Ortiz’s Poetic Sequence critics Frontier Ideals
Simon J. Ortiz wrote the poetic sequence from Sand Creek during his stay at the Fort Lyon’s Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital in Colorado. According to Travis J. Tanner’s article “Reading from Sand Creek”, Ortiz’s objective in writing this poetic sequence is to “bear witness to the historical silence that seals over the death and inequality that is the origin story of the New World” (142). An example of this “historical silence” is found in Theodore Roosevelt’s address “The Strenuous Life”, in which he presents notions of American identity that condone the suffering and death of Native Americans as a result of the frontier expansion. For that reason, in from Sand Creek, Ortiz uses vivid imagery and historical allusions in his poetry, to critique the notions of American identity and frontier history presented by Roosevelt.
In “The Strenuous Life”, Roosevelt believes the frontier expansion exemplifies the greatness of American identity. However, Ortiz’s provoking poetic imagery illustrates how the conquering of the West has been a stain to the American character. In his address, Roosevelt advocates for America to feel pride in its forefathers and the work that was done to secure the future of the nation. He reminds American men it was their ancestors’ “daring and hardihood and iron endurance” (1860) that was essential for the success in the West. Nonetheless, what he fails to mention is the past of death and destruction that also accompanied the “success” of the frontier. Tanner asserts that in from Sand Creek, Ortiz suggests:
the challenges of the past cannot be dealt with by ruinous logic of us-ing and them-ing founded on the divisive logic of identity. Issues of justice and culture cannot be addressed in this manner. Instead, we must try to understand how people and histories are enjoined with each other (148).
In from Sand Creek, Ortiz recognizes that for Natives and non-Native Americans to heal the scars of the past, they first have to accept that they share a history, no matter how dark that history is. Also, in the Preface of the poetic sequence, Ortiz states that he wrote the poems to deal with the history “that [he] and other Natives sometimes felt foreign to” (6), the very history that Roosevelt’s speech is consciously trying to protect. Appropriately, Ortiz’s opening poem begins with a declaration of America’s violent past: “This America / has been a burden / of steel and mad / death” (1-4). His reference to “mad death” greatly contrasts to Roosevelt’s perception that everything America has done has been just and necessary:
It is well to gather here to show that we remember what has been done in the past by the Western pioneers of our people, and that we glory in the greatness for which they prepared the way (1861).
Ortiz, however, challenges these notions by using images of decay on page 43: “What should have been / important and fruitful / became bitter. / Wasted. / Spots appeared on their lungs. / Marrow dried / in their bones” (1-7). The poem’s imagery intends to reflect the destruction of the body due to the corruption of the ideals of the frontier. On page 67, Ortiz’s poem uses images of blood to recreate the Sand Creek Massacre and uncover the death of Natives in the history of America:
They were amazed
at so much blood.
splashing, bubbling, steady
hot arcing streams.
and bright and vivid
unto the grassed plains.
The repetition of the verbs in present participle tense in the poem makes the action inconclusive and places Native American suffering in an eternal state. Later in the poetic sequence, Ortiz also states: “Dreams are so important because they are lifelines and roadways, and nobody should self-righteously demean or misuse them” (74). In the poem on page 75, he argues that it was the nature of the frontier dream that was doomed to violence and death because it became an excuse for murder, to the point where “life strangled / in their throats” and “Blood / gurgled and ran backwards / and swirled them into a whirl / of greed and callousness” (14-17). Ortiz’s unsettling imagery in this poem suggests that the perpetrators had lost their humanity through their bodies’ unnatural behavior. Ortiz’s imagery is a direct critique of the American identity presented by “The Strenuous Life”, in which Native American presence and suffering is ignored.
Roosevelt’s interpretation of the frontier in “The Strenuous Life” focuses on the victories of the expansion and ignores how those victories were achieved. Consequently, in from Sand Creek, Ortiz uses historical allusions to depict the omitted accounts of American history. Roosevelt’s address is very specific in its pride and support of frontier history:
The winning of the West was the great epic feat in the history of our race (1861).
He also attributes frontiersmen with hypermasculine traits: “with the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must always be done” (1862). He does this to get newer generations to embrace the characteristics of frontiersmen and establish an American identity that can continue to “influenc[e] the course of events throughout the world” (1860). Moreover, he ultimately justifies the actions taken in the past and implies that if the opportunity were to arise again, Americans should imitate the actions of their ancestors. Subsequently, towards the end of the address, Roosevelt completely contradicts himself when he claims: “Woe to all of us if ever as a people we grow to condone evil because it is successful” (1862). Roosevelt’s speech stands in total opposition to that statement. In “The Strenuous Life” he excuses the terrible acts done to ensure success during the American frontier. He also manages to erase Native Americans from American history in the same way his forefathers managed to erase them from the landscape on their way to California.
Ortiz’s Poetic Sequence Reclaims a Forgotten Past
On the other hand, Ortiz is aware that “[Native Americans] had been made to disappear” (6) and he writes poetry to help them reclaim their past. In from Sand Creek, by “[r]ecollecting and re-imagining history, Ortiz speaks as a witness to the past (the massacre) and the present (his own and other vets’ lives, which he claims continue the story of conquest represented by the massacre), and demands that his audience witness by listening to and acknowledging these histories” (Fast 53). In the past, Native Americans were thought to be uncivilized. Therefore, aggression against them was believed justified in the pursuit of prosperity for the civilized world.
Additionally, Ortiz’s wrote from Sand Creek from the VA Hospital in Fort Lyon, Colorado. Fort Lyon was a site that reminded Ortiz of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 where “[t]he reverend Colonel Chivington and his Volunteers and Fort Lyon troops, numbering more than 700 heavily armed men, slaughtered 105 women and children and 28 men” (Ortiz 8). As a result, Ortiz alludes to many historical events that contradict Roosevelt’s romanticized history. On page 15, Ortiz alludes to the Sand Creek Massacre: “In 1864 / there were no Indians killed” (7-8). His ironic tone in those lines helps illustrate the absurdity of America’s attempt to erase the past:
Repression works like shadow, clouding memory and sometimes even to blind, and when it is on a national scale, it is just not good (Ortiz 14).
On page 15 Ortiz also refers to the Vietnam War: “In 1969 / XXXX Coloradoans / were killed in Vietnam” (1-3), and the My Lai Massacre: “Remember My Lai” (9), in an attempt to make the reader acknowledge history (Fast 53). These poetic allusions evoke a dark part of American history after the end of the frontier. The My Lai Massacre was a tragic event during the Vietnam War where U.S. soldiers killed unarmed civilians. On page 73, Ortiz portrays the irony behind Native Americans serving in the American military. He indicates how even during his stay at Fort Lyon’s VA hospital, as well as in the times of the Sand Creek Massacre, his people have been led by “agents” whose only aim is to control them, as soldiers or as civilians:
Before and after,
There are Army
and appointed agents creeping
among us, guiding us
to destinies which are not ours (9-13).
The speaker recognizes that his life is not under his/her control. As a soldier he/she gets sent to other lands to do what non-Natives want him to. Also during the frontier expansion his/her people were persuaded or forced by non-Natives to embrace an unknown destiny. Moreover, the ethnic diversity that Ortiz describes in the VA hospital makes his “multi-layered witnessing” a reflection of both Native and non-Native history in the United States (Fast 52).
In the poem on page 53, the Native American speaker is at a Salvation Army store where a female non-Native American clerk thinks he is a thief: “I couldn’t have stolen anything” (8) The clerk symbolizes the effects of the “amnesia” that the United States uses to insulate itself from history (Ortiz 6). She is ignorant that it was her people who stole from the Natives, not a sweater, but their lives and history: “my life was stolen already” (9). In this poem, Ortiz further contrasts the past and the present when he states: “She caught me; / Carson caught Indians / secured them with his lies. / Bound them with his belief” (13-16). The speaker is “caught” because Native Americans are not free from non-Native American oppression. They are prisoners of non-Native American prejudices and at the Salvation Army store the speaker falls victim once again to their power: “I reassured her / what she believed. / Bought a sweater” (19-21). Ortiz’s use of historical allusions to refer to past and present events strongly critiques the declarations of American historical glory made my Roosevelt in “The Strenuous Life”.
from Sand Creek Reflects and Exposes National Misrepresentation of What It Means To Be American
The poetic sequence found in from Sand Creek is an example of Native Americans concerns with their place in American culture and history. Therefore, in order to place Native Americans within historical context, Ortiz challenges the perceptions of American identity and frontier history, which Roosevelt’s “The Strenuous Life” exemplifies. Ortiz uses detailed and intense imagery in his poetic sequence, as well as historical references to recreate and reveal the “silenced history” of America and expose the violent truths that Roosevelt and many other non-Native Americans are desperate to conceal.
Fast, Robin Riley. “‘It is ours to know:’ Simon J. Ortiz’s From Sand Creek.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. 12.3 (2000): 52-63. Print.
Ortiz, Simon J. from Sand Creek. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1981. Print
Roosevelt, Theodore. “The Strenuous Life.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: Norton, 2008. 1860-1863. Print.
Tanner, Travis J. “Reading from Sand Creek.” The Kenyon Review. 32.1 (2010): 142-164. Print.