Learning the stories behind seven Diné writers

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Laura Tohe talks about the history of Navajo writers during a gathering of Diné writers as part of Diné (Thinking) Space on Thursday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

CROWNPOINT — When Laura Tohe was growing up in Crystal on the Navajo Nation, she wanted to be a writer but was not sure how to go about it.

She enjoyed reading books but without any influential Native American writers to guide her, the questions she had about the profession just continued to pile up.

"I didn't know how one becomes a writer. How do you publish a book? Because I thought only white people could write. I thought only white people could publish a book," Tohe said.

Luci Tapahonso, center, the Navajo Nation's first poet laureate, talks about what inspires her to write poetry during the gathering of Diné writers on Thursday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

Her outlook changed in the 1970s when she met Navajo writer Luci Tapahonso, who was completing her first book, and advice she received from an instructor who taught a fiction writing class at the University of New Mexico.

She said the instructor told her to observe her community and to write stories inspired by those observations.

Tohe, who was named the tribe's second poet laureate in 2015, shared her experience as part of a discussion among Diné writers at the Diné (Thinking) Space Community Lecture Series on Thursday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint. The event included a dancing competition and an electronics demonstration. The university held the lecture series to celebrate creative thinking and introduce students to opportunities in higher education.

In addition to Tohe, writers Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Rex Lee Jim, Irvin Morris, Tapahonso, the Nation's first poet laureate, and Orlando White sat on the panel.

Bitsui said poetry was an outlet for expression when he was growing up in White Cone, Ariz.

Belin, whose first book of poetry won the American Book Award in 2000, said each composition represents her continued development as a writer.

"I'm still looking at my relationship with words and the power of words," she said.

Other activities focused on programs and resources housed at the university.

The university's electrical engineering students demonstrated to high school students rovers they built and programmed in class.

Peter Romine, an electrical and computer engineering professor, said the event exposes the high school students to engineering and computer programming.

Electrical engineering student Nick Begaye talked to the high school students about the battery-operated rover he built.

Electrical engineering student Conrad Begay adjusts a rover used to demonstrate a robotic device on Thursday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

Begaye is also part of a six-member team that is building a submarine drone this semester.

The group was inspired to build the drone after the Gold King Mine spill released millions of gallons of toxic mine wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers in 2015.

They intend to use the drone to collect soil and water samples from both rivers for testing.

Shyla Davis, as industrial engineering student helping build the drone, said the prototype is completed and work has started on building the final model.

The all-day event also focused on culture, including a song and dance contest in the university's wellness center.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.