraordinary results by reducing visual and linguistic elements to a minimum, as if in a world after the end of the world."
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino