Laura Tohe was born and raised on the Navajo Nation. Her mother was a weaver and an artist, and her father was one of the Navajo Code Talkers. She learned to write stories and poems through her extended family's storytelling. And as she grew, books — as many people can relate — allowed her to explore other times, worlds and people. So it seems fitting that on top of teaching literature classes at Arizona State University, Tohe recently was named the Navajo Nation’s poet laureate, making her only the second person in history to hold that title. We spoke with Tohe about her role as poet laureate and what it means for the Navajo people.
For those unfamiliar, can you describe the history of the poet laureate?
The role of poet laureate came about from the ancient Greeks, who honored their poets with a crown of laurel wreath. Such an honoring extended to citizens who excelled in the arts, medicine and athletics. The poet laureate was expected to compose poems for special occasions and events. From this tradition, the U.S. and many countries around the world confer the honor of poet laureate to their poets.
What role does a poet laureate play today?
The Navajo Nation began this tradition in 2013 by conferring this title to Luci Tapahonso as the inaugural Navajo Nation poet laureate. The poet laureate status honors and celebrates the accomplishments of a Navajo author who distinguishes herself or himself in the art of letters, and promotes pride and respect for Navajo heritage. The poet laureate is expected to promote literacy in Navajo and English, promote awareness of the Navajo Nation to all nations of the world, promote positive self-esteem among the Navajo youth and to promote awareness and appreciation of the Navajo writers and their work. In addition, the poet laureate is required to give poetry readings and collaborate on producing educational materials for classroom use.
The Navajo Nation is the only tribal nation in the country to have a poet laureate. Why was it important to begin designating this position?
We are a nation who values our oral traditions, stories, language, oral artistry and now our written works. Our first poets are the medicine people who use song and prayers for healing purposes. I think for these reasons, poets like myself, early on, gravitated toward writing, specifically poetry, to write my Diné presence into existence through language. We are a large indigenous nation, with a population numbering over 200,000, and have many young and established writers publishing and winning awards nationally. Under the leadership of Navajo Technical University — who brought this idea to the Navajo Nation — they promoted this award to honor its writers who are contributing in important and significant ways to Navajo, American and world literatures. By designating this position, the Navajo Nation supports Navajo heritage, language and literature. In this way, these goals contribute to nation-building and cultural sovereignty.
How did your childhood influence your love of literature?
My boredom with reading the Dick and Jane reading series in school and my isolation on the Navajo Reservation contributed to my love of reading. Through reading, I entered new worlds where I traveled to read stories of other people, other lands and other times. I was also surrounded by the oral tradition almost daily that I once took for granted. My extended family was consummate storytellers, and I learned how to write stories and poems by listening to them. Some of my earliest publications came from the stories my family told during our car trips and from visiting around the kitchen table.
What goals do you have for your time as poet laureate?
Besides fulfilling the goals of the poet laureate, I’d like to work toward having schools on the Navajo Reservation become familiar with the Navajo authors and their work as part of their school curriculum. It may be a daunting project, but I feel many young Navajo people don’t know who the Navajo writers are.
You're only the second to serve as such for the Navajo Nation. What does the honor mean to you personally?
That the Navajo Nation created this honor is tremendous. It means the Navajo Nation, under the sponsorship of Navajo Technical University, recognizes and honors its authors who contribute to the growing and evolving literature coming from its people. I am deeply honored to hold the title of poet laureate and that my work over the course of my writing career is recognized and celebrated in a public way by the Navajo Nation. I am happy and proud to have this title that celebrates the Navajo people’s heritage and want to contribute to the continuation of our oral traditions, Navajo language and to support the young writers who come after me.
— Kirsten Kraklio