Sara Marie Ortiz will visit MSU on Monday, November 28 and read at 1:00 p.m. in the Lookout Gallery, located on the second floor of Snyder-Phillips Hall on Bogue Street. Sara will be reading from her poetry collection Red Milk and from her in-progress mixed genre work Savage: A Love Story. (See the MSU interactive map for visitor parking options.)
Sara and I attended graduate school together at Antioch University Los Angeles and recently exchanged emails about her day job, her poetry, the Standing Rock water protectors, as well as her upcoming visit.
TE: Can you tell me about your day job?
SMO: I manage the Native Education Program for the 11th biggest district in Washington State (and one of the most diverse in the entire nation), Highline Public Schools. Our district, which is about 20,000 students, is in the greater Seattle area and serves the South Sound/South King County communities of White Center, Burien, SeaTac, Normandy Park, and Des Moines, Washington. Our work encompasses all the best of what’s available in the realm of Native thought and education and advocacy – we organize, we lead, we strategize, we teach, we curate, we advocate, we lead professional development, we create greater system-level access to high level research and educational resources on Native thought/culture/art, education methodologies, and we celebrate tribal history, nations, and Native scholars, students, artists, educators and leaders in all we do on behalf of our Native community in our area but also for everyone in the community. We say that what’s good and powerful for Native students is good and powerful for all. One of the most exciting things we’re engaged in right now in Highline is the implementation of the Washington State Since Time Immemorial Tribal Sovereignty Curriculum which is now signed into law and must be taught in every public school in Washington State.
TE: 2016 has been a very difficult year. What do you think the role of the artist is in times like this?
SMO: I think in this time it’s essential for artists’ voices to be heard and honored and celebrated. Particularly those of our working poor artists – of color and all. Black artists. Native Artists. Latinx artists. Mixed-race artists. LGBTQ and Two Spirit artists. Homeless artists. Women artists. Artists who are differently abled. Artists who are living with some form of mental illness. Some of our most powerful voices in our artist community, often dispossessed of basic resources and rights, and as in the case of Native artists (but not only) – the root of our creative selves and identities…lies in our lands and safe, culturally rooted, and vibrant communities. Too often we have been removed from them or they from us and the art of creation, every creative act is an act of reclamation. It’s not easy being an artist in 2016. It’s never been easy. But it’s never been more essential that our artists of every age and definitely our young ones, in all communities, and facing every kind of socio-economic and political reality, are encouraged, given the tools, and even required to nurture and access their own creative spirits, visions, and voices…to develop as critical thinkers, and engaged citizens, and to see the role of the artist as an essential piece of this human topography.
I’ve studied art and its sacred parts – but also its very utilitarian functions – in various societies and across eras but what I know best is my own experience of making and suffering, a suffering born in, out of, and borne by my art and also fighting for art as modality of social justice and consciousness and advocating for the rights and lives of artists.
As a Native woman artist I’ve regarded my practice, my study, my living, breathing, and countless difficult experiences of art-making as essential and necessary. They’re irrevocably at the center of who I am as an artist I’d say. Before I ever even knew what an MFA was or that there was an appraisal process, a market-based and market-driven thing to the making and curation and distribution and consumption of art….I knew I had to speak, knew I had to tell my story no matter what. I was 14 and pregnant with a child. I was terrified and losing hope. I thought I might die. And I think I almost did. After wanting to and, in some ways, choosing to die… an old voice, my ancestors, living kin, or perhaps a mix of all, and also my own powerful girl-child voice spoke urgently and loudly to me saying “No. You must live. You must live at least long enough to write and tell your story, our story, the story of the human animal, of life on earth, of the ways we’ve survived, and how the human animal used her voice to sing a song of the world somehow.” Art is not a flight of fancy in my artist community. It is all we are. It is the very reason we’ve survived. It will be the reason we survive in this epoch we are now writing and singing and praying into existence.
Things blossom and rise. I’m very interested in the very first uses of language. Oral and all. We are all saying in old ways that may seem new and advanced to us based on the context…I see you. I am trying to see you. Where are you? I need food. I need connection. I know you do too. I need light. Where are we? Where are we going? What’s going to happen? I love you. I need you. What does this all mean?
In our traditional Acoma (Keres) language – we call ourselves simply “Hanoh” – the People. To acknowledge us, to self-identify, in this ancient way, something before America became, something before English, something before the time we know as now, is vital I think.
A lot of our old languages, our Indigenous languages, some of them right on the brink, too close to the cusp…they say our life better than English can or could ever. A lot of the Indigenous poets, artists working across mediums, scholars, linguists, historians (cultural knowledge virtuosos and luminaries, all) I know and am honored to work with - they know this all true.
We need all of our artists in this time…and we especially we need artists who speak and understand and create art in some of our oldest languages and forms. The land and our old languages – as they did in the beginning – are telling us how we might continue to live. It’s not a mystery or a secret. But it will take work. I think that our artists – all of our artists – have to be willing to struggle and labor and sacrifice more than we ever have. The stakes are too high not to.
TE: What you are doing here in our neck of the woods?
SMO: I’ll be doing a reading and talk a bit about my work, studies, ethos, and development as a Native writer/advocate/activist and educator. I’ll be reading from my collection Red Milk and my second forthcoming collection Savage: A Love Story. The event is sponsored by the MSU RCAH Center for Poetry, the American Indian Studies Department and the Department of English. I’m so excited about visiting MSU after wanting to for so long! I was actually accepted into MSU’s law program back in 2008 while I was still working away at my MFA at Antioch U. Los Angeles (with you, Telaina, and the rest our very cool Creative Nonfiction cohort members!).
After my engagement at MSU I’ll head to the University of Toledo where I’ll be keynoting their Native American Heritage Month celebration. I’ve had the good fortune to continue to present quite a bit here in Seattle and the Western Washington region while I’ve lived here but have limited my speaking engagements elsewhere so I might focus on building our Native Education Program here in Highline. I’m thrilled that the scheduling for these two engagements worked out just right. It was meant to be!
TE: November is Indigenous People's Month. There seems to be so much solidarity from indigenous people all over the world for the Standing Rock/Dakota Access Pipeline protests/water protection….What have you heard? I've read many indigenous people from throughout the world have sent support in some way.
SMO: Yes. So much movement and spirit and inspiration is present and gathered in this time around the Water Protectors and the #NoDAPL movement that’s gone global in its visibility, coverage, and engaging of peoples’ hearts and minds. I’ve been personally connected for years now to a good number of those Native media-makers, activists, advocates, and leaders of many tribes of the movement who are there standing firm at Standing Rock, telling the story, doing all the work necessary that goes into building a viable and visible movement like this, and I work directly with Native youth and family members here in our very urban area of Seattle who are from Standing Rock, those who have the most high stakes personal investment in what does or does not happen with the pipeline even and still with them living here in the city. It matters. No matter where we are as Indigenous peoples – in the cities, or in our tribal communities, it matters. This is all very personal to me and to us. It has always been.
The Protectors know well, like all of us bred and born activists/advocates in the Indigenous community do - that this fight is hundreds of years old now. It’s been hard fought, long, and bloody. It’s been entrenched and right at the surface. It’s been all of the things and developed over time. It’s been going on since time immemorial and the “front lines” are everywhere; it doesn’t show signs of ending anytime soon.
The elders and many in our movement say that this is a time of prophecy. And it is said that there are really only two kinds – those who choose to acknowledge that and act and those who choose to avert their gaze or stay asleep while the blossoming of a new era comes about. The fight is in all we do and say and are as Indigenous peoples. And it takes on many forms. No part of our Indigenous selfhood and being is divested from the land and water, its protection, and the ongoing fight to protect our rights, cultures, histories, knowledge systems, economies, governance systems, families, and communities. We are resisting a brutality that’s been carried out for generations against us; there is a vital creative, generative, center in it also. People must not forget this.
We are fighting and protecting, nurturing and sustaining life, as we always have, as protectors and stewards and artists. A full acknowledgement of the immense value and vitality of Indigenous knowledge systems, cultures, arts, and ways of living has never been more essential for the human species and the planet. We’ve always known this. Now more people all over the world than in any generation previous – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – are starting to finally realize it too.
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