SHERWIN BITSUI. Flood Song. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Pp. 73 $15.00. ISBN: 978-1-55659-308-6.

JOHN TRUDELL. Lines from a Mined Mind. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008. Pp. vii, 270. $18.00. ISBN: 9781555916787.


“Bitter fruit emerges where bitter seed is sown,” sings the native artist John Trudell in one of his 1999 song-poems called “Blue Indians.” “Economic chains all dressed out as reward/Gender race age edged in love and rage/Oppressorman builder keeper of the cage.” In acerbic pieces like this one, listeners can feel the full force of Trudell’s searing and unabashed voice. A radical child of the 1960s and 1970s, and a leading activist of the nation’s Alcatraz-Red Power Movement, he flings his words like sharpened daggers at what he views to be an oppressive and shallow American society—a society that pollutes the minds of its people with the “toxic waste” of consumerism and the “poison” of “fears doubts and insecurity.” In this poem and others, we experience Trudell’s characteristic critique of First World deceit and decadence. His language is biting and direct. There is not much room for ambiguity in lines like “Industrial reservation tyranny stakes its claim” and “Blue Indians emotional siege in a civilized stain.” In fact, many song-poems in his oeuvre, as they appear in his 2008 compilation Lines from a Mined Mind, are unambiguous and impassioned. They feature “political pimps,” “citizen whores,” and “material junkies.” Readers are informed that they are living in a “broken” and “industrially insane” world of “tech no logic slavery.” We are weathering the “oppressor’s brutality” and “surviving genocide because we have to.”[1]

Then there is the poetic work of the native artist Sherwin Bitsui. His groundbreaking book-poem Flood Song was published in 2009, exactly one year after Trudell’s retrospective anthology. Yet the work is strikingly different. The language is much more subtle, nuanced, quiet, intimate, and deeply visual. Scattered across wide savannas of blank, white space are small pools and rivulets of deep imagery. They spread like oases or trickles in a vast desert. Each one draws the reader’s imagination forward, carrying it upon the back of a meandering and powerful current of contemplative visions. There is a “waning lick of moonlight on the dashboard.” Then, we see “A shower of sparks skate across the morning sky;” and, in continuing, we “inhale earth, wind, water/ through the gasoline nozzle/at trail’s end/a flint spear driven into the key switch.” These images are punctuated and fleeting; yet, somehow they form part of a bigger picture. They are like specific, tactile pieces from the fragmented mosaic that is our memory. They are pieces of evidence for an endangered, lived experience. There is a reality embedded in a thought of “a flashing yellow sign,/blinks between charcoal sheets of monsoon rain.” With each deliberate verb, Bitsui somehow manages to conjure an entire world of feeling within his readers. “It is here,” he writes, “that they scoop the granite stones from your chest/snap each rib shut over the highway leading south.”[2]

John Trudell and Sherwin Bitsui come from two completely different generations of Native American poetry. People who open their books for the first time—and browse the words and structure of their songs and poems—could not be blamed for coming away with the same first impression: these two Native Americans writers could not be any more different. And why should they not be? After all, Trudell was a mixed-race child; he was a Baby Boomer, born in the postwar era and raised partly upon his reservation and partly within small, Midwestern towns. He left his home at the age of 17, and he never learned a Native American language. He dropped out of high school, enlisted in the American Armed Forces, and he forged a public persona at the center of the nation’s historic Alcatraz-Red Power movement. He spent most of his life traveling around the country and sometimes the world. He lived in the age of the Vietnam War, Black Power, the Chicano Movement, and a half-dozen other radical protests. He reflected the expansive issues held by indigenous peoples struggling to live in First World modernity. He turned to writing his song-poems only after experiencing a deep, personal trauma in the middle of his life. Finally, almost all of his work was set to musical accompaniment, and his poems were meant to be sung instead of read.[3]

Bitsui’s trajectory is much different. He is a full-blooded Native American; he was part of the so-called Generation X, born in the early-1970s and raised mostly within the boundaries of the sovereign Navajo Nation. He stayed in school through college, studied formal creative writing at a nationally renowned art institute, and he climbed the artistic ladder by submitting his poetry to competitive literary journals and applying for prestigious opportunities like grants, fellowships, and writing retreats. He has spent most of his years within the American Southwest, and he has lived the particular issues of a reservation life in that region. These issues include endemic poverty, government neglect, widespread drought, and pollution from uranium and coal mining. He was—and indeed, he still is—steeped in a specific tribal tradition. He regularly attends ceremony and he is fluent in his native language. Rather than becoming a famous activist in the nation’s spotlight, he has become a career poet. His work is not set to music; it is meant to be either spoken or read.[4]

Some might be tempted to stereotype Trudell and Bitsui. The former can be branded as the cliché, “f**k-the-man” radical environmental activist of the 1960s and 70s; the latter can be characterized as the abstract, experimental poet of the so-called postmodern age. These kinds of stereotypes come easy because there are, without a doubt, many superficial differences between Trudell and Bitsui’s work. The forms of their poetry are different; how they present their pieces is different; and their go-to choices of imagery seem like diametric opposites. However, upon closer examination, we can see the authors are engaged in a similar project. As the Native American literary critic, poet, and novelist Erika T. Wurth has written, the job of any poet is to “poetically render what they [know],” and the world that both of these poets know is similar in many ways. It is a scarred world in need of serious healing—a world that is composed of stark, strange contrasts between the surviving natural and the impending apocalyptic. Bitsui might not have been as blunt in his approach as Trudell—who openly wrote about a “society of lies” and decried that “The human beings/Have responsibilities/ To take care of/The living natural world”—but he recognized the same levels of devastation nonetheless. It was “Downwind from the body’s yellow teeth/children whisper night—/amniotic clouds of car exhaust/foaming to a lather above them.” The precariousness and vulnerability of society loomed large in Bitsui’s deep imagery. The desperation of the earth was hidden in the shape of a “cloud [that] wanted to slip through the coal mines and unleash its horses.”[5]

This essay is a comparative analysis of two Native American poets, John Trudell and Sherwin Bitsui. It is an attempt to recognize their many differences in order to better appreciate one of their most common, underlying intentions—the desire to articulate a shared concern for the fragile state of the land in our modern, industrial age. This common intention manifests itself in slightly different ways for each poet. For example, Bitsui is much more grounded in the specific landscape that he calls home, that of the arid and sprawling Arizona desert. Trudell, by comparison, generally tried to appeal to a vaguer, more-collective sense of human belonging, an idea which is stereotyped as the “Children of Earth” mentality, after which Trudell even named one of his pieces. Regardless, both of these poets were driven by a strong intention to write the land into their work in the context of an industrial society that seemed bent on destroying it. This essay will try to explore that connection in their poetry. It will begin with biographical overviews of Trudell and Bitsui and a discussion of their two works under review here—Lines from a Mined Mind and Flood Song. After, the essay will close with a very brief section entitled “Witnessing the Land in an Industrial Age.” Overall, the paper will attempt to show that Trudell and Bitsui are like two waves of the same flood of postwar, Native American literary voices. Although their expressions are distinct in shape, they are each a part of the same collective movement to speak out for a land under siege.[6]

About John Trudell and Lines from a Mined Mind:

John Trudell was born in the city of Omaha, Nebraska, in February of 1946. He came into the world only five months after the end of WWII. Although he probably would not have thought as much growing up in the remote prairies of the Midwest, he was destined to become a leader in the vanguard of a new Civil Rights generation—a generation that would come of age in the mid-1960s and boldly challenge dominant American values. Like others from this generation, Trudell was born into some difficult circumstances. After all, he was a mixed-race child from a low-income family in Middle America. His father was a Santee Dakota Native American, and his mother was of Mexican descent; however, his mother died when he was only six years old. As a result, Trudell was raised by his father in and around the Brazil Creek District of the Sand Creek reservation. He was educated in the local, Nebraska school system and, when he was only seventeen, in 1963, he dropped out of high school, left the Midwest, and enlisted in the Armed Forces with the US Navy.

Trudell joined the Navy right as the Vietnam War was escalating. He served two Westpac tours in the early years of that conflict and he stayed on until 1967. His home port was in Long Beach; so, when his service ended, he settled down in Southern California and began attending a community school called San Bernardino Valley College. He spent two years at this institution, during which time he studied radio and broadcasting and he married his first wife, Fenicia ‘Lou’ Ordonez. Then, Trudell’s life changed drastically in the year that he graduated. On Thursday, November 20, a pan-Indian activist group known as the United Indians of All Tribes decided to occupy the abandoned federal penitentiary at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. United Indians was a young group of mostly student activists who had developed in the urban environment of San Francisco. They occupied Alcatraz Island in order to draw attention to the plight of Native peoples in America, including those who were living both on and off the US reservations.[7]

The timing was perfect. Trudell was able to join the group on Alcatraz only one week after the occupation had started, and he remained for the entirely of the movement’s nineteenth-month stay, until June 11, 1971. During this period, he emerged as a prominent Native American activist. He became a spokesman for the movement. Making use of his college training, he broadcasted a show called Radio Free Alcatraz on a Berkeley FM station. This program addressed native issues, played traditional native music, and discussed reasons behind the Alcatraz protest. Then, when the occupation ended, Trudell chose to continue his career as a Native American activist-leader. He joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), another national pan-Indian group that was also led largely by a group of urban native peoples. Since AIM had been founded in Minneapolis in 1968, Trudell’s new job took him back to the American Midwest. As he had done with the United Indians group, he quickly rose to the top rungs of the AIM organization. He served as the second national chairman for six years, replacing the first chairman Carter Camp, from 1973 to 1979.[8]

Trudell accelerated his activism with AIM. He traveled the country to organize Civil Rights protests, expanding upon what Vine Deloria Jr. had called the Red Power Movement and its legacy. Trudell had already become a fixture on the national stage during the Alcatraz demonstration. Now, he leveraged that visibility to greater heights, which he sustained throughout the 1970s. As chairman of AIM, he was at the center of high-profile events like the Trail of Broken Tears Caravan to the BIA in November of 1972, the standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in February of 1973, and the burning of the American Flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., in February of 1979. As a result of these actions, he became an important person-of-interest for the FBI’s secretive, counter intelligence program.[9]

During the early-1970s, Trudell also remarried into an activist family. He met his second wife, Tina Manning, while they worked together at AIM headquarters in 1971. Yet, while Trudell was oriented more towards the national stage, Tina was much more rooted in her homeland. She was Paiute-Shoshone from the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of the Duckwater-Shoshone Tribe in north-central Nevada, and she believed in giving her attention to more-local causes. Her and her father were both agitators for local Indian-treaty rights and her mother, Leah Hicks-Manning, coordinated social services on their Nevada reservation. Sadly, on February 12, 1979, Trudell’s life changed drastically once again. While he was away leading a demonstration in the nation’s capital, a suspicious and unexplained fire broke out in his Nevada home. His wife, mother-in-law, unborn baby, and three of his children all died. Trudell was widowed at only the age of 33; he resigned from his position at AIM, and he transitioned to writing and performing music and poetry.

Trudell’s friend Dino Butler took care of him in Vancouver, Canada, after the 1979 fire. It was in this pivotal moment that he turned to writing poetry. Almost three years later, in the fall of 1982, he put that poetry to traditional American Indian music with the help of a friend, Quiltman, and they opened up a concert in Minneapolis for the blues singer Bonnie Lynn Raitt. This was the start of Trudell’s career as a live performer and a recording artist. He published his first book, titled Living in Reality: Songs Called Poems, and he recorded his first studio album, called Tribal Voice, on his very own record label with the musician-activist Jackson Browne. He spearheaded several bands, including The Graffiti Man and Bad Dog, and he played regularly with the famous Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis from 1985 to 1988.  Overall, from 1983 until Trudell’s unfortunate death by cancer at age 69 in December, 2015, he appeared on over fifteen albums and he regularly toured both the world and the nation. Some of his records, like his 1992 re-released version of an earlier cassette recording, AKA Grafitti Man, have received widespread critical acclaim.[10]

Going back to his Alcatraz years, Trudell had always been a passionate public speaker with an uncanny ability to move audiences. He channeled these skills, as well as his activist motivations, into his new work as a poet-musician.  His music was somehow both a blend of existing styles and a sui generis creation. It had discernible elements of psychedelic rock and pop—twangy, electric guitar and piano notes dancing alongside smoother chords—haunting indigenous chants and native beats, blues rhythms, spoken word, and a grounding narration that had the urgency of a speech at a political protest or a collection of sacred writings. Trudell’s ethereal and omnipresent voice overlaid harmonies that were composed of Native American voices, rising and vibrating in a holy chorus, and more-traditional sing-songy pop vocals. There were upbeat native drums popping in the background, and these were juxtaposed with reverent voices of prayer and contemplative, sage-like pronunciations by Trudell himself, always in the foreground of the song. It is not an overstatement to write that there had been nothing quite like Trudell’s poetry-music in the 1980s.[11]

Trudell published only three books of poem-songs during his lifetime. The first was Living in Reality (1982), the second was Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks (1999), and the third was Lines from a Mined Mine: The Words of John Trudell (2008). This last work is the one we will analyze here, as it is actually a compilation of twenty-five years of his poetry and lyrics. In fact, the text is divided into eleven clear sections. Each section corresponds to an album of songs that he released between the years 1983 and 2007, and they are presented in chronological order. Yet, while Lines from a Mined Mind is a print collection, the pieces represent songs and are meant to be heard and not merely read. Even the structure of the book invokes the musicality of the collection. The pages are long and narrow, like thin lyric sheets inserted into the center of a program so audiences can sing along. The poems are arrayed in slim columns, presented in distinct stanzas that are all aligned to the left of the page. For the most part, the lines are roughly the same length and Trudell makes little use of negative or white space. Without the rhythms, beats, and chants of the audio recordings, these poems would be diminished. They would come off as more traditional literary material; they would appear flatter, more one-dimensional, and they would easily lend themselves much more to the stereotypes we were discussed earlier in this essay. To over-simplify just a bit, the message of the poetry might remain intact, but the feeling of the individual poems would be lost.[12]

Blue IndiansHanging from the Cross











Consider the above excerpts that were cut from two of Trudell’s song-poems in Lines from a Mined Mind, called “Blue Indians” and “Hanging from the Cross.” In these samples, we can readily see how his lyrics are structured when they are presented as poems on the page rather than songs. The words are aligned to the left and organized in clear stanzas; there is a little use of negative or white space, but this technique is limited. Last, the pages are long and narrow like program inserts.[13]

Before we examine the specific content of Trudell’s poetry in Lines from a Lined Mind—and compare the content of his poetry to that of Bitsui’s—it would help to place him more securely in an historical context. The native author Erika T. Wurth has written an essay called “The Fourth Wave.” This essay describes four different generations of Native American poets from post-contact America to the present age. To summarize these four successive categorizations, an indigenous piece of poetry from the “First Wave” would be “anything written by a Native person after 1492” and prior to Alcatraz-Red Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. As her example, Wurth cites the poetry of the part Cherokee author Rollie Lynn Riggs, born in Indian Territory in 1899.[14]

By contrast, Wurth writes that “Second Wave writers…are what would be called the writers of the Native American Renaissance.” These writers were part of an historic bursting forth of Native American literary voices that began in the late 60s and still continues to this day. This bursting forth is what I refer to as “the flood” of which Trudell and Bitsui are both a part. There were many artists in this initial breakthrough era, but Wurth lists the most well-known as N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, and Louise Erdrich. Next, “The Third Wave,” says Wurth, “is made up of Native writers previous to the new millennium and after the Renaissance, such as Sherman Alexie, Tiffany Midge, and Eric Gansworth.” Like the Second Wave writers, these authors are still penning works today; nonetheless, they first appeared on the national stage during the 1990s. Finally, “The Fourth Wave begins with the release of Sherwin Bitsui’s” first book, Shapeshift, in 2003.[15]

As Wurth argues, each successive wave of Native American writers can be labeled by those broad characteristics which they share as a group. While it would be easy to overstate these categories—and turn them into stereotypes—Trudell’s work does indeed share some of the most basic traits that we might associate with his particular generation, the Second Wave. Like other Second Wave writers, he started his poetry in the late 1970s and 80s; and, while he continued to write until his death in 2015, his themes and style had consistent characteristics throughout his career.

Wurth argues that writers of the Second Wave were mainly motivated by a desire to translate a core group of pan-Indian themes to a wider, non-Indian audience. These pan-Indian themes included questions of “Identity, nature vs. modernity, authenticity, reservation vs. non-reservation culture, sovereignty/land issues, racism/internalized racism, cultural/traditional recovery, history, and language.” In doing this, Second Wave authors wanted to insert Indian voices into a larger and ongoing national dialogue. Unlike many of the First Wave writers, they were not writing primarily for other Native peoples in isolated environments like boarding schools or reservations. Their intention was “primarily about being heard” by non-natives. Unlike many of the Third Wave writers, their writings were often oriented by an idea of a pan-Indian identity; they were less embedded in language that was tribally specific. Finally, unlike writers of the Fourth Wave, they were relatively self-conscious about their authenticity, often trying to prove their right to be heard through claims to their native heritage. Regardless, Wurth argues that the Second Wave was “undeniably the most important wave, [as its writers] are the most well known for their work to this day.”[16]

On the one hand, John Trudell might not appear self-conscious about his native authenticity, and he did not address every one of the themes that Wurth lists. For instance, he rarely wrote about tensions between reservation and non-reservation life in any direct way. On the other hand, Trudell was extremely interested in translated Native American ideas concerning life and society for non-native audiences; he rarely appealed to a tribally specific sense of identity; and he regularly addressed such themes as “nature vs. modernity” and “racism/internalized racism.” In fact, all of these characteristics are on display in a poem like “Listening.” Consider the second stanza:

Mother Earth

Embraces her children

In natural beauty

To last beyond

Oppressors brutality

As the butterfly floats into life

We are the spirit of natural life

Which is forever[17]

In this excerpt, Trudell conveys a core message—common among Native American peoples—that humans are intimately connected with the earth in an embrace that can transcend the contemporary and corporeal world. He expresses a traditional, indigenous belief that “We are the spirit of natural life” incarnate, and yet he does not ground that belief in an explicit appeal to indigenousness or to any specific Native American tribe. As in most of his poems—though certainly not all of them—he does not use the word “Indian” and he does not invoke markers of a specific tribal culture. Now, let’s examine these same themes in one more case, taken from the poem “Ronald America.”

This time I almost wanted to believe you

When you spoke of peace and love and

Caring and duty and god and destiny

But somehow the death in your eyes and

Your bombs and your taxes and your

Greed and your face-life told me

 This time I cannot afford to believe you[18]

In this stanza, Trudell talks about being betrayed by a shallow and deceitful American culture. The commercialism of the culture is signified by the title “Ronald America,” which references the fast-food chain McDonalds. This sense of periodic betrayal is something that Trudell could relate to in a special way as a member of a collective people who have had their treaties violated by the American government innumerable times in the past (indeed, the Alcatraz occupation was at least partly about vocalizing the federal government’s violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868). Knowing the speaker’s cultural background, Trudell’s diverse audiences at his live performances could easily pick up on this pan-Native American perspective that under-girded his critique of modern, First World society. Nonetheless, unlike other Second Wave writers, Trudell did not often feel the need to force a sense of native authenticity. He did not attach his work to a specific tradition or sense of place. In fact, most of the words that he chooses to use are vague terms that signify either positivity (peace, love, caring) or negativity (death, greed, taxes). He picks these kinds of one-dimensional words in an effort to reach a broad, contemporary culture. He wants to bring indigenous perspectives on American society to native and non-native audiences without alienating them via tribally specific language. All the while, “Listening” and “Ronald America” address some of those most quintessential Second Wave themes, like questions around nature and modernity.[19]

About Sherwin Bitsui and Flood Song:

Let us now turn our attention to the life and work of the second native artist featured in this essay, Sherwin Bitsui. Bitsui’s life has been, so far, quite different from that of Trudell’s. He was born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, in the American Southwest in 1974. For the most part, he has lived and worked in the American Southwest and West ever since. Trudell was already twenty-eight at the time Bitsui was born; he was three years removed from the Alcatraz occupation and was serving as the chairman of AIM, the largest Native American Civil Rights organization in the country. Moreover, unlike Trudell, Bitsui had grown up deeply enmeshed in a specific indigenous culture, in a reservation town within sovereign Indian Country. He was a full-blooded member of the Navajo Nation. His hometown is known by Anglo-Americans as White Cone, Arizona, but it is called Baa’oogeedí in the Navajo language. Specifically, Bitsui is Diné (Navajo) of the Todichʼíiʼnii, or the Bitter Water Clan, who were born for the Tłʼízíłání, or the Many Goats Clan.[20]

To put it quite simply, Bitsui was steeped in an individual Native American tradition from the beginning of his life. He was attached to a specific Native American identity in a way Trudell was not and, perhaps, could not have been during his youth in Nebraska. This difference manifests itself in many ways, one of which is language. Trudell never learned to speak a Siouan language, yet Bitsui has been fluent in his native Navajo tongue (Diné Bizaad) since he first spoke. In fact, he considers Navajo to be his first language. As he said in an interview with the staff from Indian Country Today, “I grew up in a traditional family, and I always knew that language is powerful, that it can enact things and change and transform them.” As we will see later, Navajo is not only a subconscious influence on Bitsui’s work; rather, it is a guiding force. When Bitsui was a youth, he traveled the Navajo reservation with his father who worked as a carpenter; he participated in Navajo ceremonies; and he worked in traditional Navajo occupations, like herding sheep.[21]

There are several major differences between Trudell and Bitsui. One is that the former poet was largely oriented towards the national stage while the latter was very much rooted in a regional context. Another difference is how these two authors had first arrived at their decisions to write. Although this distinction is easy to over-exaggerate, I believe it is worth emphasizing nonetheless. In contrast to Trudell’s Paul-at-Tarsus moment of 1979, during which he turned away from politics and towards art as his main form of expression, Bitsui describes his relationship with poetry to be obvious, organic, and natural. “Early on,” he writes, “there was really no question that it [poetry] would be the expression that I would choose or that chose me.” Growing up, he continues, “It was very natural in a way to speak poetically, to think poetically about the world around. And maybe that has something to do with the way I was taught to see the world by my family members and my grandparents I a way.” In interviews like this one, Bitsui expresses his desire from a relatively young age to pursue writing and language. Moreover, he grounds that desire in family traditions.[22]

And there are some more differences between Bitsui and Trudell that are worth mentioning. For example, as previously stated, the latter author came to poetry as a way to heal in the aftermath of deep personal tragedy. Bitsui, by contrast, was interested in writing poetry from a slightly earlier age in his life. Although he describes his turn to poetry as belated, he actually started writing poems at the age of about nineteen or twenty. He first discovered this passion accidentally, while pursuing a BA at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he was living. At the time, Bitsui was a little more interested in pursuing the visual arts, particularly painting. That all changed at the age of 23, after he enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

The IAIA is a crucial institution for writers of the Fourth Wave. It was founded in October of 1962. It is a federally funded, two-year college that enrolls roughly one-hundred native students from over seventy different tribes across the nation each year. Wurth states that many writers from Bitsui’s generation sought degrees as this institution. And Bitsui confirms the importance of IAIA in his own interviews. He recalls the moment he arrived at the school. “When I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts,” he remembers fondly,” I found all of these native poets who were interested in poetry from all over the U.S. and Canada and Alaska. [And] there was something very beautiful about that moment when I first walked into the classroom and there were all tribal members sitting there with their pens and pencils and poems out…It was cathartic, I think.” [23]

Bitsui studied at the IAIA from 1997 to 1999. As the quote above suggests, the experience was transformative.  In fact, he had joined this prestigious institute to study painting, but he quickly transferred to the Creative Writing Program (although he never stopped making visual art; interestingly, the cover art for Flood Song is one of his own pieces, entitled Drought from 1999). He graduated with an AFA in May of 1999; and, by this time, he was already receiving a lot of recognition for his literary work and he had already developed a network of native and non-native professionals. For instance, Bitsui received a Truman Capote Literary Fellowship in 1999 and a scholarship to attend a series of summer writing workshops at Naropa Institute around the same period.

Bitsui’s career as a poet skyrocketed in the years following his graduation from IAIA. During these years, he continued to receive a steady slew of accolades for his achievements in writing. The long list of awards includes an Individual Poet Grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry (2000-2001), a Soul Mountain Residency (2005), a Whiting Award (2006), a Montana Artists Refuge (2007), a Lannan Foundation Literary Residency Fellowship (2011), and an NACF Artist Fellowship in Literature (2012). He also accepted several prestigious, visiting faculty positions at various institutions. These include being an Eminent Writer at the University of Wyoming and a Visiting Hugo Writer at the University of Montana. Since the year 2013, Bitui has also been on the creative writing faculty of San Diego State University and his alma mater, IAIA. In addition, he continues to teach high school and participate in the ceremonial life of his reservation.[24]

In many ways, Bitsui’s life is more conventional than Trudell’s. Of course, Bitsui was born too late to have been involved in the heyday of the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement or the Native American Renaissance. And so, on the one hand, Trudell was a native poet without formal literary training who dropped out of high school and turned to writing after a notable career as a famous, radical activist. On the other hand, Bitsui had six-years of post-secondary education. He honed his poetry skills as a craftsman in literary circles, and he channeled those skills into more-formal avenues. In this sense, his path to success as a poet was more typical of an American academic. He had studied creative writing with professionals; applied for competitive funding opportunities like grants, fellowships, and scholarships; accepted positions on university faculties; and shopped literary material around to national journals and publication houses. Bitsui’s career followed a route to literary success that many poets might define as normative, albeit no less difficult.

Bitsui is a prolific writer. As of 2016, he has published poems in a diverse array of venues. These include American Poet, Red Ink, Black Renaissance, Future Earth, American Indian, The Iowa Review, Frank (Paris), Lit Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, Narrative, Sou’wester, and several other periodicals. He has written two books of poems, one that is called Shapeshift (2003) and one called Flood Song (2009). Flood Song has been especially successful. This text won the American Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award (2010). Bitsui’s poems have also been anthologized in two edited compilations, one called Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century and the other called Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas. [25]

One only needs to contrast the vast amount of published literary material by Bitsui to the great number of albums produced by Trudell to notice another major difference between the indigenous artists. Trudell had translated the majority of his poetic work into music and then then it as audio records, while Bistui—despite being influenced by rock lyrics from an early age and still painting regularly—has considered the page to be his primary medium of expression. As he told Indian Country Today, he was inspired to write by seeing “contemporary forms of poetry, in books, anthologies,” and by noticing how the “structures of their poems [on the page] resonated” with him. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that Trudell and Bitsui both describe their works to be “songs.” Trudell often referred to his works as “poems called songs,” as he did in the title of his first book, and Bitsui decided to title his most famous literary work to date Flood Song. This common use of the descriptive word “song” supports the argument that both artists see themselves as producing fluid pieces, either through musical performance or through formatting on the page.[26]

Bitsui’s work has evolved tremendously in only the short time between the publication of Shapeshift in 2003 and Flood Song in 2009. Shapeshift was a book filled with many tiny, short poems. Each poem has its own bolded title and, although Bitsui played with negative space and the alignment of lines and words on the page, he did so to a much lesser extent than Flood Song. With Shapeshift, each piece is insulated from the rest of the work; there is not as much of a cohesive concept which binds all of the poems together. Flood Song is quite different. The book is one long poem. There are no individual, bold titles on each of the pages. In contrast, the work seems to spill over from one page to the next, like a river running downstream from its headwaters. Sometimes the water compresses at a chokepoint; the words get bottled up, collapsing on top of themselves and then releasing in dense blocks of text. Other times, the water flows freely across the length of the extra-wide pages, and there is much more negative, blank, or white space than text.[27]

Flood Song is a conceptual book in its format, not just in theme. Reading through the poems is like being pulled downward by the gravitational force of the words. Bitsui often staggers lines in his pieces, like water trickling down steps in a cataract. The blank spaces between the individual lines and the indentation of lines away from the left margin create a sense of dropping down elevation, of falling forward and onward toward the next poem. In other words, the structure of the work embodies the momentum of water flooding outward. Of course, this effect is very intentional. Bitsui has said in interviews that the shape of Flood Song is really the flood itself. Silences between certain lines represent water pooling up in small depressions before pouring over.[28]

As an example, consider the poem below from Bitsui’s first book, Shapeshift (2003), entitled “She Was Not Invited.” Here we can see how Bitsui had played with the form and the structure of his poetic work on the page before the innovations that are associated with his groundbreaking work Flood Song (2009). Notice that the poem is labeled with an individual, bolded title; many of the lines are cleanly aligned to the left of the page, and there is relatively less experimentation with blank space. Overall, the piece looks much-more conventional in organization. It could very easily be something taken out of Trudell’s compilation, Lines from a Mined Mind. [29]

She Was Not Invited

Now, compare that piece to the differences in structure and form in the piece below, from Bitsui’s second book, Flood Song (2009). Bitsui has printed these words onto an extra-wide page, making extensive use of negative space. The sparse text pulls the reader’s eyes across the page in lines that get progressively longer and then it descends the page in lines that are progressively more indented. This creates the sensation that the text is literally flowing, like water, across the page’s white space. Also, like this group of text here, none of the pages in Flood Song are individually titled.

Flood Song page

Unlike Shapeshift, Flood Song is one long poem. It is not a collection of individual pieces. Each page in Flood Song is connected to the next one by the sense of moving text. This formatting technique is meant to mirror the gravitational force of water. It gives the poetry a kind of unique freedom to move in non-linear directions, and it creates an impression that each page in the book is a contiguous segment of the same flowing and serpentine body. This body takes on an organic life of its own as we move throughout the text. At times it compresses to a piece of only two lines and at other times it fans outward into a wide and blocky, inundated swamp of text. Crucially, the lack of any titles prevents the pages from taking on individual identities that might pull focus from the work as a whole. Themes across the pages are more important than those within them.[30]

Perhaps even more so than Trudell, Bitsui embodies the characteristics that Wurth associates with his particular wave. In this case, that generation is the Fourth Wave, begun in the early 2000s. Interesting, Wurth considers the Fourth Wave to be the most unique group of Native American poetry since the Second Wave. She writes that this wave was mainly concerned with “turning inward” on the self and releasing the well-carried burdens of traditional Native American identity issues. In a sense, these poets were most interested in exploring a new kind of internal and personal world, unrestrained by a sense that they were obligated to either be understood by non-native audiences or to be writing principally for non-natives audiences. As Wurth summarizes, the Fourth Wave writers were free to leave behind the burdens of the previous waves because those who came before them had already blazed those trails. Now, young writers were free to simply “pour themselves out on the page” without worrying “conceptually about identity issues and politics.”[31]

Bitsui’s work in Flood Song embodies the unselfconscious freedom of self-expression that, according to Wurth, defined the Fourth Wave writers. Bitsui’s work is more experimental without explanation or apology. The form is abstract; the images are obscure and indirect. The pieces are filled up with epic and deep images, and all of this has led critics to characterize his work as post-modern. Wurth writes about those prior to the Fourth Wave as being quite pre-occupied by dominant ideas of what a Native American was supposed to be. She says that they were “burdened with the task of explaining all Indians to all whites, resulting in a schizophrenic feeling of never allowing the poetic self to turn inward, or to imagine what one’s own family, or community, would think about one’s work.” With Flood Song, Bitsui has definitely turned inward and grounded his work in a particular tradition. As Wurth suggests, his poetry is Diné in form, content, and concept.[32]

To get a better sense for how Bitsui demonstrates these Fourth Wave characteristics, let us examine them in the context of a specific page from Flood Song:

You trace deboned wings with ospreys and hawks talons

in the grocery line where the Navajo name for Pleiades is pinched and shredded,

and we dart away thinking: This is escape, it’ll be over soon,

            we have bothered to grieve, over…soon…

            piling mesquite racks inside the memory of the oar

you watch the boat fizzle and flake

because snowmelt has risen cracks like lightning scrawl

up to wind and mountain to peak above

our hands unearthing the last season with the cackle of crows[33]

In this page, we can see firsthand how Bitsui embeds his work in very distinct and sensory images. The reader is presented with each of these images in quick succession—one on top of another—like water spilling over edges. And each image feels like a very tangible memory. There is a concrete thing followed shortly after by an evocative and usually violent action. For instance, there are “deboned wings” and then the Navajo name for something is “pinched” and “shredded.” In moments like these, Bitsui makes apt use the dense, verb-heavy qualities of the Navajo language.

We can also witness in this piece how Bitsui is comfortable situating his poetic works in a tribal culture that is more-strictly Navajo, even if the reader does not understand the Navajo references. Very few readers will know what Bitsui means by “the Navajo name for Pleiades,” but the potential for the reader’s alienation does not seem to worry Bitsui. In some of his other Flood Song pages, tribal references to distinct places on the Reservation are even more specific. We hear about Black Mesa; and Bitsui even employs Navajo words untranslated, like  for water or Nihizaad, a word for language. Sometimes, there are very secret meanings to these usages. For instance, as the scholar Partricia Killelea has noted, Bitsui begins the entire collection with a repetition of  seven times. This format suggests an uncompleted ceremonial cycle in the Navajo tradition.[34]

The excerpt above also suggests some of the unique ways in which Bitsui’s work represents a “turning inward,” to build upon Wurth’s phrase for the Fourth Wave poets. In particular, the third and fourth lines read like internal dialogue, replete with feelings of fear, anxiety, and regret. Once again, however, Bitsui does not demonstrate any kind of need to emphatically explain to his readers, as Trudell sometimes does, that this is “The rape of earth/And our minds” or that “The miners are mining our human being as a way of eating our spirit.” Instead, we are given a series of subtle images for a specific, evocative, and intimate reality. There are “hands unearthing” something; a boat that “fizzles” and “flakes” and a “cackle of crows.” Flood Song is filled with these kinds of detailed, epic images. Reading the work is like harvesting the memory of a person who has grown up in a very specific location. For Bitsui, that place is the arid Navajo reservation. As such, we are regularly given pictures of “antelope” and “elk teeth”; of “sandstone canyons” and “flash floods;” of “cactus wren” and of “saguaro pulp” taken from “garden rock.” When Bitsui writes about how “snowmelt has risen cracks like lightning scrawl/up to wind and mountain peak above,” we can actually visualize the dirt seams that are running along the face of a dusty cliff side.[35]

Witnessing the Land in the Industrial Age:

As this essay has argued, there is no shortage of differences between the life and the works of the native poets John Trudell and Sherwin Bitsui. Unfortunately, the comparisons of their works that I have provided here are far too brief and reductive; however, even in these short excerpts, we can see that Trudell was much more concerned with speaking candidly to a broad, collective sense of humanity’s struggle to preserve the earth. When he wrote about “Jackboots pounding earth/Military precision,” “fascists and oil wells,” and the “Dead cows crying/In a world turned/To a planter slaughterhouse,” in his piece “Arms Race,” he did not want anything to be lost in translation. When he itemized the evils of America’s industrial “tech no logic” society as “Your material bombs/Your drug bombs/Your racial bombs/Your class bombs/Your sexist bombs/Your ageist bombs,” he wanted to be as clear as he possibly could. When he wrote a poem to God about “Manifest Destiny genocide,” there was no doubting where he stood on the historical and contemporary issues of his day. And, even though not all of his poems were this blunt in their tone or language—and Trudell’s messages were complicated by the way in which they were performed with music—the point was clear. He had grown up in the center of a radical era of youth protest in the United States, and he reflected that activism in the confrontational and denunciatory character of his work.[36]

But what about Bitsui? Yes, his work is much more experimental, abstract, conceptual and imagistic. But the same fundamental theme of a landscape on life-support during the industrial age is present nonetheless. This idea of industrial devastation was one that Bitsui had known all too well growing up on the impoverished Navajo reservation, where industrial poisons could take the real form of environmental and bodily pollution through harmful operations like uranium and coal mining. We only need to re-read Bitsui’s pages a bit more closely to see obvious evidence of what Trudell had called the “raping of earth” and the “chaining of our minds.” Those who do will notice that Flood Song is pregnant with clinical and apocalyptic imagery—imagery that suggests the suffering of human and animal bodies within a disappearing landscape. As Bitsui writes of his reservation, “I map a shrinking map.” So, there may not be any “political pimps,” “citizen whores,” and “material junkies” in Flood Song, but there are “Diabetic mouths” and “hospital gurneys.” Whichever page we turn to, we are confronted with “the down of drowned herons” and mud-caked wings incapable of flight. We are walking on “chlorine-stained floors,” and our “snared breath [is blackened] with coal dust.” We are left watching grasshoppers jump “into black smoke” and “captured cranes secrete radon in the epoxied toolshed.” We are inhaling metallic air in a gunmetal sky; we are living beneath neon lights. Then, in the end, we are left with hope as only a missed opportunity. “The phone was ringing through it all,” Bitsui writes. But “the line was busy when I picked up the ax/and chose the first tree/to chop down.” And so, as Trudell might have sung, the “Fruits of Violence” continue. We can only hope that the flood of native poetics will continue as well.[37]


[1] John Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008), 3-4, 18, 26, 143, 148, 182-183. The phrase “industrially insane” actually comes from an interview that Trudell gave and that was featured as voice over in a documentary about his life. See Trudell, directed by Heather Rae (2005; Boise, ID: Appaloosa Pictures, 2005), DVD. The line “surviving genocide because we have to” is one of the lines that Trudell writes in specific reference to Indian peoples.

[2] Sherwin Bitsui, Flood Song (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009), 7, 9, 12, 28.

[3] For a biographical overview of John Trudell’s life and work, see the 2005 documentary Trudell; the entire film is available to watch for free on YouTube. Trudell, directed by Heather Rae (2005; Boise, ID: Appaloosa Pictures, 2005), DVD; for more on Trudell’s life, visit his webpage, John Trudell Archives, Inc., overseen by his friend and trustee Corrina “Cree” Clover Miller; also see articles like Alex Jacobs, “Remembering the Life and Legacy of John Trudell,” Indian Country Today Media Network. 8 December 2015. Accessed 29 May 2016.; and David Kupfer, “Remembering John Trudell, Voice of the American Indian Movement,” The Progressive. 11 December 2015. Accessed 29 May 2016. /12/188457/remembering-john-trudell-voice-american-indian-movement. Trudell also has a biography in Bruce Elliott Johansen, Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement (Oxford, UK: Greenwood Press, 2013): 255-258. Finally, Trudell was interviewed at length in the film, Incident at Oglala, directed by Michael Apted (1992; Cedar Rapids, IA: Spanish Fork Motion Picture, 1992), DVD. The biography of Trudell in this essay was based upon this collection of source material.

[4] The biography of Bitsui in this essay was derived from several online interviews, including, but not limited to, Theresa Braine, “A Conversation with Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui,” Indian Country Today Media Network, 2 June 2013. Accessed 5 May 2016.; ICTMN Staff, “Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui, Seer of ‘Violent Beauty in the American Landscape,” Indian Country Today Media Network, 21 April 2013. Accessed 25 May 2016.; Michelle Donahue interview with Sherwin Bitsui, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, 29 March 2013. Accessed 1 May 2016. There has not yet been a documentary filmed or a biography written on Bitsui’s life.

[5] For an example of a literary critic that has been accused of stereotyping the work of Sherwin Bitsui, see Kenneth Lincoln, “Diné Shapeshifter.” In Speak like Singing: Classics of Native American Literature (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007), 287-325. Erika T. Wurth, “The Fourth Wave,” Waxwing, Vol. 7 (Fall, 2015). Accessed 25 May 2016. http://w; Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 133; Bitsui, Flood Song, 34, 70.

[6] Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 142.

[7] For more on the United Indians of All Tribes occupation, see their official publication: Peter Bluecloud (ed.), Alcatraz is not an Island (Oakland, CA: Wingbow Press, 1972); see also the works of Native American scholar Troy R. Johnson, namely The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism (Urbana & Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1996). For footage of a young John Trudell talking about the Alcatraz occupation while it was going on, see the clip “Interview with John Trudell at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco,” Bay Area Television Archive, 14 August 1970. Accessed 7 June 2016: More archival footage from the Alcatraz occupation is available online through the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive.

[8] For more on the history of the American Indian Movement (AIM), see such works as David Kent Calfee, Prevailing Winds: Radical Activism and the American Indian Movement (Master’s Thesis: East Tennessee State University, 2002); Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press, 1996); Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005); for images of the movement, see Laura Waterman Wittstock, We are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement (Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013).

[9] Vine Deloria Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), 182, 254; Troy R. Johnson, Red Power: The Native American Civil Rights Movement (New York: Chelsea House, 2007), 68; for more on the relationship between the FBI’s counter intelligence program and AIM, see Kenneth S. Stern, Loud Hawk: The United States Versus the American Indian Movement (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

[10] Trudell also had a significant film career in the 1990s and 2000s that I have not included in this brief synopsis of his life.

[11] To hear samples of Trudell’s music-poetry, search for his albums, like Blue Indians from 1999, on YouTube; many of his over fifteen albums produced from the early-1980s to the late 2000s have been made free for listeners on YouTube.

[12] John Trudell, Living in Reality: Songs Called Poems (Lake Elmo, MN: Water for Life Poettree Publishings and the North American Water Office, 1982); John Trudell, Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks, edited by Paola Igliori (New York City: Inanout Press, 1999); Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind.

[13] Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 182, 216.

[14] Wurth, “The Fourth Wave,” Waxwing, Vol. 7 (Fall, 2015). Accessed 25 May 2016. http://w; for more on native writers of the First Wave, see the anthology Robert Dale Parker (ed.), Changing Is Not Vanishing: A Collection of Early American Indian Poetry to 1930 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). As Wurth writes, much of the First Wave poetry was written in local publications in Native American boarding schools.

[15] For more on Native American Renaissance writers, see Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) or Duane Hiatum (ed.), Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988). Although this essay attributes Trudell to the Second Wave, neither Lincoln nor Hiatum included him in their compilations because Trudell was only starting to gain recognition as a poet in the 1980s. Some other native writers Wurth includes in the Fourth Wave are M.L Smoker, Marianne Broyles, Santee Frazier, Layli Long Soldier, Sy Hoahwah, Orlando White, and Jennifer Foerster.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 9. You can hear the song “Listening,” from the 1983 album Tribal Voice, here https://ww

[18] Ibid. 26.

[19] For an example of another poem that is similar to “Ronald America” in its scathing critiques of consumerism, see the piece “Dizzy Duck.” Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 194-195.

[20] For some history of the Navajo Nation, see Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel, Diné: A History of the Navajos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002); and Peter Iverson, The Navajo Nation (Oxford, UK: Greenwood Press, 1981).

[21] ICTMN Staff, “Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui, Seer of ‘Violent Beauty in the American Landscape,” Indian Country Today Media Network, 21 April 2013. Accessed 25 May 2016.; Michelle Donahue interview with Sherwin Bitsui, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, 29 March 2013. Accessed 1 May 2016. For an example of Bitsui reading his poetry and talking about his life, see his lecture at the Poetics and Politics lecture at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, on 13 August 2015. The lecture is available on YouTube.

[22] Theresa Braine, “A Conversation with Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui,” Indian Country Today Media Network, 2 June 2013. Accessed 5 May 2016.

[23] Ibid. Erika T. Wurth, “The Fourth Wave,” Waxwing, Vol. 7 (Fall, 2015). Accessed 25 May 2016. http://w; For the origins of IAIA, see Winona Garmhausen, History of Indian Arts Education in Santa Fe: The Institute of American Indian Arts With Historical Background, 1890 to 1962 (Sante Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 1988).

[24] Bitsui mentions participating in Navajo ceremonial life during his lecture at the Poetics and Politics lecture at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, on 13 August 2015. The lecture is available on YouTube.

[25] Sherwin Bitsui, Shapeshift (Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2009); Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin (eds.), Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2006); Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (ed.), Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2011).

[26] Braine, “A Conversation With Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui,” Indian Country Today Media Network.

[27] Bitsui, Shapeshift; Bitsui, Flood Song.

[28]Michelle Donahue interview with Sherwin Bitsui, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, 29 March 2013. Accessed 1 May 2016.

[29] Bitsui, Shapeshift, 21.

[30] Bitsui, Flood Song, 13, 54, 66.

[31] Wurth, “The Fourth Wave,” Waxwing, Vol. 7 (Fall, 2015). Accessed 25 May 2016. http://w; Wurth writes that the Fourth Wave is unique because it has “gone a step farther” than previous waves.

[32] Ibid. Wurth herself calls Bitsui’s work, as well as other work of the Fourth Wave, post-modern in her essay “The Fourth Wave.” Kenneth Lincoln also uses the term in reference to Bitsui in Speak like Singing, 295.

[33] Bitsui, Flood Song, 51.

[34] Patricia Killelea talks about Bitsui’s work in her presentation, “Between These Songs: Sherwin Bitsui’s Decolonizing Poetics in ‘Floodsong,'” Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference, Sacramento, May 2011. Bitsui, Flood Song, 57. Killelea has also dissected Bitsui’s Flood Song in her dissertation Between These Songs: Contemporary Native American Experimental Poetry & Poetics (PhD Dissertation: the University of California, Davis, 2015).

[35] Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 4, 26. Bitsui, Flood Song, 4, 5, 56, 57, 59.

[36] Ibid. 14, 44, 46.

[37] Trudell, Lines from a Mined Mind, 43, 44, 143. Bitsui, Flood Song, 21, 42, 44, 46, 57, 71. For some recent historical studies that explore the history of uranium and coal mining within the Navajo Nation, see Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of a Modern Southwest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Featured images at the beginning of the post are as follows: Top Left: John Trudell’s Lines from a Lined Mind (2008). Top right: Trudell speaks on the program Democracy Now! in 1998. Bottom Left: Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song (2009).Bottom Right: Bitsui poses for The Poetics and Politics of Water, a native speaker series at The University of Arizona, in 2015.

Provenance: This essay was written as a final term paper for a graduate seminar course, entitled “NAS 202: Indigenous Poetics and Performativities,” taught by Professor Inés Hernández-Avila.