Author evokes memories of people and place

By A.J. Ortega - Guest Column
April 26, 2017 at 4:45 p.m.
Updated April 25, 2017 at 11 p.m.

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega   Contributed Photo by K. Jordan for The Victoria Advocate

I first came across Duane Niatum's writing in graduate school.

In a time where it seemed that my writing program peers were gravitating toward courses that focused on the Western canon, I chose to enroll in Harlem Renaissance and Native American Literature in one of my early semesters.

It was in the latter class that I found Niatum's poetry and nonfiction. Studying African-American and Native American literature steered me toward digging deeper into my own Mexican American heritage. While I studied these two specific genres as an outsider looking in, I always thought that they were my literary neighbors.

Niatum was born in Seattle in 1938. After serving in the Navy and earning his degrees, he returned to Washington, where he still resides today. His maternal grandfather raised him, which is where the connection to his S'Klallam heritage comes from, not only in genetics but in the language of oral traditions and imagery of the American Northwest. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Washington, a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from the University of Michigan.

Coming from a line of storytellers myself, I've always appreciated writers who can take the stories of their ancestors, make them their own and share them with the world. Many of Niatum's poems include names or epigraphs to commemorate and remember people in his past. Taking it a step further, Niatum writes about spirits and ghosts, making the dead come to life.

The descriptions of landscapes are crafted, sometimes in a formal meter, or close to it, and other times in free verse. Niatum always, however, makes use of fascinating word pairings and diction to let the reader focus on the details, colors, textures and sensations that come to us from the natural world. Phrases like "blood hot sky" or "The sun burns my 13 years into the hill" stick with me, even after many years.

Niatum's poems and stories are obviously important to American and world literature, now more than ever. In fact, with issues like the pipeline at Standing Rock, or the fact that suicide rates of Native American teenagers across the country are double that of the national average, reading authors who focus on preserving the traditions of their culture, in and out of their books, is vital to an entire generation and beyond.

This is why he recently was honored with, among several other accolades, the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement award for 2017. This award is voted on by the Native artist community and is given to Native artists. Niatum's writing obviously supports the traditions of his S'Klallam roots but just as important, the words transcend his own ethnic and cultural heritage while positioning Niatum in the larger context of American letters.

ABR is pleased to welcome Niatum to Victoria and to the UHV/ABR Reading Series at noon Thursday in the University of Houston-Victoria Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

A.J. Ortega teaches English in the University of Houston-Victoria School of Arts & Sciences. He may be reached at ortegaaj@uhv.edu.


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