Online Texts
for Craig White's Literature Courses

  • Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar

  • Changes may include paragraph divisions, highlights, spelling updates, bracketed annotations, & elisions (marked by ellipses . . . )

Simon J. Ortiz

A New Story

(1992)


Simon Ortiz, b. 1941
Acoma Pueblo tribe, New Mexico

Instructor's note: Ortiz's poem is unusual for Early American Literature since it was written in the late twentieth century, but its newness makes a friendly start for our "poetry reader" presentations, and its content connects to our study of American origin stories—particularly white Americans' attitude toward American Indians relative to European-American explorers ("Sir Francis Drake") and pioneers ("Frontier Day").

Ortiz was born into southwest America's Pueblo Indian culture and primarily spoke a Keresan Pueblo language at home. His education took place in Indian Boarding Schools emphasizing English language and cultural training. Torn between two cultures, Ortiz began reading and writing but pursued a degree in Chemistry and served in the U.S. Army (1963-66). Since then he has written in many forms while also serving as a Pueblo political leader.

Discussion questions: 1. What European-American attitudes toward American Indian cultures and history are expressed by the poem's white characters?

2. The poem is satirical, but how much does its gentle or indirect humor make its cultural criticism subtle, non-threatening, or friendly even while it makes a point?

3. How much does the Indian speaker's taciturnity fulfill or play with an American Indian stereotype: strong and silent, poker-faced or deadpan?

4. If America's creation / origin stories include European-American explorers ("Sir Francis Drake") and pioneers ("Frontier Day"), how does the poem's American Indian perspective offer criticism or second thoughts about these myths?

5. How much does the poem's conclusion signify American Indian identity as that of an American minority ethnic group as opposed to an American immigrant ethnic group? (That is, American immigrant ethnic groups come to America voluntarily with expectations of assimilating to the dominant American culture; American minority ethnic groups like African Americans and Native Americans do not voluntarily join American culture, and attitudes toward their assimilation are often conflicted on both sides.) 

      A New Story

Several years ago,                              1
I was a patient at the VA hospital                 [VA = Veterans Administration]
in Ft, Lyons, Colorado.                               [Fort Lyon, CO: see note* below]
I got a message to call this woman,
so I called her up.                                5
She said to me,
"I'm looking for an Indian.
Are you an Indian?"
"Yes," I said.
"Oh good," she said,                           10
"I'll explain why I'm looking
for an Indian."
And she explained.
Every year, we put on a parade
In town, a Frontier Day Parade* 15 [*Cheyenne, Wyoming (near Colorado), for example holds a Frontier Day Parade in July. (Ortiz's note to line 15)]
It's exciting and important,
and we have a lot of participation."     [mimesis of white civic speech]
"Yes," I said.
"Well," she said, "Our theme
is Frontier,                                           20
and we try to do it well.
In the past, we used to make up
paper mache Indians,                      [see illustration at bottom of screen]
but that was years ago."    
"Yes," I said.                                        25
"And then more recently,
we had some people
who dressed up as Indians
 to make it more authentic,
you understand, real people."     30     [irony?]
"Yes," I said.
"Well," she said,
"that didn't seem right,
but we had a problem.
There was a lack of Indians."               35
Yes," I said.
"This year, we wanted to do it right.
We have looked hard and high
for Indians but there didn't seem
to be any in this part of Colorado."        40  ["vanishing Indian" theme]
"Yes," I said.
"We want to make it real, you understand,
put a real Indian on a float,
not just a paper mache dummy
or an Anglo dressed as an Indian          45
but a real Indian with feathers and paint.   [Sioux appearance, not Pueblo]
Maybe even a medicine man."
"Yes," I said.
"And then we learned the VA hospital
had an Indian here.                                50
We were so happy,"                [irony]
she said, happily.
"Yes," I said.
"there are several of us here."
"Oh good," she said.      55    [irony]
 
Well, last Spring
I got another message
at the college where I worked.
I called the woman.
She was so happy                                 60
that I returned her call.
Then she explained
that Sir Francis Drake, **                [**see note below]
the English pirate
(she didn't say that, I did)                       65
was going to land on the coast
of California in June, again.
And then she said
she was looking for Indians . . .
"No," I said. No.                                      70

*Fort Lyon in Colorado in 1864 was a U.S. Army base that launched the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne & Arapaho Indians. In the 20th century Fort Lyon served as a sanatorium, a neuropsychiatric facility, a prison, and a homeless-rehab center. [Instructor's note to line 3]

**Sir Francis Drake (1540-96), Elizabethan English sea captain, "privateer," slaver. From 1577-80 Drake's ship The Golden Hind circumnavigated the earth. In 1579 he landed at "Drakes Bay" north of San Francisco and claimed the land as "Nova Albion" or "New Britain."

Mary McAboy, Skookums (Paper Mache American Indian Dolls)