Elizabeth Woody (Navajo / Warm Springs / Wasco / Yakama, and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) was named Oregon’s 8th Poet Laureate for a two-year tenure, which she began in May. The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation is fortunate to have had Woody as a founding board member at its inception. Her profound and firsthand knowledge of the field and her insight as an artist were critical in helping lay the foundation for what NACF is today. We are proud to congratulate Woody on this most deserved and honorable recognition.
One might say that Elizabeth Woody’s journey as a writer started as early as her first words and steps. She recalls being a little girl and making up stories illustrated by her own artwork that she would then share with her family. She was also an avid reader, and continued to write stories throughout school. It wasn’t until her teenage years though that Woody wrote her first poem, nudged by a high school teacher (English Department Chair) who encouraged her to participate in a writer’s contest.
Woody’s trajectory is by no means linear, and very much resembles the weaving lines of her poems, which evoke such powerful imagery and thoughts, sometimes too intense to immediately process, but that ultimately unravel into perfect clarity.
Woody left high school and took a secretarial job at OHSU (Oregon Health and Science University) where she pulled articles and coded the bibliographic information on computer cards with pencil. She was excited to work at a university where people treated her as an adult. She got her GED the same summer. It also required her to take aptitude tests that identified her as having exceptional eye-hand coordination and suggesting she would work well in a factory. Luckily Woody did not heed that recommendation, but decided instead to go to Portland State University (PSU) where her mother, Charlotte Pitt, and uncle, Louie Pitt had both attended. Her aunt Lillian Pitt was accepted in the social work program, as well, but never attended.
Not until much later, after studying at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) and getting a BA from The Evergreen State College, did Woody come back to PSU for a Masters of Public Administration degree through the Executive Leadership Institute of the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government.
It was in between one of these changes in Woody’s life direction that she ended up publishing her first book “Hand into Stone”. Woody had no job and no degree at that point. She had founded and was involved in the Northwest Native American Writers Association, getting together regularly to discuss, among other topics, Native writers being pigeonholed into oral tradition categories and the need for them to be seen as modern contemporary writers.
One evening after one of these meetings, a briefcase holding the only copy of the manuscript for her first book went missing. It wasn’t until weeks later, after Woody had exhaustively searched everywhere, the police contacted her. They found the lost briefcase and the manuscript in an empty lot in North Portland. The officers picked up the loose papers one by one. It had boot prints and gravel holes and missed only one page. Taking that as sign, Woody submitted the manuscript to Contact II Press and “Hand into Stone” was published yielding her the first of many awards in her career, the 1990 American Book Award.
For Woody writing is a process that involves deep conceptual thoughts coming out through a force of will, a passion. “Most people think you go be alone and write,” she says. “But when I taught poetry I would emphasize to my students that writing is something that you do all the time. You do it while you’re breathing.”
Blue Moonlight in swooped clouds thin to dark eagles mating
in crosses of upward elliptical loops.
Beating pulses synchronize heartbeats among the tulee reed longhouses.
An old wound in the land healed over years of corruption and charging horse soldiers. The children ran over the embankment.
Alarms were frantic pounding of hooves and rifles. In the spirits silent rising and cracking bones. The valley courses with Nee Mee Poo souls.
At times one hears music in the leaves. It is light and tinkles of shell. Rapture.
Run off torrents with moonlight ice. Exhale. Breathe deep, organ pipes moan under the ribs from church.
The ancestors sing despite conversion.
This is not one voice but the beginning of all voices in unison. Yes, crescendo waves of spiral utterances of the Plateau canyons. Blue herons rise.
The river returns pervasive with silver and red Nusoox.
© 2014 Elizabeth Woody
Cutthroat Journal: Tribute to Linda Hogan and Joy Harjo. Volume 18, No.1. Mar 2015, Pamela Uschuk, Ed.
Twanat means to follow, as in ancestral teachings, cultural lifeways
Nee Mee Poo are Nez Perce
Nusoox means salmon
Writing also allows Woody a way to be an active citizen, be part of her community and make significant contributions. “Things have happened to me that weren’t what I had planned for,” she notes, “but they came into my path and had to be done with integrity, courage and strength, which come from my ancestry and the community that I am a part of.”
The five cultural partners that comprised the Oregon Poet Laureate Nomination Committee unanimously selected Woody for the position. Interestingly enough, in 2005 Woody was invited to be part of the discussion that led to the reinstatement of the Oregon’s poet laureate after a 16-year hiatus.
The position of Oregon poet laureate was reinstated in 2006 with the nomination of Japanese American poet Lawson Fusao Inada. Now, a decade later, the twists and turns of fate, perhaps wrought by Woody’s unwavering commitment to tell her story and the story of her community, have led to something that unequivocally belongs to her. “People hold themselves back because they don’t think they are good enough,” she says. ”We are in real need of writers, artists and creative people; people that don’t give up and are not apathetic.”
Woody lives in Warm Springs, OR, and plans to dedicate her tenure and public appearances as poet laureate to more remote and rural places in the state of Oregon.