National Poetry Month 2021: 5 Indigenous Poets Who Dare to Reimagine the Native experience

By Hannah Eko Apr 19, 2021

American history books have long obsessed over a singular story of Native peoples. But indigenous peoples are not some long ago defeated mass, or a solely ancient culture divorced from modernity. Drawing from vast wisdom and tremendous talent, these five indigenous poets directly confront shallow representations and dare to reimagine the contemporary Native experience.

Layli Long Soldier
rnWhy You Should Know Her:Called a “poet-architect in the arena of witness and longing,” Long Soldier is a citizen of the Oglala Sioux  tribe. Her writing connects the many titles she inhabits to include: tribal member, mother, educator, artist–and the paradoxes of trust. She has earned a Lannan Literary fellowship, a Whiting Award, and was a 2017 finalist for a National Book . In one of her most widely known poems “38”, Long Soldier offers a poetic eulogy to the thirty-eight Sioux warriors whose death by hanging was approved by former President Abraham Lincoln. A line from “38” reads, “I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem. There’s irony in their poem.”

Appetizer: “Talent”
rnMain Course:WHEREAS(Graywolf Press, 2017)

Tommy Pico
rnWhy You Should Know Him:
rnPico is a polymath creator: poet, performer, essayist, podcaster, and screenwriter for the FX television show “Reservation Dogs”. Pico is a writer who pulls readers in with his “irresistibly vulnerable and kaleidoscopic language”. His poems transverse popular culture and his Kumeyaay tribal roots, from emotional perils of hook-up culture to his childhood spent living on the Viejas Reservation.  Pico is the winner of a Whiting Award and is a co-host of Food for Thot, a multiracial podcast, which covers everything from sex to literary criticism.

rnAppetizer: “from Junk”
rnMain Course:IRL” (Birds, LLC 2016)

Natalie Diaz
rnWhy You Should Know Her: “We are stories. Even our names are stories.”, writes queer, Mexican, and Mojave-American poet, Natalie Diaz. Diaz grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village of  a California border town and has worked with the last speakers of Mojave and directed a language revitalization program.  She has been published in “Poetry” and the “Iowa Review”. Her poems have been called a “desire against erasure” and were awarded a National Book Award in 2020, and she currently teaches at Arizona University. 

rnAppetizer: “My Brother At 3 AM”
rnMain Course: Postcolonial Love Poem” (Graywolf Press, 2020)

Jake Skeets
rnWhy You Should Know Him:Jake Skeets’ work often centers on the intersecting worlds of male love and violence and weaves layered accounts of his Diné identity. He is the editor of the Native-centered online magazine CloudThroat and he is also a member of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ Writer’s Collective.  His debut collection, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers” was a 2018 National Poetry series winner and Skeets is also a winner of the 92Y Discovery Prize and the American Book Award. His work is a bold witness, “As a person from a Native Nation, I also needed to tell a truth...I wanted to offer a mirror in a way; a mirror for me, and a mirror for the institutions that continue to benefit off the disappearing of Native folks…” He makes his home in the Navajo Nation.

rnAppetizer: “The Body a Bottle”
rnMain Course:Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019)

jaye simpson
rnWhy You Should Know Them: 
rnsimpson’s work “…explores the complex roles that sexuality, gender identity, and Indigeneity have played in their life”. A Oji-Cree Saulteaux Two Spirited nonbinary trans woman, simpson continually advocates for the freedom and protection of trans women of color. They are also a leading organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance reading series with “Room Magazine”.A review on All Lit Up describes their work as a “symphony of unrelenting rage and undying hope that beckons to be heard, seen and held with the utmost care.” 

rnAppetizer: “the seven sacred ways of healing”
rnMain Course: it was never going to be okay” (Harbour Publishing, 2020)

Hannah Eko is a Black-Nigerian writer, teaching artist, and creator of honeyknife, llc. Her work has been featured in Buzzfeed, Bust, b*tch, make/shift, and Aster(ix) magazines. She is the author of Honey is the Knife, an eclectic essay collection grounded in peace, power, and pleasure.