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Klallam Duane Niatum

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 "Crow's Sun".
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
Duane Niatum became the general editor of Harper and Row's ambitious and controversial Native American
Authors Program. He helped to published important books by such writers as N. Scott Momaday, Ray Young
Bear , Simon Ortiz , and James Welch , and Niatum's own Ascending Red Cedar Moon (1974); later Niatum's
Digging out the Roots (1977) appeared in the series. This series, which also ncluded the groundbreaking poetry
anthology Carriers of the Dream Wheel (1975), edited by Niatum, was a major stimulus to the Native
American literary renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s.
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:
His solitude warms our blood
As he runs from our eyes
Following him into the brush.
What strength we have left
In our hearts goes back to him.
Spinning the Dream Wheel
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 existence.
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 the legends cannot feed the village fire,
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.
Round Dance
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 frontroom.
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.
Daphne 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 nonIndian 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 trickmirrors.
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 more together.
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.
References
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's Writings
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.