by Sara Marie Ortiz


Sara Marie Ortiz is an Acoma Pueblo memoirist, poet, performing artist, scholar, documentary filmmaker, and Indigenous peoples advocate. Her most recent publications include her first collection of nonfiction and poetry, Red Milk, and works of poetry and prose in Prairie Schooner, Mandala Journal, Ekleksographia, Drunken Boat, The Kenyon Review, The Yellow Medicine Review, Sentence, The Florida Review, New Poets of the American West, and Sing: Indigenous Poetry of the Americas. She is currently producing a documentary on the life and legacy of her father Simon J. Ortiz and works and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Seattle, Washington.


Part I. Starting

Signifier and signified.

I have never written about race. I figured a great way to start would be to start with a great title, so I wrote “Creation and Re-imagining Race: Self-actualization in Contemporary Indigenous Poetics” and then I realized that I had never written about race before. Not really. And then, after beginning to dig a bit deeper, I realized that every single thing I'd ever written, said, done, sung, danced, loathed, dismissed, raged quietly at, and forgotten entirely. . .was, in fact, about race. 

I started, stopped, started, then stopped again. 

Part II. Asking

I knew there were some important questions that I needed to try and answer if I was going to come even close to speaking to my 'topic.'

None of it was topical. It was all a sticky matted fabric of memory and experience. I had lied to myself about race and my "okay-ness" with it all, I realized.

A lot.


What do you really want to say about race and Indigenous poetics?

Why should anyone care?

What have you read or written or experienced in working as a Native writer, and among them, that has given you an explicit indication of how contemporary Native poets, particularly younger, feel about race?

Why is the conversation among contemporary Native American poets about race ever complicated by classism, assumptions (or non-assumptions) of (white and every-colored) privilege, the mirage of inclusivity, re or self-assigned marginalization, and Indigenous self-actualization v. de-colonization in and through poetry?

What indications or implications lie in the fact that my favorite poets are Whitman and white women poets like Louise Glück and Mary Oliver and not Native poets?

Why am I so mad at Native poets for all they have and have not said, being, in fact, way madder at them than white poets for their omissions?

Part III. Contra-indicators

I knew there were some very important nodes, points in process, 'factors' which signified my whole life, which precluded my delving, and deeply, into a real, bloody, and courageous exploration of race and the way it was or was not functioning in my creative work, and the work of my contemporaries.

My lens seemed to be a little “off.” Did I really want people knowing how “off" my lens really was?


Factors or plot points that complicate my conversation about race, poetry, and the unmasking taking place in the realm of contemporary Indigenous poetics:

1. I used to think I was Mexican. I grew up in New Mexico, surrounded by Hispanic/Chicano people. My white mother was one of the only white people in our neighborhood. My Native father was nowhere in sight. Everyone I knew was Mexican. And, thus, I became.

I attended ceremony at the Pueblo from birth. I was given my Acoma name at birth. And I still didn't fully realize my Native-ness until my teens, and not until I, myself, was a mother of a Mexican/Acoma/Anglo daughter. I named her Monique. I loved the French language. I gave Monique her Chicano father’s last name: La Riva.

2. I began my college studies at a tribal college, a fine arts college dedicated entirely to the preservation and development of Alaska Native and American Indian Arts & cultures. I ended up attending this tribal college, after a failed attempt to study where my grandmother lived, in an all white college town in Eastern New Mexico.

My bubble of experience studying creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), among other privileged Native artists like me, actually began to seemingly serve as a conflated reality, a mirror-mask of sorts, where I was both mirroring a particular and more comfortable reflective identity back to my peers, and also masking my realest identity, reality, and self-hood. When I left the comfortable confines of this IAIA asylum I got a very rude awakening and was entered into a very different reality - in academia, in the professional sphere, and elsewhere - and I realized this alter-reality of IAIA had actually dis-served me in many, many ways.

3. My white grandmother and mother raised me, it wasn't until I was eighteen and studying at the IAIA that I began to self-identify fully and readily as my father's daughter, as an Indigenous/Native/Acoma Pueblo writer.

4. So many of my earliest ideas about the power, possibility, and “specialness” of Indigenous literature, and poetics specifically, now ring somewhat hollow to me, particularly regarding some of the most dominant and blatant self-aggrandizing, conflated, and baseless self-righteous assumptions about racial hierarchy and privilege.

5. I am a woman. I am a progressive. I am Native American. And I am a neo-racist.

6. More often than not I have failed to assume responsibility, or have negated entirely my responsibility to examine my own preconceived notions about race, class, and privilege.

Part IV. Fragments

I have never written about race.

And, yet, every single thing I've ever written has been about race. As has been said about Langston Hughes' work, every turn of phrase, the form I've chosen (or not chosen) in my writing, the language I employ to convey my experience as an urban contemporary Native Acoma Pueblo woman and poet cannot help being about race, cannot help but tell a complex, labyrinthine story about identity, memory, self-actualizing amid such complexity. It also tells a story about the ways in which I've encountered the language of other poets–Indigenous and all–who also self-actualize amid what often seems as a stream of unending dialogue about identity, race politics, fragmentation, othering, and what our poetry is saying about these things in light of it all.

Hughes took specific issue with black poets of his day who didn't want to self-identify as 'negro poets' but wanted to be known on the merit of their poetry alone, and I - like most of my contemporaries–have been asked this question over and over again. Who are we, if not "Indians"? If not "Native"? I began to ask: what of our self-inflicted, proudly conflated "otherness," and our self-assumed exoticization?

This infinitely complex and evolving architecture came into sharp focus when I had graduated with my MFA in creative writing with a specialization in creation nonfiction, from Antioch University in the fall of 2009, first graduating with my BFA from The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

My experience at IAIA was rife with rich complexity and contradiction at every turn.

While still a student there, I reveled in the richness, almost entirely, feeling as though I'd have plenty of time to enter into the stickier, more matted fabrics of race politics and what it meant to "write Indian" much later on. It came on much quicker than I’d thought or hoped it would.

I allowed myself, and was allowed by my professors, among them Jon Davis, Evelina Lucero, and Arthur Sze, all long-time architects and faculty within the program, to explore and change and grow as needed, challenged, but never forced to face identity politics and specific issues of race, gender, and class within my own work and the work of others.

Form, content, and context of experience matter greatly. They are a language unto themselves. And my experience studying at IAIA was an evocative representation of that. The land, on which the classrooms were situated, where we studied the work of Walcott, and Allende, and Li Po, and Harjo, and Momaday, it, too, was language. I thought I spoke that language while there. Sometimes I think I still do. But most days I’m not so sure.

We, majority Indigenous writers of many Nations and heritages, Pueblo, Inupiat, Navajo, Lakota, Comanche, Cherokee, Salish, came as a confluence of Indigenous voice and aesthetic and experience and memory and we existed as both the fertilizer and the fertile soil itself when it came to self-actualizing with poetic license, creative agency, and developing our creative-intellectual ethos amid the great complexity that was the very educational structure and strata in which we were studying and also being allowed to shape each other in.

My colleagues have almost all gone on to complete their MFAs, or other graduate programs, some taking up prestigious fellowships, at universities like Brown, Cornell, NYU, Syracuse, Stanford, and Columbia, and several have published high praised poetry collections.

I have never written about race.

And, yet, everything I've ever written, done, spoken about, dreamed about, screamed silently about, raged about, or been indifferent to...has been about race and/or my privilege and my assumptive, and often dismissive, attitudes with regard to race.

My mother is white. My father is brown. My mother is of Dutch, Irish, and Scottish heritage, and was born in Eastern New Mexico on the Texas/New Mexico border. My father is a "full blood" Native American Indigenous son of the Haaku'meh Hanoh, the Acoma Pueblo people of central New Mexico.

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fully my mother and father's daughter in every sense of that turn of phrase. But I thought I was Mexican until I was a teenager. I'd been told my whole life that I was a daughter of the Acoma people, given and told my Acoma name in Keres, at and since birth. I attended ceremony at the Pueblo regularly and I knew (at least cursorily) who my father was, and what his name meant in the realm of Indigenous arts and letters. I am born of the eagle clan, but not for them. When my name is called out at ceremony, I know myself as an eagle child, but mostly only in that context. I cannot serve within Pueblo government because I am a woman. And I am not a fully functioning member of Acoma society because my mother is not Acoma.

I have never written about race.

And I’m not sure that I’ll ever really be able to.

           Seattle, Washington – March, 2013

(This essay will appear in the forthcoming anthology A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, edited by Laura McCullough, from the University of Georgia Press.)