Simon J. Ortiz — Acoma Storyteller and Poet By Norma Libman Simon J. Ortiz, a member of the Acoma Pueblo, is an American poet, fiction writer, essayist, storyteller, and university professor, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 27, 1941. He grew up on the pueblo in the town of McCartys ("Deetseyamah"), and worked in the uranium mines, served in the military, attended college, and then took up what was considered an unlikely career for a native person: writing. His work has won numerous awards, including National Endowment for the Arts, New Mexico Humanities Award, Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers Award, Lifetime Achievement Award: Returning the Gift-Native American Writers, Headlands Center for the Arts: Artist-in-Residence, Lifetime Achievement Award: Western States Arts Federation, Lannan Foundation: Artist-in-Residence Award, and New Mexico Achievement in the Arts Award. He is the father of a son and two daughters and grandfather to their children. In his writing, Ortiz has consistently heralded the spirit of the people of the world, and their relationship to family, community and the land. In his own words, his work is directed at "that great mass of people who I think need to be reaffirmed of their humanity. Kind of a tall order, but what's a poet for?" (1) Ortiz' first language is Keres, the language of the Acoma people. His first knowledge of the world came from his parents and his siblings, through oral storytelling and singing. He calls the Acoma language the language through which he first knew himself. He says, "The infant's early life is usually his family. So my first awareness of language, whether it was to eat or whether it was to be comforted, was the language my family spoke to me as an infant, before I had any real rhetorical understanding of how certain sounds come to you. It's very basic: you don't understand semantically, don't understand the meaning of the words, but you know that something is there, someone is singing you a sweet song, rubbing your back. You associate those early sounds with something soothing." (2) Then Ortiz was introduced to English when he began to attend St. Catherine's School and, later, the Albuquerque Indian School, run by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). None of the teachers spoke Keres so the children were forced to learn English in order to communicate with them. He says indigenous children were made to feel hesitant or intimidated if they didn't speak English and in some cases were punished if they were discovered speaking Keres. Also, children from different pueblos spoke various languages, all different from each other, so English became the common language with which they could interact with their peers at school. Ortiz acknowledges the presence of both languages in his education process, and also the two histories that they represent. Stories are information and knowledge, he says, and literature in school was presented to him via the Dick and Jane books and the Weekly Reader magazines. All instruction was in English, non-Acoma, non indigenous. But at home he was getting another form of knowledge: more stylized, more imaginative. Not that it wasn't true, but an oral history, exaggerated, imagined, from a long time ago. Not always factual, but in a more poetic form. (3) And since oral tradition is a link with the past, "most Native Americans will insist it is at the core of who they truly are." (4) His parents told him that he should always learn, and they were open to knowledge in any language. Now, when he writes, Ortiz includes words from the Acoma language in his stories and poems. Languages are equal to each other, he says, but we have different ways of understanding each other. "The primary knowledge of the Americas is indigenous," Ortiz says. "That is where all things of knowledge, of awareness, of consciousness come from. That is a thing that is not taught in school or in churches. When Western Europeans came here knowledge already was here. There was extensive civilization in the Americas, millions of people. You can't build civilizations in the Andes, or Peru, or the rainforests, or Yucatan or Mexico or here in the Pueblos without knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is foundational and it's basic and it's primary." (5) Walt Whitman was a big influence on Ortiz, one of the earliest, going back to his high school days. Later, he says, he had some reservations about him, would have preferred that he incorporate more native language into his work, as Ortiz himself does. But he feels Whitman's sense of strength comes from the land and that resonates with Ortiz and his love of the land. Some later influences were Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsey. "Later, in the same kind of spirit," Ortiz says, "I began to read more serious American literature, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcom X to some extent. And then in the 50's the Beat Generation, which I have to admit I was sort of on the outside, Gary Snider, Allen Ginsberg, people like that. I identified with them; I felt very much that they were part of my formation in my development as a writer. I began to think about and experiment with Buddhism, which I felt was a kind of correlation to the indigenous belief system, somewhat of an expression of what our lives were culturally." (6) Ortiz's writings, both poetry and prose, champion the land and the relationship of people to the land. "Land, to me, is so basic to our survival," he says. "Not just mine, but our. Our survival and continuance, which is the word I prefer. The land is where we come from. In an abstract philosophical way we credit our existence to some higher power, or higher force, that came about, that was able to initiate our lives as human beings. But it's still the land, the landscape of rivers, mountains, deserts, prairies." (7) It's also part of how we conceptualize ourselves as beings, as existence, he says. Ortiz says he honors the land because it is who and what we are. "It is how we are able to fare in the world. 'We' means all, not just Acoma." (8) And although he is frequently away from Acoma, he says almost every day, "This land is still me, this land is still who I am . . . . it is like a prayer." (9) Ortiz frequently uses poetry and prose together. He says he does not know, technically, where that comes from, but explains how they work together as follows: "Storytelling is very basic to our people. One recognizes himself as a person and also he is recognizing himself in relation to others. That's true of the oral tradition of storytelling. So story, as a concept, is one of connection. And the poetry is really part of a story because it is the underlying meaning, it is how we understand. Poetry is that key to comprehension. In the way we put down words. We look at each other's eyes, at the hands, it's poetic osmosis. We understand what is meant by the wave of a hand or a blink of the eye or a kiss or a touch. A wordless gesture. A wordlessness, and yet there is so much communicated. And it's a poetic power that is evoked, that makes sense and gives sense to life, to the story. I think in terms of form, the verse form, or the lack of structure, communicates in ways, where prose is more formal, more structural, rhetorically. It just communicates differently. So I use them together in order to give a much more complete or holistic grasp. I use them together in order to enhance my means of communication. And that is holistic: in order to make a good talk you go back to the beginning to make it work." (10) Ortiz speaks of wholeness, not only in literature, but in all of life: "We are whole when the world is whole. In other words, I am o.k. if the world is o.k. I think there is a lot of individual dysfunction these days because the whole is dysfunctional. And we can only get well, be whole, if the external is also whole. And the world does tell us that we are not doing the right thing. My children are more whole if I am doing the right thing. And how I regard my mother and father is how I regard myself. How they live their lives in accordance to traditional belief, respecting of those before you, respecting their own elders, is a guidance system that is traditionally and culturally available and possible." (11) On indigenous life today, Ortiz says, "Sometimes we get the feeling the indigenous way of life is disappearing. It's true to some extent. Colonization has resulted in the disengagement of those oral traditions and the cultural dynamics and connection to the land. But being battered or being diminished does not mean the entire abandonment of the traditions." (12) Zuni Lucero wrote of Ortiz, following an early interview with him, "His native language, the stories of his people, his traditional upbringing permeate his thought, his writing, his voice, his presence. He speaks forth the Indian experience in a way people, white and Indian, urban and reservation, recognize and embrace. . . . No matter where he is, he always comes home to reconnect, to contribute, to participate. His writing, his life, truly is for the land, the community, the next generation." (13) Ortiz says literature was knowledge to him because his father and grandfather and other elders spoke of the old stories as knowledge. That which is ours, which comes from our own, this is how you are going to know yourself, they told him. So for him literature was a natural attraction. "It is part of the way we bring knowledge to people. Look into me in order that you may see yourself. That is what a poet or any writer does." (14) ------------ END NOTES: 1. Dunaway, David King. Writing the Southwest. Plume Book, 1995, p. 150. 2. Interview with Simon J. Ortiz, Albuquerque, NM, August 20, 2009. 3. ibid. 4. Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni (eds.). Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance. University of New Mexico Press, 2009, p. 94. 5. Op.cit. Interview. 6. ibid. 7. ibid. 8. ibid. 9. Brill de Ramirez and Lucero, op.cit. p. 121. 10. Op.cit. Interview 11. ibid. 12. ibid. 13. Lucero, Evelina Zuni. "Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys, Struggles, Victories and Sorrows." Pueblo News Aug. 1978. Quoted on website of New Mexico Office of the State Historian. 14. Op.cit. Interview ------------ SOURCES: Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni. Simon Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance. University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Dunaway, David King. Writing the Southwest. Plume/Penguin, 1995. Lucero, Evelina Zuni. "Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys, Struggles, Victories and Sorrows." Pueblo News, August 1978. Quoted on website of New Mexico Office of the State Historian. Ortiz, Simon (ed.). Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. University of Arizona Press, 1998. Ortiz, Simon. from Sand Creek. University of Arizona Press, 1981. _____. Woven Stone. University of Arizona Press, 1992. _____. After and Before the Lightning. University of Arizona Press, 1994. _____. Men from the Moon. University of Arizona Press, 1999. _____.Out There Somewhere. University of Arizona Press, 2002. ------------ PUBLISHED WORKS BY SIMON J. ORTIZ: Beyond the Reach of Time and Change 2005 The Good Rainbow Road 2004 Out There Somewhere 2002 From Sand Creek 1981, 2000 Men on the Moon 1999 Speaking for the Generation (ed.) 1998 After and Before the Lightning 1996 Woven Stone 1992 A Good Journey 1985 Earth Power Coming 1983 Fightin': New and Collected Stories 1983 Blue and Red 1982 The Importance of Childhood 1982 Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land 1980 Welcome Howbah Indians 1977 The People Shall Continue 1977 Going for the Rain 1976 Naked in the Wind 1971 © 2009 Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be republished without the express written permission of the author TOP OF PAGE
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Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Popular Press: A Survey By Norma Libman For almost three decades the story of the Conversos and Crypto-Jews of the American Southwest has been big news in the popular press. Everyone from the New York Times to Hadassah Magazine to the Forward has had a go at it on more than one occasion. Over the years the focus has shifted from oral tradition - tales of ancestors who survived the Inquisition in Spain by converting to Catholicism while maintaining Jewish practice in secret - to genealogy studies, and then to DNA research. The tones taken by the various authors have included everything from awestruck to playful to snide derision. The movement from serious studies of "marranos" (a word no longer acceptable because of its insulting connotation) by such historians as Cecil Roth to more accessible versions of the story occurred in large part because of the appearance of Dr. Stanley Hordes on the scene. In 1981 Hordes took the position of state historian of New Mexico. Because he had done his doctoral dissertation on the Inquisition in Mexico City, people started to come to him with tales of a survival of Jewish practice in New Mexico and he began to study the phenomenon. When the New York Times ran some stories on the subject other publications began to take an interest. Two early New York Times articles ("Scholars and Descendants Uncover Hidden Legacy of Jews in Southwest," Nov. 11, 1990 and "After 500 Years, Discovering Jewish Ties That Bind," Nov. 29, 1992) are by Kathleen Teltsch. In both she includes brief summaries of the history of the Conversos and singles out some individuals to interview concerning their families' stories. She quotes Hordes in both articles and Rabbi Isaac Celnik, then Rabbi of B'nai Israel in Albuquerque, in the earlier one. Also in the first article, she quotes Rabbi Marc Angel, of Shearith Israel in New York, and describes some of his objections at that time to accepting Conversos as Jews. By the second article there is no mention of naysayers. In an Oct. 29, 2005 New York Times article ("Hispanics Uncovering Roots as Inquisition's 'Hidden' Jews") by Simon Romero we see the changes that a decade has brought to the study. For one thing, Romero includes developments in the field of DNA studies and references Bennett Greenspan, founder and chief executive of Family Tree DNA, on the work his company is doing in helping "Hispanics interested in exploring the possibility of Jewish ancestry." On a disturbing note, however, one can also see in Romero's article hints that he has read, and possibly taken as valid, material which appeared in the December 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly. This magazine published an article ("Mistaken Identity?: The Case of New Mexico's 'Hidden Jews'") by Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan that was poorly edited and filled with inaccuracies. It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing this particular article, possibly the most inaccurate and distorted account of the Converso story ever to appear in the popular press. The very first words set the tone by announcing that the true explanation for the phenomenon is "nearly as improbable" as the explanation that Conversos are descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. For someone unfamiliar with the history of the American Southwest the idea has now been planted that the accepted explanation is "improbable" when, actually, the explanation the authors support - that these practitioners were influenced by Seventh Day Adventists - is impossible because Jewish behavior is documented in the area long before the arrival of the Protestant sect. And the true explanation is supported by historical documentation from Church and Inquisition records and is not the least bit improbable. On the first page of the article there is a picture of a mysterious-looking stone object with some Hebrew letters. No caption identifies the source of the photo but a reader unfamiliar with New Mexico would be drawn in by its dark quality and hint of something sinister. It is, of course, nothing more than the tetragrammaton carved above the doors of the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, a symbol which has nothing whatever to do with the Converso story. This is never explained in the article. It is one of many examples of attempts to sensationalize and discredit the story. Off to this poor start, the authors continue to misrepresent the facts of history and the stories of the lives of the individuals who allowed themselves to be interviewed. At the same time they glorify the flawed research of Judith Neulander who - while making some valid points about not relying on the possession of Jewish artifacts such as dreidels or mezuzahs as proof of a Jewish past-is the unfortunate creator of the Seventh Day Adventist theory as the explanation of Jewish practices among Christians in New Mexico. In recent years some writers have taken a more serious approach by focusing on the scientific angle: specifically, developments in DNA research. The October 2008 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, for instance, ran an article by Jeff Wheelwright entitled "The Secret of San Luis Valley." Wheelwright includes a history of the Conversos and Crypto-Jews from the Inquisition to modern- day New Mexico, but his focus is on the 185delAG mutation of the BRCA gene in Jewish women, the mutation implicated in breast cancer, and its recent discovery in surprising numbers of Hispanic women in Southern Colorado. Until recently this mutation was thought to be associated with Ashkenazi women only, but now it has been identified in women of Sephardic heritage, "los judios" of San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. Talia Bloch takes this line of inquiry even further in her article "The Other Jewish Genetic Diseases" in the August 28, 2009 issue of Forward. She includes a comprehensive discussion of genetic diseases in Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In addition, the paper ran a second article by Bloch focusing on Persian Jewish disorders, a two-page listing of Jewish genetic diseases with comments on symptoms, testing and treatment for each one, and more articles on Jewish genetic diseases by other authors. Despite this seeming new serious approach and the scholarly interest in what DNA research can bring to the Crypto- Jewish/Converso story, the old-style, breathless, "guess what's happening out in the desert" type of story still appears in major magazines. So we find in the December 2009 issue of Harper's Magazine an article entitled "Shalom on the Range: In Search of the American Crypto-Jew" by Theodore Ross. Ross recounts his own scant Jewish history and says the "idea of hidden Judaism in Santa Fe had the feel of a tall tale, of yetis and UFOs and Atlantis." He judges the practices of Crypto-Jews - sweeping to the center of the room, covering the mirrors after a funeral - as dubious because he has never heard of them. While some of the people he encounters in his travels in New Mexico are not genuine examples of Conversos, Ross adopts a tone which suggests that none are. His approach, in the end, is not serious. We do not have space here to examine every article written about Conversos in the popular press. Most are respectful and accurate. Some are overly romantic and excited in their approach, but the authors are well-meaning. They are journalists, not historians or anthropologists or psychologists. They give a brief history and some examples. They do not delve into the profound trauma of living a double life, of keeping a family secret, of finding out late in life that your family story is not what you thought it was. Nor are they equipped by training to tackle such subjects. The highest praise goes to those who do not trivialize the subject or attempt to make a joke at the expense of those who live this story every day of their lives. At last there is a body of serious scholarship accumulating that looks not only at the history of this phenomenon but also at the impact it has on people's lives and on our understanding of Jewish history. Scholars such as Stanley Hordes, David Gitlitz, Seth Kunin, Janet Liebman Jacobs and others are where we should be turning for answers to the many questions the Converso/Crypto- Jewish story raises. © 2010 Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be republished without the express written permission of the author TOP OF PAGE