|In 1970, Duane Niatum published his first collection of poems called "After the Death of an Elder Klallam" which was the
first writing to contain Northwest Native American myth and tradition, had set his career in motion.
Natium's Troubled Beginning
As an influential editor, poet, author and playwright, Duane Niatum's path to writing began slowly. He was born to a
Klallam (Salish) mother and Italian-American father. His mixed heritage would affect him for years, but so to would the
positive influence he received from his grandfather.
His grandfather began parenting him when his parents divorced. A Klallam tribal Indian, his grandfather told him oral
stories passed down the generations, which later were intertwined into his writing.
The conflict Natium experienced in part was derived from being a half-blood. Negative social encounters led him into a
pattern of troubled behavior and stints in reform schools.
His father had been a merchant seaman and this eventually led Niatum to enlist into the Navy. However, his turbulent
behavior continued which landed him in the brig. Niatum's experiences in the Navy brig were included in his short story
Niatum says today concerning his after of his mixed-ancestry: “My aesthetic position has always been to learn and grow
from whatever sources of knowledge are available. I have, without exception, believed it extremely important to maintain
a balance and give my reader the wholeness of my experience through living in both worlds. Fortunately, time has
shown me how to live within this paradox. Art continues to offer the opportunity of surviving in both worlds no matter how
challenging that may become at times.”
By 1959 Natium lived briefly in New York City but mainly in and around Seattle. After entering the University of
Washington, where he majored in English, his passion for writing was finally on track. Niatum received a PhD. in 1997
and worked as a librarian, teacher and editor.
Editor For Native American Authors Program
Songs for the Harvester of Dreams
In terms of style and literary models, this urbanity is especially conspicuous in his poetry from Songs for the Harvester of
Dreams onward. Part 1 of that book, "Voices from the World and the People," consists of brief poems, in the form and
manner of traditional Salish songs and chants, that are dense with allusions to mythic figures such as Raven, Eagle,
Salmon, Old Man, Owl, and Cougar. Yet in "Cougar" the poet's imagination seems to have conjured up Rainer Maria
Rilke 's Panther alongside the American mountain lion; the juxtaposition is eerie and characteristic of Niatum:
As he runs from our eyes
Following him into the brush.
What strength we have left
In our hearts goes back to him.
In part 2 of the collection, "Spinning the Dream Wheel," the stylistic and formal range widens markedly to include
intimations of the work of W. S. Merwin , Ted Hughes , and especially Roethke: "The Art of Clay" is a villanelle in the
manner of Roethke's "I Wake to Sleep" (1953). More recently, in Drawings of the Song Animals, Niatum pays his old
master the ultimate technical compliment of a sonnet sequence, "Lines for Roethke Twenty Years after His Death."
Drawings of the Song Animals
Duane Niatum's concentrated, image-rich lines in Drawings of the Song Animals are sophisticated and demanding. His
parallel sentences, driving rhythms, and creative pauses give the poems a rhetorical quality of natural speech. Yet within
the free verse, the poems sometimes tend toward meter, especially pentameter; he also uses rhyme and off-rhyme; the
poems are more controlled than the open expansiveness of, say, Whitman.
Dreaming is a central theme, and Niatum juxtaposes dream-like images against natural reality. The surreal images
complete a circle, venturing forth from the world of natural phenomena and merging with extraordinary reality to create a
new synthesis. Such phrases include "blood hot sky," and "ghosts devouring his mind like ants," and ". . . red-wing /
blackbirds fold themselves / into the fence, / corn dreamers".
The dream circles of these surrealistic images demonstrate the indigenous belief in the fluidity of the natural and spiritual
worlds, the shadowy world of spirit being just as real as the world of substance and matter. The call of dreams in Niatum's
poetic vision illuminates this truth that our rational minds often neglect: worlds other than the easily seen one inform our
Recovering the Word
Niatum's range and versatility as a poet, and his extensive knowledge of modernist literature and art, probably underlie
the controversial position he takes in his essay "On Stereotypes" in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American
Literature (1987). There he expresses his "resentment at being categorized, boxed and sealed: 'Indian writer' " by
reviewers and critics, even when such stereotyping is laudatory; he goes further, arguing against Leslie Marmon Silko
that "there is not a Native American aesthetic today that we can recognize as having separate principles from the
standards of artists from Western European and American cultures. And anyone who claims there is encourages a
conventional and prescriptive response from both Native Americans and those from other cultures."
Niatum acknowledges the inescapable primacy of American English, with its freight of forms and traditions, for modern
Indian writers as well as for members of all other ethnic and racial groups who use it. He admits that Indian poetry and
fiction have features that differentiate them, at least in degree, from mainstream Anglo writing -- most notably, the high
valuation Native American writers place on the spiritual power of words that are formed and used properly.
But Niatum rejects the proposition that such differences constitute a pan-Indian aesthetic or poetics. An Indian writer
must be able to use the full range of available literary resources, Anglo as well as Indian; he or she must not be limited to
a special category of "pan-Indian" resources and measures that are understood to be somehow derived from all the tribal
literary traditions but transcend them.
Songs for the Harvester of Dreams
Near the end of part 1 of Songs for the Harvester of Dreams Niatum places a short poem of one sentence in eight lines,
titled "Raven and the Fear of Growing White," that is paradigmatic of his outlook and style:
When mother spruce answers no child in the dark,
When hawk fails to reach his shadow on the river,
When First Woman beats hummingbird to the earth,
And salmon eats the rapids until his bones shatter,
When otter steals the long-awaited promises of stars,
And blue jay stops naming each new storm,
It will end its fear of growing white.
In its allusions to Raven, First Woman, Salmon, and so on, the poem employs the distinctive "mythological grammar," at
once traditional Salish and intensely personal, that has been evolving in Niatum's poetry from the beginning. But here the
imaginative mediation between Indian foreground and Anglo surroundings takes on a special urgency. The poem brings
mordantly into view the prospect of utter deracination, the loss of personal connection with a storied collective past. Its
ironic form is that of the Fool's prophecy in William Shakespeare 's King Lear (circa 1605-1606), act 3, scene 2,
"foretelling" the abuses of the present, or the bitter "retroactive prophecies" that appear to have been added to
traditional myth narratives in the early contact era, "predicting" disastrous consequences of the coming of the whites --
consequences that were already at hand. As the When clauses hammer out the poem's form, the sense of inexorable
dislocation and loss grows until, at last, Raven is foreseen as ending "its fear of growing white" because now it is white --
that is, utterly bereft of what should make it Indian.
The fear of deracination is a central theme in Niatum's poetry and in Native American writing generally; but it can hardly
be labeled merely an "Indian theme." One measure of the power of this poem is that, paradoxically, through its localized
Klallam details it seems to speak to a general modern fear of "growing white," that is, of drifting irretrievably out of touch
with one's origins. Rarely has Niatum posed the issue of cultural loss so harshly. His more recent poems, such as the
"New Poems" in Drawings of the Song Animals, suggest more confidence in the Native American roots of his identity.
Since the mid 1980s Niatum, always a skilled prosodist, has been writing his most lyrical work to date. The evidence of
late poems such as "Round Dance," in Drawings of the Song Animals, suggests that this gifted poet has attained an
"elder's" status in the patient mastery of his art:
Fox woman, come dance with me,
let's find earth's beach, unravel yourself and tide,
let grass burn ocher, your hands be blue camas,
we'll turn as mischievous as Raven stealing light.
O I am best welcoming a friend.
So let's mingle with guest and ancestor,
Duckabush river and tamahnous, release the abalone
yearnings, the eyeless flights.
(The Duckabush is a river on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington; tamahnous is a spirit guardian.)
Full Text of Duane Niatum's "Breaking dread:
The March wind bangs against the brownstone window, startling Joe from drifting into the rubble of the alley and
apartment house across the way. It has persisted for endless turns down this night's wheel as if trying to force the cold
into the rooms. He thinks the wind longs to rest from its own patterns. Perhaps it is tired of its own bitter edge that has
bounced from one wall to the next since last December. Having found himself caught in more than one snowfall, he can
speak from experience about the harsh movements in a New York City winter. The giant grid of this city convinced him
that a winter storm can freeze the soul of native or stranger. Indeed, hardly a day or night had passed when he had not
felt how much snow or ice sheets of rain had piled up outside each subway entrance or exit or store he had entered
during these last months.
It is the jest of a cruel humorist who can alter the events and perceptions of your life by simply drawing you out into the
sudden gusts of snow and sleet. Yet this reminds him of the first time he met Daphne at the Portland Public Library in the
city where he was born. She passed him one day, loaded down with books by Freud and Jung and Nietzsche. Could he
help her carry them, he asked? He could, she answered. Though it was two years ago, he can at this instant see her
standing there with that pile of books. Her hair and eyes were as black as infinity. And when she bent over to give him the
books, her long curls fell in front of her face. It almost hid her eyes, and made her delicately formed nose more
mysterious. Her face had the sculptured beauty of an Egyptian goddess. Or more, in keeping with her roots, a Rachel.
Her lovely twenty-two year old body smelled like a twilight iris flecked with spring rain. Her hands were small and slender
and wonderfully proportioned. Her breasts, momentarily pressed against his arms, as he took the books, made his skin a
spark of fire and her own. He remembered that he could not resist pressing lightly her left hand, as she went out the
door, and calling out how he could not wait until they met again. She turned as she reached the steps to the street, and
he could see how her shy but radiant smile assured him she would be there to meet him one day in a more open field.
When she blushed, he waved goodbye and spoke through the glass that he would look forward to seeing her light up the
street and the day. Since this was the third time she had met him on the way to the library, he saw her now as even more
of a woman of green and red journeys, than he had first imagined. As his heart followed her out the door, he sensed that
there would be no thinking or dreaming of anything else until he had the chance to see her some place other than a
library, tell her what crazy stirrings were taking place inside him.
He rocked back and forth through most of the storm and the silence. The first sliver of approaching dawn inspired him to
head for the record player: pick Ravel's "Bolero" from the rack and put it on the turntable; return to the bed and prop
pillows next to the wall facing the alleyway into oblivion. He lay on the bed looking out the window, seeing the remains of
night flip its little histories of debris like a deck of cards.
When her face did start to fade from the walls of the room and the erasure absorbed the last chord of the music on the
turntable, it was clear that the storm had only added its accent to the latest pattern. Suddenly, as he lay on the bed, the
melody returned for a moment. Since the walls and ceilings no longer echoed its last smashing chords, he began oddly
rolling his head like a pendulum between window and ceiling.
The chill flowing up and down his spine after the last time he returned from walking out his obsession of her absence in
the lakeshore park's crystal air has forced him to accept that he has lost the woman who is less and less around, day or
night, although they still live together in this apartment, and until recently, he thought were happy and as intimate as
imagination could suggest. And with this realization that she no longer cares whether he exists has come his new
preoccupation with the patterns of the night. The acceptance of the truth of just how complete is her rejection was all it
took. It revealed he would need to build a defense from these rooms that make him feel like a cornered street-urchin.
Besides, options appeared elliptical and time held him in its theater of shadows and laughter.
Before being pulled into the distractions of the noises outside, Joe sat at a table watching a rather large cockroach
scuttle across the hardwood floor. Although he had lived in New York for nearly a year, the size and number of its
roaches and rats continued to disturb him. And they often stared at people as if it was their city all along. As a devout
New Yorker boldly announced one night in a cab: "It's the Big Apple, pal. You love its funky ways and breathe in deeply
its 101 varieties of stench, or you pack up and go elsewhere. Believe it."
The roach had now stuck its head from its shell. It then climbed briskly down to the floor, prancing along on its many legs
toward the bedroom, to disappear under the bottom of the curtain that acted as a door between the bedroom and
As he propped his head between his hands to better watch the show, he could smell the insect spray from the weekly
morning raid that hung in the air around the clock and the nostrils like a broken valve. The incense they burned
constantly never helped. The roach and his extended family would troop along the floor in single file at all hours of the
day or night, trotting their way through his shadow as if their life was the essence of simplicity. But somehow he was
growing closer to this clan. They were less strange than most of the people he passed on the sidewalks of abstraction,
this city whose labyrinth had no beginning or no end. But still he turned to read the note one more time.
Must work in the lab tonight. Too many projects to finish before Friday. Don't wait up. I'm sure to be late.
Someone opened the outside door and began to climb the stairs. Joe recognized the familiar whistle: a melodic blues.
Charles, a young intern, rented the top apartment, five flights up. He could always tell when Charles reached his door;
the whistle faded. How does he do it? Joe had asked himself many times. Charles has lived at the top of those greasy
stairs for a decade, and he whistles the same old tune. Joe was tempted at dissonant moments to climb those stairs after
him and ask if the world had ever looked just a little out of focus sometimes. For example, inheriting a golden arm makes
one want to whistle, to dance, to sing? With a five year habit calling all the shots and hounding him for more, he would
necessarily be this cheerful? And what of those childhood years he lived in Memphis? Simply because he was the son of
a black school-teacher could not have made his youth any easier when racism was overt and fashionable? Joe could not
accept that, because Charles is a doctor at a methadone clinic, he will be heard forever whistling out the years.
But Joe is truly in the dark, so he lopes around the room instead. It looks hideous. The white walls and ceiling are the
streamers of a hospital room. The few prints by Picasso, Gauguin, Monet and Vermeer don't help. The record player
enclosed in its case looks like a doctor's kit: loaded with knives and files and hammers for carving his anatomy down to
elbows and toes.
Ah, but he is filling in the holes, making out the blanks, he thinks. Still he continues asking himself--when had the light in
her black eyes failed to reflect the moon or sun? When was the last time she had kissed him on the back of the neck,
while he sat drawing notes on sheets? When did she first refuse to accept his coat as a shield from the teeth-chattering
winter wind? No matter how much he struggles, it is impossible to remember when they last chased for joy their rain
spirits clear to the Village and back. His skin knows there was a period when they held each other until the dawn took
their naked bodies and their inner music brought it round again. He thought he first noticed her grow cold and recoil to
his touch a couple of months ago, after they returned from a party and trip to Long Island. He also could not get out of
his head the time he asked her who the man was who kept calling her the past few weeks? "Nobody special," she had
replied, "only a friend from work." Thus he cannot escape from the fact that recently their life together had become rather
vague and blank and as random as insults. They had even talked of separating.
Her therapist added to the difficulty when he hinted to her that maybe Joe should return to his wife and infant son in the
Northwest. The therapist had said that perhaps their very different cultural backgrounds were probably adding to the
conflict. So regardless of the constant declarations that her doctor was supporting her from a position of utmost
professional impartiality, he realized that it was useless to challenge the doctor's claims. It was too late for about anything
after their laurel branch had broken. The doctor baited Daphne, "Hadn't Joe made a faux pas by assuming he, an Indian,
could live out of his element in so foreign and non-Indian a land as New York City, even if he was a half-breed?" He
enjoined, "Isn't that slightly absurd?"
Joe understood too late that an error had been made in not pursuing the subject at the start of their troubles. He had
failed to act then because it seemed to him that Daphne had said quite forcefully that she had not agreed with her
therapist. And now he could do without all the flat-denials that would be unleashed at him like brittle rage. He can still feel
the perfume bottle she threw and broke against his chest some weeks past. But now as a result of his smoggy memory
about the last month's ins and outs, ups and downs, wave of sleepless nights, their fewer and fewer conversations in bed
or out began to converge at the door to unreality and then evaporate, taking him with them. It was, therefore, no accident
that Joe's world of day subway riding and night ceiling gazing started to unleash the demonic creatures that occasionally
built their own fortress around his cell. His mind's eye that would not close began to witness the past week as fragments
of his self walking in different directions. Slowly slipping into zero's corner, he found himself incapable of bringing the
fragments together for a Pow Wow. Even his dream-travels mocked him as a nowhere man.
Yet he recalled there had been one or two quick impulses to flee. Especially after the guy from the lab called her at three
in the morning. He could not bear to feel her ice into strangeness one more time. This change first made itself known
when he went to meet her at work and caught her leaning her head against a man in the biology lab. He knew you only
lean against a lover that way. This was why his thoughts this week merely named his closely watched confusions.
Besides, how could such confusions like these help anybody to pick up the pieces? He believed they served little
purpose because they had never helped him solve the subtle breakdown of what he thought were solid connections. So
adding things up became a nightmare of trick-mirrors.
He was, at least, sure that these nothings posing as events in his life were making a mockery of his senses. That is, what
was left of them. However, he could leave without saying a word--take the next plane, train, or bus West. Quit his job with
no real repercussions. His boss would understand if he chose to find his way back to Portland and familiar territory, family
and friends. In fact, only the other day his boss said that he did not have to return to work until he pulled himself a little
He will, if his soul keeps the right beat, find his way out of that heating vent in the corner. His squad of legs at cross
purposes might somehow step in unison to the slower changes of the vanished moon over the room, barely lighting the
path to the door, and on to the street.
Is it the Trickster's voice who has settled in the room like a burning cedar stump? Why does Raven keep telling him to
search beyond the trappings of the kitchen, the apartment, the city? The ashes of the bedroom? Is it in the kitchen where
Daphne hides? Or is it her stand-in? But there is the ceiling with its hidden vents and holes. His antennae cannot pretend
to touch an inch of its vast emptiness. So he rolls his eyes back to the floor where the moon was a dozen colors of flaking
melody most of the night. Safe within those colors, he counts on the ballet to repeat the steps, translucent figures: brown,
orange, and blue. Oh, he can see the pinwheel moon with liquid eyes and rippling craters and rivers was the most sly fox
creature in his room for weeks. He even has a premonition that he will sooner or later spiral to the sky for her hand far
into the next day, follow her troop far into the next night. Leave this room crumbling all around him like history.
At last, finding his body in the patterns skipping across the floor, he chooses to take his spirit's path away from the
pinwheel goddess, her ever-widening sphere of colored sparks. Oh yes, he hears the Raven rattle and cackle from the
steam pipes, show him the light of a red cedar moon, its smokehouse song to dance from the edge, when his groping
fingers reach the strongest thread connecting ceiling, wall, table and chairs, record player, prints, him. Now he climbs
upward, higher and higher, out of that brittle, hollow shell far below on the bed. And when he slides back down to pack
and leave this city without ancestors that speak to stone as well as forest, fly as much as swallow or sea rose, it will be
time to paint out of one's life a city with streets that do not end with the stories of grandparents and children, blue jay and
deer. Oh yes, before the Hudson River is pure chemistry, he will let go of the one but a photo of dawn's messenger--that
Daphne--that figure of blue arrest.
Niatum is truly a gifted writer and we hope to hear much more from him.
Bruchac, J. Survival this way : interviews with American Indian poets. 1987.
Roemer, K. M. Native American writers of the United States. 1997.
Trafzer, C. E. Blue dawn, red earth : new Native American storytellers. 1996.
Niatum, D. The crooked beak of love. 2000.
Niatum, D. Songs for the harvester of dreams : poems. 1981.Niatum, D. Digging out the roots : poems. 1977.
Niatum, D. Carriers of the dream wheel : contemporary native American poetry. 1975.
Niatum, Duane. After the Death of an Elder Klallam. 1970.
Niatum, Duane. Ascending Red Cedar Moon. 1973.
Niatum, Duane. Breathless. 1968.
Niatum, Duane. A Cycle for the Woman in the Field. 1973.
Niatum, Duane. Digging out the roots : poems. 1977.
Niatum, Duane. Drawings of the Song Animals: New and Selected Poems. 1991.
Niatum, Duane. Pieces. 1981
Niatum, Duane. Raven and the Fear of Growing White. 1983
Niatum, Duane. Stories from the land of red cedar . 1999.
Niatum, Duane. Stories of the Moons. 1987.
Niatum, Duane. Taos Pueblo and Other Poems. 1973
Niatum, Duane. To Bridge the Dream. 1978.
Niatum, Duane. Turning to the Rhythms of Her Song. 1977.