Laura Tohe is Diné of the Sleepy Rock People clan and is the current Navajo Nation Poet Laureate for 2017-2019. A librettist and an award-winning poet, her books include No Parole Today, Making Friends with Water, Sister Nations, Tséyi, Deep in the Rock, and Code Talker Stories. Her commissioned librettos are Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio, for the Phoenix Symphony on the Naxos Classical Music label and Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World for Opera de Rouen made its world premiere in 2019 in France. She writes essays, stories, and a children’s play that have appeared in the U.S., Canada, and Europe with French, Dutch and Italian translations. She is the recipient of the 2019 American Indian Festival of Writers’s Award, Joy Harjo & the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund Award, the Dan Schilling Public Scholar Award and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Award.
What is lost and what is gained in translating creative work on the page? How do we keep the spirit of the original written work even as the words change and the nuance is sometimes lost between cultures? Authors and translators Alberto Ríos, Laura Tohe, and Ryka Aoki speak to the intricacies of working with multiple languages as a translative art form.
In the Indigenous Nation and the Navajo/Dine worldview, everything is in motion and is reflected in language that is verb-based and imagistic. This session focuses on images that speak for themselves and that open up to poetic interpretations on urgent environmental issues. How can poetic images convey the urgency of the issues that confront you on a level that comes from personal self-reflection and how does it resonate to other beings that inhabit the earth?
In the world of poetry there seems to be greater choice to create images, to use and experiment with language and form in new ways. I think poetry, at least the poetry I’ve been writing, lends itself to collaboration with photographers, musicians, composers, and choreographers. Writing my first libretto was most challenging as I’d never written one and didn’t even know what it was when I accepted to work on it for Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio. My current project Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World, is also a collaborative piece. “Nahasdzáán” is a Diné word that translates to Mother Earth. I think our biggest challenge is not being able to talk over ideas in person as we live in separate countries. Performances are scheduled for 2019 in France and I want the audience to see beyond the stereotypes of how native peoples have been constructed in the past, that American Indigenous peoples have unique tribal nation identities and are not simply relics of the past. This is the other challenge I’m facing from an audience who will attend the performances.
In 2007, Arizona State University English professor Laura Tohe, whose father was a code talker, began an extensive search for surviving code talkers, with the goal of recording their recollections. In all, she interviewed 20 elderly code talkers and relatives of several deceased code talkers. The result is Code Talker Stories, an affecting collection of remembrances that detail in the code talkers' own words their military involvement. Infused with feeling and wisdom, these stories give readers an illuminating glimpse of Navajo culture, a way of life that helped ready the code talkers for the rigors of warfare.