|Born November 8, 1953, in Shiprock, New Mexico, and reared on the Navajo Reservation, Tapahonso
knows who she is and that sense of identity comes through her poetry. Unlike many mixed bloods who
grew up away from reservation or Indian communities, Tapahonso still calls Shiprock "home." For
Tapahonso, Chinle, Lukachukai, Albuquerque, Dulce, and Gallup are not just places on an ancestral
map; they are places she has lived and worked and where her extended family has always lived and
The landscape dotted with mesquite, tamarack, and sagebrush, the greasewood and chaparral of the
arroyos and buttes of Arizona and New Mexico are where she has gathered piñons, collected
firewood, and eaten mutton stew. It is this physical landscape of Arizona and New Mexico that informs
and infuses Tapahonso's poetry and short fiction even as she lives among the flat terrain of Kansas.
Dinetah, the land of the Diné, is her source of spiritual strength as it has for years physically
sustained her people.
In 1981 in One More Shiprock Night, she wrote, I know I cannot divide myself or separate myself from
that place, my home, my land, and my people. And that realization is my security and my mainstay in
my life away from there." Later she confirms this view: "... the place of my birth is the source of the
Navajo is her first language and she was educated at Navajo Methodist School in Farmington, New
Mexico, and Shiprock High School on the largest Indian reservation in the United States in both area
and population. Tapahonso's clan is Todikozhi (salt water), and her mother Lucille Deschenne is
Todikozhi while her father Eugene Tapahonso, Sr., is Todich'ii'nii (bitter water), one of the four
original clans. Ironically, for one born in a land of little rain, Tapahonso (in Navajo Tabaaha tsoh)
means Big Water Edge or Edge of Big Water.
Tapahonso graduated from the University of New Mexico with a BA degree in English in 1980, taught
briefly at San Felipe Elementary School at San Felipe Pueblo, and earned a MA degree in Creative
Writing and English from the University of New Mexico in 1982. It was at the University of New Mexico
that she was influenced and inspired by Leslie Marmon Silko, then a faculty member at the University,
and she began to take her writing seriously.
Tapahonso has taught at the University of New Mexico and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute
in Albuquerque. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas where she lives
with her husband Bob G. Martin who is Cherokee and president of Haskell Indian Nations University in
Lawrence, Kansas. Tapahonso is a commissioner with the Kansas Arts Commission and serves on
the Board of Directors for the American Indian Law Resource Centre and the Telluride Institute
Writers Forum Advisory Board. In 1989 she was honoured by the New Mexico Commission of Higher
Education as a New Mexico Eminent Scholar.
In a public address to members of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, Tapahonso discussed
her sense of identity. For her, a proper introduction includes more than her name; it includes her
place of birth, her clan identity, and her kinship relationships. Her identity is personal, but it is not
singular, for who she is depends on the family, clan, and nation. She acknowledges the importance of
these contributors: "This writing, then, is not 'mine,' but a collection of many voices that range from
centuries ago and continue into the future". In an interview with Joseph Bruchac (1987) she spoke of
"... because the past determines what our present is or our future will be. I don't think there is really a
separation of the three. We have to have the past in order to go on and to survive to draw strength
Later in that same volume, she writes in "Just Past Shiprock," "This land that may seem arid and
forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories which hold the spirits of the people, those who live here today
and those who lived centuries and other worlds ago". Just as her poetry is contemporary but rooted in
Diné tradition, her own sense of identity as a Navajo woman includes shopping malls as well as velvet
skirts and turquoise necklaces.
In a personal statement, Luci Tapahonso describes herself:
I was born in Shiprock, New Mexico, where I lived until my early twenties. I grew up in a large, extended
household where Navajo was the primary language, and we learned English in later childhood.
Though I am now in a predominantly English-functioning environment, I consider Navajo language to
be the undercurrent, the matrix which everything in my life filters through. It is the language that
soothes, comforts, and cradles for me the extremes of expression, sheer happiness and unbearable
grief. Yet I use English to function in American society.
This writing is, at times, an exhilarating challenge because I must, as near as possible, find the
English version of what are essentially Navajo concepts. It is the beauty of the Navajo language--the
sounds, the pauses, the rhythm of songs, prayers, conversation, and oratory that infuses every
aspect of my daily life, and provides sustenance away from the Navajo community. For me, writing is a
way of sharing the memories and voices of family and relatives, and a way of surviving.
It is, at once, selfish, and it is also a celebration of, and a sharing with others the nurturing sense of
equanimity that the traditional Navajo lifestyle is rooted in. As an English professor, my community is
made up of students, colleagues, and the city of Lawrence, Kansas; my community is also that of my
mother and father's relatives, my siblings' children, my own children and their children, and that of the
Navajo people, and the common history and beliefs we represent.
She traces her own identity to the creation of First Man and First Woman and Changing Woman, who
represents the uniting of thought and speech and who gave the Navajo their first lessons in childbirth
and family relationships. In "This is how they were placed for us," Tapahonso acknowledges the
geographical landscape that surrounds the centre of her world on the Navajo Reservation as well as
the image of Changing Woman:
Because of her, we make songs.
Because of her, the designs appear as we weave.
Because of her, we tell stories and laugh.
We believe in old values and new ideas.
Traditions such as first-laugh dinners and the importance of the cradle board to Navajo babies can be
traced back to the earliest times and stories. The over one hundred clans today are linked to those
first four clans created by Changing Woman, clans that established a matrilineal system still guiding
contemporary Navajo decisions about marriage and kinship responsibilities. In an interview with Sylvie
Moulin, Tapahonso commented, "When I was growing up they used to say that nobody is an orphan,
that everybody has a mother and that your mother is the Earth and your father is the Sky".
In "It Has Always Been This Way," and "Sháá Áko Dahjiníleh Remember the Things They Told Us"
she writes of the importance of remembering the advice of the Holy People about how to rear children
and being sure not to break taboos during pregnancy. She remembers to place pollen on her own
child's tongue and knows where to bury an infant's belly button.
Tapahonso uses both English and Navajo in her poetry, reflecting the importance of the language of
her birth as well as of her formal and informal education. In interviews she has commented that one of
many readers' favourite poems, "Hills Brothers Coffee," is a direct translation from the Navajo.
Phrases such as "the store is where I'm going to" and "It does it good for me" mirror Navajo syntax.
Tradition appears in her work in the form of important figures such as yeis or simply through her
retelling of the familiar stories. She says in Sáanii Dahataal, "To know stories, remember stories, and
to retell them well is to have been 'raised right' ". To know the stories and songs is to be wealthy
among the People. Such wealth comes from knowing one's identity, for Tapahonso says it is by the
knowledge of the stories that "an individual is directly linked to the history of the entire group".
In Through Navajo Eyes, Sol Worth and John Adair discussed the importance of walking to the Navajo
and the significance the Navajo people place on "moving about". The documentary films made by
Navajos show a silversmith walking to the "old mine," a weaver walking to collect roots for soap, and
an elder walking to gather roots and herbs for a ceremony. The Navajo must travel great distances on
the reservation, whether to visit relatives, to herd sheep, or to seek vegetation for dyes for wool. This
history of walking is represented in the Navajo "Night Chant":
Happily with abundant dark clouds may I walk.
Happily with abundant showers may I walk.
Happily with abundant plants may I walk.
Happily on a trail of pollen may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.
In Tapahonso's poetry, the characters travel, walk, or drive from one place to another. According to
Tapahonso, the Navajo language itself has a "sense of motion". Navajo history is rooted in travelling.
Navajo tradition tells of the movement from three previous worlds before the present fourth world was
established and populated by the Earth Surface People. It was only because of the knowledge and
wisdom gained by going through earlier worlds that the present world could be established. In more
recent history, the Navajo people were forced on the Long Walk in 1864 when more than 8000 Navajo
walked to Fort Sumner in southern New Mexico, three hundred miles south of their familiar four sacred
For the Navajo people, the march to Bosque Redondo remains one of the darkest periods of their
history; over 2500 died during this period of four years of government captivity. "In 1864" is a poem in
which Tapahonso relates this historic event to contemporary storytelling: "You are here because of
what happened to your great-grandmother long ago".
Luci Tapahonso has herself made many journeys from her home--to school and most recently to live
in Lawrence, Kansas. She writes frequently of long automobile trips, of her own family members'
journeys and of others who have walked great distances. In "A Prayer", she writes of driving between
Santa Fe and Albuquerque:
for that time is mine
and these ragged red cliffs
flowing hills and wind echoes
are only extensions
of a never-ending prayer.
"Seasonal Woman" of the title poem in her collection is a "woman of fierce seasons and gentle
mornings". Such power is as old as the birth of the world and is linked to the births of her own
daughters Lori Tazbah and Misty Dawn. She begins Seasonal Woman with "Misty Dawn at Feeding
Time," a poem about a mother nursing her baby, but it isn't just any mother, for Misty Dawn is
Tapahonso's daughter and it is fitting that this poet who exemplifies in her life and in her poetry her
femaleness would write of this most important and intimate activity, a mother nourishing her daughter.
For Tapahonso, the sustenance is more than milk; it is the passing on of stories and traditions to her
own children, to other Navajo children, and, luckily for her many readers, to a public that reads her
words. The last line, "and I will live and live and live," is a testament to the continuance.
In "A Breeze Swept Through," the title poem of her next collection, she begins again with birth, with
daughters, and with the relationship between the mythical past and the spiritual present:
crimson fluid streaked with stratus clouds
her body glistening August sunset pink
light steam rising from her like rain on warm rocks
Grandpa that the birth had occurred. Tapahonso's second daughter was born in mid-November:
She is born again woman of dawn.
She is born knowing the warm smoothness of rock.
She is born knowing her own morning strength.
The first poem of Sáanii Dahataal is also about birth. "Blue Horses Rush In" is dedicated to the birth of
Chamisa Bah Edmo and white, yellow, blue, and black horses from the four directions accompany the
birth, blessing it with the balance and wholeness of the Navajo world:
You will grown strong like the horses of your birth.
represents the oral tradition, dialogue in storytelling, and the stories about people the Navajo have
known, both traditional stories and contemporary gossip about women who are too wild and drink too
much. Leona Grey appears in three poems in Seasonal Woman. In "Her Daughter's Eyes" the theme
of motherhood and generations is expressed:
knowing they breathe the same memories, the same blood--
dark and wet circulating
forever into time and others
husband with a beer mug, "ending her nightlife / and life, in general." In "Light a Candle" the character
of Leona appears again, or perhaps it is her memory to which Tapahonso asks that a candle be
Tapahonso's grandmother and mother appear in her poetry, and always her daughters Lori and Misty
Dawn are there to represent continuance of the Navajo and of that female line that is traced back to
First Woman. She reclaims and reaffirms the experiences of Indian women as mothers and life givers,
but also as carriers of traditions and the repositories of knowledge to be passed on to their children.
In One More Shiprock Night, she writes, "A lot of my writing has to do with my children, about my
daughters who are growing up in a totally different way. ... So my writing has a circular form--it comes
back to me through the children and together it becomes a prayer of sorts back to the land, the
people, and the families from whence we came originally".
Luci Tapahonso has a sense of humour. In a variation of "shaggy dog" stories, she tells several
stories about dogs with names like Chip and Dale or dogs who are "dog napped." Like N. Scott
Momaday, she recognizes that her people take the presence of dogs for granted but miss them when
they are not around. In "How She Was Given Her Name", she tells the story of how a child was given
the name "'Beep-beep' / because she liked to be a roadrunner / and she liked having people try to
catch her." Naming is a serious subject; however, Tapahonso recognizes that even traditions can
Not all of Tapahonso's poetry is pleasant, however. She is aware of the racism that permeates the
Southwest and rears its ugly head in those towns closest to the reservations. She knows of deaths for
no reason, of alcoholism bred by despair, and of children who suffer. In "Hard to Take" she describes
the cashier at Foodway and salesladies at Merle Norman who insult or ignore Navajo customers, and
in "Pay Up or Else" in the narrative poem tells of the murder of Vincent Watchman at Thriftway for
ninety-seven cents. In "Uncle's Journey" and in "The Snakeman" in the same collection, children learn
about death, but they also learn of the "other worlds" of the dead. Uncle becomes a star, and the little
girl visits her parents at the cemetery and talks to her mother every night.
Tapahonso also has a sense of who she is as a "westerner." Tony Lamas, pickups, country western
clothing and music, and strong black Hills Brothers coffee all appear in her poetry and stories. These
are elements of contemporary Navajo life that represent changes occurring within the context of the
still-existing strong traditions of her people. "Raisin Eyes" is often reprinted and is one of the most
frequently requested poems at Tapahonso's readings. It tells of the modern Navajo woman trapped by
her attraction to Navajo cowboys:
and pointed boots are just bad news
but it's so hard to remember that
all the time.
video games, and carnivals on traditional Navajo life. Ice cubes and portable toilets exist side-by-side
with celebrations of feast days and frybread. Pick-up trucks and motorbikes have replaced horses for
many families, but amidst these differences, some things never change. When she leaves the
reservation to return to Kansas in "The Weekend is Over," she stops to buy strong coffee and mutton
and green chile along with sweet blue corn Navajo cake to remember the taste of Dinetah as her car
marks the miles away from her "home".
The Navajo phrase taahooajii twiitaaye encompasses a philosophy of the "total environment: the
weather, the land, and the individual, and ensures that all tasks associated with the economic well-
being of the family are shared by all able family members".
Tapahonso remembers the advice she was given: "Remember who you are". She writes in "What I
Am" of carrying pollen to Paris and watching it drift down from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the plaza
below: "It was while I stood on top of the Eiffel Tower that I understood that who I am is my mother, her
mother, and my great-grandmother". It is this strong matrilineal line that gives Luci Tapahonso
strength and identifies her place among her people.
She knows her heritage, and it is knowledge she will pass on to her daughters to give them the
accumulated strength of generations of Navajo women. Herding sheep has been replaced by a
different economic system for many Navajo people just as oil lamps have given way to electricity. In
the past Luci Tapahonso might have stayed in the shadows of the red rocks of the reservation to
pass on the stories of Changing Woman; today she has a wider audience.
Tapahonso writes of hozho, beauty that comes from a state of balance with all things living and non-
breathing. By adhering to the old stories and songs, by transforming them so that a new generation
continues the beliefs, and by chanting her poems as prayers, Tapahonso maintains that balance in
her own life. Tapahonso's culture is dynamic and changing, always in the process of being recreated
using new forms and new stories.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
• One More Shiprock Night: Poems (San Antonio: Tejas Art Press, 1981).
• Seasonal Woman (Santa Fe: Tooth of Time, 1981).
• A Breeze Swept Through (Albuquerque: West End, 1987).
• Sáanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing, Sun Tracks, volume 23 (Tucson: University of Arizona
• Bah's Baby Brother Is Born (Washington, D.C.: National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,
• Navajo ABC (New York: Macmillan, 1995).
• "The Way It Is," in Sign Language: Contemporary Southwest Native America (New York: Aperture,
1989), pp. 37-45.
• "The Kaw River Rushes Eastward," in A Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians,
edited by John Gattuso (Hillsboro, N.Mex.: Beyond Words, 1993), pp. 106-110.
• "Come into the Shade," in Open Places, City Spaces: Contemporary Writers on the Changing
Southwest, edited by Judy Nolte Temple (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994), pp. 73-85.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATION -- UNCOLLECTED
• "Singing in Navajo, Writing in English: The Poetics of Four Navajo Writers," Culturefront, 2 (Summer
1993): 36-41, 74.
Niatum, D. (1988). Harper's Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry.
Tapahonso, L. (2008). A Radiant Curve: Poems and Stories.
Sellers, S. (2008). Native American Women's Studies.