Laura Tohe, a poet and writer living in Mesa, has been chosen as the poet laureate for the Navajo Nation. As a published and acclaimed author and poet Tohe sees this new posting as an opportunity to expand the visibility of Native American authors and encourage the newest generation of students to write and explore their culture.
As a young girl growing up in Fort Defiance on the Navajo Reservation, Tohe sought to break free from the isolated community, and lacking television or any modern forms of entertainment she found that escape at the library where the books she discovered took her far beyond the confines of the reservation.
“I knew much more existed outside my little community and the towns my family drove to for shopping and entertainment,” Tohe said. “From the library books I checked out, I traveled to other places and times.”
However, it was not until she was attending college at the University of New Mexico that she discovered Native American poetry – she had never taken an interest in poetry before but was able to connect through shared experience and developed a love for the art form.
“I knew then that that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
Fulfilling her creed, Tohe became an English professor at Arizona State University and has been publishing her poetry and writing for more than three decades. Her poetry is written both in Navajo and English and often revolves around her experience on the Navajo Nation, including the time she spent in a Native American boarding school, which was chronicled in her book, “No Parole Today.”
Now as the poet laureate for the Navajo Nation, the only tribal community to have such a position, she has the unique distinction of being the only tribal poet laureate in America. She is the second individual to hold the post, which was created in 2013, and it is a role she does not take lightly.
“I would like to work toward getting teachers and administrators on the Navajo Nation homeland aware of who the Dine writers are and how our work contributes to the preservation and maintenance of our oral and written literature,” Tohe said.
As a cultural representative for the Navajo Nation, Tohe’s duties will include promoting pride and respect of Navajo people, culture and language as well as fostering literacy in both English and Navajo.
Yet one responsibility of particular personal interest to her is encouraging awareness of Native American writers who, Tohe said, are far too underrepresented in both American and Navajo society.
“I think Indigenous Americans from all over North America have amazing talents of all kinds, yet we are rarely given opportunities to express those talents for a larger mainstream audience,” she said. “I would like to see Dine writers’ books taught in the schools alongside mainstream writers in the schools on the Navajo Nation homeland.”
Yet there is still little understanding of what a poet laureate does among the Navajo public, and Tohe feels that she first must raise awareness about her post before she can begin having a greater influence on how and what Dine students are taught.
She was inducted to her new position during a ceremony in September at Navajo Technical University, the school hosting the poet laureate program, and expressed how honored she was to be a part of a program that placed emphasis on Navajo writers.
“(This distinction) says that the Navajo Nation under the sponsorship of Navajo Technical University has created a space for the literary arts and recognizes its poets and writers as valuable and contributing artists to the advancement and growth of the Dine people,” Tohe said.
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