Poet Discusses Ojibway Identity
Heid Erdrich reads poetry, shares thoughts on her mixed race background.
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
“I am by no means fluent,” Heid Erdrich joked after introducing herself in her native Ojibway tongue to an audience gathered in the Cheever Room of Finn House on Thursday, Oct. 4. This seemed an appropriate introduction, given that Erdrich’s talk, “Who Owns the Stories?,” dealt largely with the use of language as a powerful tool for fighting cultural inequalities.
Erdrich’s mixed cultural upbringing — a combination of Native American and German-American heritage — gives her a unique perspective on the biases of American culture toward Indian groups like the Ojibway. Her sister is novelist Louise Erdrich, the 2009 recipient of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
Her talk was a rich mixture of poetry reading, personal reflection and academic discourse. With a gentle yet commanding presence, Erdrich explained her thoughts on everything from DNA to Indian mythology to the semiotics of language.
The talk is part of the year-long “Art and Identity” Symposium, Associate Professor of English Janet McAdams said in her introduction to the event. She then turned things over to Chadwick Allen, professor and coordinator for the American Indian studies program at the Ohio State University. Allen gave a small speech contextualizing Erdrich’s poetry in the subjects of Native American literature, post-colonialism and cultural ownership.
Themes of ownership in Native American culture reverberate through much of Erdrich’s work. She was raised in Wahpeton, N.D., where she was a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibway group. After earning degrees from Dartmouth College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, Erdrich began publishing in literary journals. Her career since then has been a mixture of teaching and writing.
Erdrich’s most recent collection of poetry, Cell Traffic, is full of dark, tongue-in-cheek satire, sometimes playful, other times scathing.
In her poem “DNA Tribes,” for instance, Erdrich whimsically discusses the tension between family and genetics, identity and biology.
During the talk, Erdrich read this poem aloud and explained her thoughts on race, identity and culture, and how discussed tricky these subjects are to write about. The poem takes on issues that are obviously important to Erdrich, yet she does it with a distanced, playful technique.
Other poems by Erdrich more directly indict the exploitation of Native American cultural remains by non-Native scholars and scientists. A series of poems in Cell Traffic focuses on a 9,000-year-old human skeleton, known as the Kennewick Man, which two students happened upon in 1997 in Kennewick, Wash.
The discovery sparked an extensive debate on the issue of cultural ownership in Native American culture. In “Kennewick Man Tells All,” Erdrich opens her poem with a quote from anthropologist James Chatters, who pleaded in a 1997 New Yorker article to have the skeleton given over to scientists instead of being returned to its native soil. He argued that the Kennewick Man had “volunteered” for investigation by being discovered.
While the Umatilla tribe made requests for custody, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that there was no cultural relationship between the body and Native American culture. The body was thus given up to anthropological study.
In response, Erdrich wrote an imaginative version of Kennewick Man’s press statement to those anthropologists: “I am 9,200 years old. I am bone. I am alone.”
Her other poems in this sequence, “Kennewick Man Attempts Cyber-Date” and “Kennewick Man Swims Laps,” convey similarly biting responses to what she sees as cultural exploitation.
At the end of the talk, Erdrich read a final poem from Cell Traffic (“Seven Mothers”) and said goodnight. After applause, she signed books and chatted with faculty and students.
Although the evening seemed to prove that she is good-natured and respectful, it would hardly be fair to call Erdrich “quiet.” Her poems electrify and excite to a degree that is rare, and her use of language — Ojibway or English — proves political and subversive.