Building Bridges – A Conversation with Author Heid E. Erdrich

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Heid E. Erdrich (Ojibwe) is a writer, poet, filmmaker and visual artist, and the author of several poetry collections. She is one of NACF’s 2018 National Artist Fellows in Literature and spent a significant part of her fellowship year promoting her anthology New Poets of Native Nations, a compilation of 21 Native poets who started publishing their work in the 21st century.

New Poets of Native Nations has done so well that it has already been reprinted three times. With part of the royalties, Erdrich has decided to give back and is creating a scholarship for a Native woman writer to attend the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference – a one-week long writers workshop and residency program. “The poets (from New Poets of Native Nations) were generous enough to share their work, and I just wanted to extend that generosity by making it possible for newer poets and writers to work on their craft, especially women.”

Erdrich has always thought of herself as a woman feminist writer, and it seemed only fitting that in light of Women’s History Month we talk to Erdrich about what her thoughts were regarding the contributions of Native women writers and poets to history and contemporary society. “The roots of feminism can in some ways be traced back to Native women”, she says. Referencing the suffragettes from Seneca Falls, Erdrich believes that when European women arrived to America and became aware of some of the freedoms that Native women had they began to strive towards their own liberation. “There is great evidence that the vision of the women of Seneca Falls was informed by Haudenosaunee women; so we’ve been in that movement all along.”

According to Erdrich, Native women have been writing as a means of expression for nearly two centuries. She mentioned the example of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800 – 1842), an Ojibwe writer who wrote poetry and traditional Ojibwe stories, translated Ojibwe songs into English, and is considered to be one of the first known American Indian writers. “Native women have always been there creating linguistic and cultural bridges through their writing,” she notes. “It’s been a through-line for Native women to use their voices through their writings to make art and express their diverse beings.”

Put Down

By Heid E. Erdrich from the poem series Little Big Bully

Kneel or crouch or stoop
low, go low, be humble

in the face of danger or random rage.

Have a life        if you must     but hidden
from the creature gaze
the saurian, raptor intelligence

that finds you virtually           in days

Kneel or crouch or stoop–
pick a clean place, they say,

rock or tree root
where you ask help

not for yourself

Avert your eyes, not
so you do not see
but so you are not seen

You go so low, go under
radar, go to the ground,
go dark, radio silent

Shiver in it       the power of it
what he controls he owns

whoever he keeps down
gets him up                keeps them low

Kneel or crouch or stoop–
pick a clean place, they say,

rock or tree root
where you ask help

not for yourself

AUTHOR, FILMMAKER AND CURATOR

As for herself, Erdrich sees her work as a writer, visual artist and community member as an entry point for engaging communities, be it with students, groups of elders or youth, and even women in prison. “I like my work to be a catalyst for creative conversations on complex issues.” When she goes out to perform and talk at colleges, cultural centers or museums she encourages audiences to think beyond what has already been done and to think creatively. “We might not know exactly what to do next, but if we think creatively, we will come up with the next solution,” she adds.

Apart from her writing, Erdrich has also been making films for seven years and is also interested in installation work, like the recent collaborative installation Asynchronous Reading, which she curated and also contributed to.

The past year was one of intense research and travel for Erdrich. She gave dozens of performances that related to both her own writing, collaborative projects, and literary work she engaged in as an editor. She was also able to produce two manuscripts, which she is currently finalizing and sending to publishers. “The NACF fellowship allowed me to be at my best when I presented, to work across broad audiences, take time off from paid work, and simply be present in creative moments that I could not afford previously.”

Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at Augsburg College.

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