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?"
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."
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.
And since oral tradition is a link with
the past, "most Native Americans will insist it is at the core of who they truly
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
Dunaway, David King.
Writing the Southwest
. Plume Book, 1995, p.
Interview with Simon J. Ortiz, Albuquerque, NM, August 20, 2009.
Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni (eds.). Simon J.
A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance
. University of New
Mexico Press, 2009, p. 94.
Brill de Ramirez and Lucero, op.cit. p. 121.
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.
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
." 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
The Good Rainbow Road
Out There Somewhere
From Sand Creek
Men on the Moon
Speaking for the Generation
After and Before the Lightning
A Good Journey
Earth Power Coming
Fightin': New and Collected Stories
Blue and Red
The Importance of Childhood
Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land
Welcome Howbah Indians
The People Shall Continue
Going for the Rain
Naked in the Wind
©Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be
republished without the express written permission of the author
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Conversos & Crypto Jews
Simon J. Ortiz - Storyteller
Why Write the Story of Your Life?
Should Jews Return to Spain
©2020 Norma Libman
Website design and maintenance
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
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
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.
New York Times
("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
In an Oct. 29, 2005
New York Times
("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
. 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
, 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
Talia Bloch takes this line of inquiry even
further in her article "The Other Jewish
Genetic Diseases" in the August 28, 2009
. 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
an article entitled "Shalom on the Range: In
Search of the American Crypto-Jew" by
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.
Norma Libman is a journalist and educator
who has been doing research in the field of
Converso history and contemporary life for
©Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No
portion of this article may be republished
without the express written permission of
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