By Bailey Blaker
The event started like any other: the casual chatter of the audience died down, introductions were made, thanks were given, then Professor Luci Tapahonso took to the stage. As Tapahonso began to speak to the audience about her poetry, Brandi Recital Hall was filled with a sense of camaraderie.
Indigenous Nations at Kenyon welcomed Tapahonso as their first speaker of the year on the evening of Monday, Nov. 3. Tapahonso is a professor of English at the University of New Mexico.
Tapahonso’s soft-spoken nature and her small stature nothing to detract from her incredible ability as a storyteller. In fact, they acted to highlight the vitality and rich imagery present in her poetry. The bright red of her swaying skirt and her light laughter mimicked both the ancestral red rocks of her hometown of Shiprock, N.M. and the humorous language found throughout her work.
In between the readings of her poems, Tapahonso delighted the audience with tales about her Navajo culture and her source inspiration — her family and her everyday life. “I think poetry is really about the ordinary,” she said in an interview.
The ordinary is a central theme of her work. Moments shared with her mother and with her granddaughter are told with warmth and familiarity. Everything is seen as a chance for poetry. A sunset, the water streaming through her hometown, or the scent of bread baking in the oven all prove to be sources of her inspiration.
In the closing portion of the program, Tapahonso recited a poem about a long drive with her dog, Max. Later, Tapahonso explained the importance in Navajo culture of owning a small dog. She told a story about a small boy lost in a winter storm with only the warmth of his pet dog as protection from the elements. In each sample of her work, Tapahonso told a story that brimmed with life and was full of feeling.
Alongside the moments of her everyday life, there is a sense of her ancestry present in Tapahonso’s poetry. Navajo, her first language, is intertwined with English in many of her poems. The use of her native language in her poetry allowed Tapahonso to convey a small part of her culture with her audience.
Jules Desroches ’18 was enthralled by Tapahonso’s skill as a storyteller. “There was a power in the way that she spoke to the audience,” he said. Desroches attended the reading because of an earlier connection to the Navajo culture, and an interest to learn more about it. The event “definitely added to the spirituality that I understood to be a part of the indigenous culture,” he said.
Tapahonso is the first and current poet laureate for the Navajo Nation. She has also won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas.
Tapahonso’s reading is the first of several events to be sponsored by the Indigenous Nations at Kenyon group throughout the month of November in honor of Native American Heritage Month.