|Nila NorthSun – Poet- Shoshone
Sometimes arch, sometimes serious, sometimes wistful, Nila NorthSun's poetry fits uneasily within the rubric of nature
poetry. Yet, despite--or rather, perhaps because of--her skepticism toward the designation "nature poet," she has
managed to depict the built environments and expansive landscapes of the Great Basin in a clear-eyed, unromantic, and
highly incisive fashion. When she began publishing in the late 1970s, the cultures and landscapes of Nevada had
received minimal attention from American poets writing in English beyond the genre of cowboy poetry.
Two decades later, NorthSun had established herself as a central chronicler of the region among her contemporaries
and was honored for her achievements with the Silver Pen Award by the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2000 and the
Indigenous Heritage Award in literature in 2004.
An enrolled member of the Shoshone tribe, and also of Chippewa and Swedish descent, NorthSun was born Cheri
Nordwall in Schurz, Nevada, in 1951. Though raised largely in the San Francisco Bay area, she kept strong ties in
Nevada throughout her childhood, visiting maternal grandparents and relatives on the reservation and attending
powwows and other tribal events.
A traditional buckskin dancer of considerable skill, she was selected Bay Area Indian Princess and San Quentin Indian
Princess when their dance group performed for Native American inmates at the maximum-security prison on a cultural
education program. Her exposure to traditional culture was bolstered by the commitments of her father, Adam Fortunate
Eagle, a renowned activist and one of the more prominent figures in the 1969-1971 reclamation of Alcatraz Island by
Indians of All Tribes.
In this period NorthSun moved to Missoula for university study, earning her undergraduate degree at the University of
Montana. After publishing in many small-press magazines, she took her first and only creative-writing workshop, studying
with Richard Hugo and William Kittredge.
Yet, her major poetic influences in this period came from exemplars such as Charles Bukowski and Diane Wakoski. It was
their highly conversational, highly personal tone that NorthSun came to adopt as her own, although in the service of a far
different subject matter.
NorthSun was also at work forging a regional literary scene with her then-husband, Kirk Robertson. Together, they co-
edited the avant-garde magazine Scree and founded Duck Down Press, where NorthSun published her first chapbook of
poetry, Diet Pepsi & Nacho Cheese, in 1977.
Upon graduation, NorthSun returned to Nevada, where she resumed her residence on the Fallon Paiute- Shoshone
Reservation. Shortly thereafter, she began work on a monograph funded in part by Title IV of the Indian Education Act of
1972. After the Drying Up of the Water: A Tribal History, published in 1977, included oral testimonies, archival
photographs, and general information about the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and their homelands within the Lahontan
Basin. That it reads quite unlike a work of anthropology speaks more to its strengths than to its weaknesses, and the fact
of its existence is a testament to NorthSun's continuing investment in her home place.
Even as she tried her hand at local history, her first poetry chapbook, Diet Pepsi & Nacho Cheese , also reads like a
local history of sorts, opening with a sequence of thirteen poems concerned with "what gramma said" and "what grandpa
said." This cycle of narratives based upon the experiences of her Shoshone grandparents remains among her best-
The quotidian subject matter of these early poems stands at odds with an experimental prosody, relying as it does on
both enjambment and the internal music of its many assonant and consonant rhymes. As a more moderate practitioner of
certain contemporary trends in the then-nascent Language Poetry, NorthSun demonstrated a distinctive flair from the
first for fusing usual subject matter with unusual techniques.
Like her politics, NorthSun's poetics proved an unpredictable mixture of the populist and the progressive. To call her
avant-garde does not quite do her style justice.
Diet Pepsi & Nacho Cheese
As a whole, Diet Pepsi & Nacho Cheese formed the basis of NorthSun's literary reputation over the next several years.
Extensive publishing in small-press journals, from Vagabond to Beyond Baroque, kept NorthSun's name familiar in non-
Native American literary circles. The poems published in this venue were augmented by six new poems from a second
chapbook, Coffee, Dust Devils, and Old Rodeo Bulls, published in 1979, and sixteen new poems from a third chapbook,
Small Bones, Little Eyes, published in 1981.
Though some of these early poems eventually resurfaced in anthologies, all three volumes quickly fell out of print and
into obscurity; they prove quite difficult to find. Over the course of the 1980s, even as NorthSun continued to write, her
publishing activity slowed to fulfilling requests for inclusion in college textbooks and anthologies such as New Worlds of
Literature (1989), published by Norton, and the Critical Thinking series, published by ERIC, thereby creating a continued
interest in her work by college students and professors. But her earlier work was kept in check because of a continuing
dual copyright agreement held by Robertson, whom she had divorced by then.
During these years NorthSun began working at Stepping Stones, an emergency shelter for Native American children and
teenagers from across the state of Nevada and from as far away as Washington State. Commuting from Reno to Fallon,
traveling more than one hundred miles each day, NorthSun found regular opportunities to meditate on a particular swath
of Nevada landscape. While many poems emerged from this experience, the wear and tear of daily travel also proved an
impediment to her literary productivity. Of her compositional practice during this period, NorthSun explained that "driving
70 miles an hour down the freeway, trying to scratch out a line or two on envelopes and napkins is not always convenient
but happens anyway."
Although NorthSun has been identified by some with the critical construct known as the "Native American Renaissance"
of the 1970s and 1980s, which encompasses such luminaries as Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie
Marmon Silko, and James Welch, NorthSun has expressed doubts with respect to the validity of such a construct, finding
little to link such writers beyond their diffuse tribal heritages.
To the extent that the construct is useful, NorthSun is better situated as a second-wave figure akin to Gwendolyn Brooks
or Ted Berrigan (within the New Negro Movement and the New York School, respectively), bringing an additional wave of
momentum on the heels of an already ascendant literary movement. While of the same generation as other, more visible
writers such as Erdrich and Harjo, NorthSun's own work has taken longer to gain a wide readership beyond certain
pockets of interest, as, for instance, in Germany, where her poetry is regularly studied at the university level.
Closer to home, NorthSun began to gain more notice beginning in 1992, at the Returning the Gift Festival, a major
gathering of Native North American writers. Held on the quincentenary of European colonization, the event, organized by
Joseph Bruchac, drew nearly four hundred participants to the University of Oklahoma at Norman. It was there that
Sherman Alexie, then only twenty-six and on the verge of a rapid rise to fame, approached NorthSun as a humble fan,
offering to take on the responsibility of assembling, arranging, and editing a retrospective manuscript from the many
nooks and crannies of NorthSun's scattered literary output.
Faced with the predicament of including or excluding earlier work that detailed a lifestyle out of step with her later career
as a social worker, NorthSun decided to represent her life and her life's work in all their stages. Notwithstanding a handful
of alterations, she sent the collection to press as Alexie had prepared it. The resulting volume, A Snake in Her Mouth:
Poems 1974-1996 , published by West End Press in 1997, received considerable acclaim. In the wake of this success,
NorthSun has remained active as a poet, contributing to various periodicals and participating in events such as the Taos
One of NorthSun's recurring themes has centered on the constant difficulties of negotiating the conflicting pulls of a
traditional tribal identity and a contemporary American identity. On the one hand, "up & out" presents a nostalgic and
pragmatic argument favoring the spare simplicity of reservation life over the riches and poverty of the city. Other poems
about sweat lodges and social workers provide a sense of day-to-day life on the reservation, offering a picture of cultural
Yet, at the same time, "99 things to do before you die" mocks the typical checklist of urban fantasies even as it indulges
in them. At one pole, NorthSun describes what she seems to want, and at the other pole, what she seems to want to
want--two poles that are constantly shifting. The enduring space between, with its irreconcilable cultural chasm, proves
the void NorthSun straddles between the poles she terms as "the way & the way things are."
Among other difficulties, NorthSun's cultural double consciousness entails a divided sense of home--for while Fallon is
dear to her as a place with deep familial roots, she also proves alienated by its slim prospects and its cultural and
While this alienation is often presented in class terms rather than in ethnic or racial terms, in other instances NorthSun
implicitly gestures toward the fraught intercultural dynamics of reservation life. She presents this conflict with supreme
craft in the poem "black dog," which, like J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace (1999), explores the tensions between canine
and master as a means of indirect commentary on the tensions between colonized and colonizer.
Like many other tribally affiliated writers of her generation, NorthSun has been skeptical of the suffocating theatrics of
traditionalism. Nevertheless, since she is equally skeptical of wholesale assimilation, she has retained an ambivalent
perspective with respect to both traditional and mainstream ways of life.
One of the best examples of such ambivalence occurs in her well-known poem "moving camp too far," described by
Paula Gunn Allen as a mourning song in the face of cultural extinction. In this poem NorthSun strikes a note of self-
reproach--not so much at her failure to connect with the old traditions as at her folly in conforming to the new trends.
Though she cannot return to the hunt, her access to the index of tradition (for example, eagles, powwows, buffalo meat,
and Indian music) comes only through her access to an index of alienation (such as plastic cups, mobile homes, burger
stands, and rock 'n roll). "I can't take part in all of these modern things," NorthSun exclaims, only to conclude regretfully
that "unfortunately / I do."
More than any other aspect of life, diet proves the mode of consumption most indicative of NorthSun's predicament,
tenuously poised between the traditional and the modern. If commodities like those outlined in Diet Pepsi & Nacho
Cheese are obviously unhealthy, they are at the same time the most readily available means of subsistence. Whereas
the traditional ethic of labor-saving simplicity once informed a diet of hunting and gathering, as opposed to agriculture,
the contemporary equivalent of such hunting and gathering leads to a diet full of frozen and processed food.
Thus, even while NorthSun seems to bristle at the enduring disconnect between food and its sources, suggesting a
banality of eating in which foods are primarily commodities and only secondarily sources of sustenance, she also seems
quite comfortable in acknowledging that tribal tastes might, in fact, run closer to cheeseburgers and wontons than to
more-labor-intensive forms of traditional cuisine.
Many of NorthSun's poems can seem almost benignly suburban, with their honeymoons and their breast-feedings and
their child-rearings. Yet, her spaces of domesticity and leisure are more likely to be dusty trailers and truck stops than
fancy houses and hotels by the sea. And with her unflattering portraits of unorthodox relatives and her unstinting
preoccupation with violence, NorthSun makes clear to the reader that hers is not merely a mundane model of middle-
class morality. The poems collected in A Snake in Her Mouth prove especially attuned to the vagaries of death in its
many guises, with poems of aging, overdose, murder, and suffocation.
In part, NorthSun's sharp attention to decline and mortality may be situated with reference to the constant reminders of
decay and death that so saturate the Nevada landscape. An environment long neglected by European American
colonizing forces, in the later decades of the twentieth century Nevada came to function as a federal dumping ground.
Hosting nuclear test ranges, top-secret military bases, and radioactive waste depositories, large portions of Nevada have
proven off-limits to civilians and all but exempt from environmental standards that tend to apply more rigidly in other
A difficult landscape, so majestic, so minimal, and so mistreated, Nevada provides for NorthSun a curious setting of
simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Nowhere is this dual point of view more apparent than in her poem titled "nevada,"
which must rank among the most accurate and unflinching native portraits of any American desert environment. This
model of simultaneous attraction and repulsion spans beyond NorthSun's more-focused portrayals of landscape, also
replicating itself in poems that depict local figures within the desert environment, as with "barrel-racer cowboy-chaser,"
"reservation girls," and "the tribal cop."
By treating the given and the made as part and parcel of an overarching desert environment, NorthSun's poems may at
first glance seem unconcerned with nature poetry as traditionally understood. This reaction could not be otherwise, for
the Nevadan landscape is itself so thoroughly strange and unfamiliar with respect to traditional European understandings
of nature that any nature poetry about the Nevadan landscape will of necessity read as thoroughly strange to those more
familiar with the nature writing of the European tradition.
With minimal material from which to craft a more conventionally bucolic or pastoral poetry, NorthSun's sensitivity to
landscape manifests itself in reflections on the dynamic between the natural and the built, in musings on the conflict
between the logic of late capitalism and the logic of ecological sustainability, and in considerations upon the profound
unhomeliness of the American Southwest, with its absurd incongruities of desert and highway.
In "rest stop," which simply refuses to romanticize such a highly unromantic environment, NorthSun grounds her depiction
less in any depth of place than in that narrow desire for transit on which so many of Nevada's locales predicate their
existence. Writing more generally from a landscape in which "nothing is green / & i'm not so sure what / a nature poem is
anyway," NorthSun's attempts to write in the pastoral tradition are continuously deferred to the spectacles of bourgeois
leisure, as in the aptly titled "euell gibbons eating a corn dog." Nevada, unable to produce of its own bounty, finds itself
as a landscape strictly relegated to consumption.
Yet, at her most trenchant, NorthSun manages to generate fecundity from bareness, providing a twisted echo of the
pastoral tradition, although in a thoroughly ironic way. Thus, in "vacation sights," when a truck wreck on a two-lane
highway leads to the gruesome immolation of a flock of sheep, the pastoral returns, but with a vengeance.
For sheep lost amidst the greener pastures of the countryside, one should read sheep lost amidst the conflagrations of
the interstate; for the itinerant shepherd bedecked in robe and sandals, bolstered by a staff, one should read the
itinerant trucker bedecked in blue jeans and boots, bolstered by eighteen wheels and a CB radio.
As the line of descent from more-ancient pastoral styles to this most postmodern pastoral style is perhaps somewhat
opaque, NorthSun's work may seem to some readers to be little more than a set of random snapshots from the
perspective of a random observer. So, as the sheep suffer their holocaust, NorthSun leaves the reader, like the dying
flock, "maybe wondering / what the hell is happening?" Yet, such puzzlement applies not only to this single, surreal, tragic
instance but also to the more-fundamental economic bases that conjure such horrific events into being.
Arlee Powwow and Crow Fair "78"
NorthSun, by no means confined to doom-and-gloom depictions of the environment, is less still confined to a narrow orbit
within her own region of Nevada. Poems such as "arlee powwow" and "crow fair '78" show NorthSun traveling north to the
gentler pastures of Montana. In such moments, rather than focusing more exclusively on the land, she once again fuses
a sense of place with a sense of its population, casting the eye of one more accustomed to emptiness across a much
fuller complement of social and vegetal abundance.
Further poems on other landscapes may be forthcoming, as NorthSun has recently relocated to northern California.
Nevertheless, her future efforts will be unlikely to undo her primary affiliation as a poet of Nevada. From the sparse
landscape the veins of which now pulse with thin development, NorthSun's perspective on the natural world, the
conservation movement and its attendant environmental issues remain complicated and conflicted. "Lost in the woods,"
among her most successful nature poems, questions the ultimate value of a concept like nature in a society that does not
value the concept of nature.
Ecology, whether global or tribal, is itself an all-too-endangered perspective--one that NorthSun, in the face of a largely
indifferent world, ultimately struggles as much to endorse as to abandon.
If, finally, not a wholly environmental poet, can Nila NorthSun truly be reckoned as a nature poet? For that matter, can
she even be considered a poet of landscape, or a poet of locales?
At moments she is, perhaps in spite of herself, all of these things, but above all she is a poet of life--one who stands out
from the crowd for her rare ability to capture the rhythms of a region whose poetry has long since been written, but is yet
to be translated to a large readership. As for nature poetry in English, Nevada's canon is as yet almost as sparse as its
canyons. NorthSun stands in rare company, with poetry that proves fine company indeed.
Erdrich, H. E. Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers On Community (Native Voices). 2002.
Intrator, S. M. Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. 2003.
Works by northSun
northSun, Nila. Diet pepsi & nacho cheese : poems. 1977.
northSun, Nila. Small bones, little eyes : poems. 1981.
northSun, Nila. A snake in her mouth : poems 1974-96. 1997.