Published on July 9, 2014 by Amy
Simon J. Ortiz (born May 27, 1941) is a Native American writer of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in the second wave of what has been called the Native American Renaissance. He is one of the most respected and widely read Native American poets.
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Ortiz is a member of the Eagle Clan. He was raised in the Acoma village of McCartys (the Keresan name is “Deetzeyaamah”), and spoke only Keresan at home. His father, a railroad worker and woodcarver, was an elder in the clan who was charged with keeping the religious knowledge and customs of the pueblo.
Ortiz attended McCartys Day School through the sixth grade, after which he was sent to St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, as most Native children were sent to Indian boarding schools at the time. Attempting to provide an English language education, such boarding schools sought to assimilate Native American children into “American” mainstream culture, and strictly forbade them to speak their own native languages. Thus, the young Ortiz began to struggle with an acute awareness of the cultural dissonance shaping him and began to write about his experiences and thoughts in his diaries and compose short stories. While frustrated with his situation, he became a voracious reader and developed a passionate love of language, reading whatever he could get his hands on — including dictionaries, which he felt let his mind travel within a “state of wonder.”
Homesick for his family and community, Ortiz became disillusioned with St. Catherine’s. He transferred to Albuquerque Indian School, which taught trade classes such as plumbing and mechanics. He took both metal and woodworking classes, but his father was opposed to the prospect of his son’s future being in manual labor. However, the day after graduating from Grants High School (in Grants, New Mexico near Acoma) Ortiz began work as a laborer at Kerr-McGee, a uranium plant. Interested in becoming a chemist, he initially applied for a technical position. Instead, he was made a typist, soon demoted to being a crusher, and later promoted as a semi-skilled operator. His experience as a mining laborer would later inspire his work, “Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, for the Sake of the Land.”
Ortiz eventually saved enough money to enroll in Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, as a chemistry major with the help of a BIA educational grant. While enthralled with language and literature, the young Ortiz never considered pursuing writing seriously; at the time, it was not a career that seemed viable for Native people; it was “a profession only whites did.”
After a three-year stint in the U.S. military, Ortiz enrolled at the University of New Mexico. There, he discovered few ethnic voices within the American literature canon and began to pursue writing as a way to express the generally unheard Native American voice that was only beginning to emerge in the midst of political activism.
Two years later, in 1968, he received a fellowship for writing at the University of Iowa in the International Writers Program.
In 1988, he was appointed as tribal interpreter for Acoma Pueblo, and in 1989 he became First Lieutenant Governor for the pueblo. In 1982, he became a consulting editor of the Pueblo of Acoma Press.
Since 1968, Ortiz has taught creative writing and Native American literature at various institutions, including San Diego State, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Navajo Community College, the College of Marin, the University of New Mexico, Sinte Gleska University, and the University of Toronto. He currently teaches at Arizona State University.
Awards and honors
Ortiz is a recipient of the New Mexico Humanities Council Humanitarian Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Award, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and was an Honored Poet recognized at the 1981 White House Salute to Poetry.
In 1981, From Sand Creek: Rising In This Heart Which Is Our America, received the Pushcart Prize in poetry.
Ortiz received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Returning the Gift Festival of Native Writers (the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers) and the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas (1993).