Navajo poet touches on identity, history and tragedy at Native American Heritage Month event at SLCC

Salt Lake Community College offers three other events honoring Indigenous contributions.

(Courtesy photo) Salt Lake Community College students and faculty listen to Tacey M. Atsitty, a Diné poet, as she reads from her book “Rain Scald,” on Nov. 17, 2021.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, which is November, poet Tacey M. Atsitty shared her work with students and faculty at Salt Lake Community College’s Taylorsville Redwood Campus.

Atsitty, who is Diné and a Ph.D. student in the creative writing program at Florida State University, read from her 2018 debut book of poetry, “Rain Scald.” One reviewer said Atsitty’s collection of poems encourages readers to “reconsider [their] understandings of language and land, repentance and revelation, sexuality and spirituality.”

The event included a land acknowledgment video in which the audience heard from local Native American community members, including student leader Joey Du Shane-Navanick and Virgil Johnson, spiritual advisor and students at SLCC.

Last November, SLCC unveiled land acknowledgment plaques for Native American Heritage Month, which included a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of the land.

Atsitty, who received bachelor degrees from Brigham Young University and the Institute of American Indian Arts, told the crowd, “As I’m thinking about Native American Heritage Month, my poetry is a lot of my own personal experience and a lot of history specific to Utah.”

She put each poem in historical and personal context, including an explanation of how Diné introduce themselves. They introduce themselves with four clan names: Their mother’s clan, father’s clan, maternal grandfather’s clan and paternal grandfather’s clan.

“It tells you who we are and where we come from,” Atsitty said.

Atsitty read her poem “Ach’íí',” which is partially about her father’s experience in the Indian Student Placement Program, a program that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints ran from 1947-2000 that “took 50,000 native children from reservations and placed them in Mormon homes,” in efforts to convert them to their religion, according to RadioWest.

Atsitty wrote her book, “Rain Scald,” when she was a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, where she received her master’s degree. She said part of her book was inspired by tragic events that occurred while she attended Cornell — several mechanical engineer students jumped into a gorge on campus and killed themselves.

“There was one student one week, then two students the following week, so there was this overwhelmingly sense of sorrow and grief and darkness,” she said.

Attsidy ended the reading with the last poem in her book, “Even Song,” opting to only read the third part of the poem, “Holy People”:

“Oh, Holy People, show me how I am human / How I am soon to sliver / Stay please, for woman or man’s sake / Succor me from a telestial state, where I long to be self-luminous in a slate of granite / How easily I fall to shards, a hand left to wane ungathered.”

Upcoming Native American Heritage Month Events at SLCC

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, SLCC is holding several other events:

Unmasking the Hidden Crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women

Nov. 30, 1-2 p.m. in the Student Event Center at Taylorsville Redwood Campus.

Native American Health Panel

Dec. 3, 12-2 p.m. in the Student Event Center at Taylorsville Redwood Campus.

Native American Art Mural Showcase

On display until Dec. 3. in the Taylorsville Redwood Campus Student Center, room 236.

Andrew Christiansen wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.