Lummox Journal

An Interview with Nila Northsun conducted by Raindog

Nila NorthSun, of Shoshone-Chippewa descent, is the daughter of renowned Native American activist, Adam Fortunate Eagle - one of the more prominent figures in the 1969-1971 Indian takeover of Alcatraz. She is identified with the Native American Renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s; her poem "moving camp too far" remains a sentinel work of the period. NorthSun has published four volumes of poetry, a snake in her mouth; Small Bones, Little Eyes; Diet Pepsi and Nacho Cheese, and Love at Gunpoint; and authored After the Drying Up of the Water: A Tribal History, a history of the Paiute-Shoshone tribe. She lives on the Stillwater Indian Reservation in Fallon, Nevada, where she works as a grant writer.

 RD: You've been writing for many years.  By way of background, how did you get started?  Was there a single point/event that inspired you to take up writing poetry, or was it a slow, evolutionary process? 

No single point, but a little faster than evolution.  I suppose I could say I started with a pinked locked Barbie diary that was too embarrassing to haul around as a teenager, so I kept a spiral notebook / journal to contain my observations and inner musings. Somehow, it took on a poem shape. I kind of thought because I didn't know how to write a sentence, where punctuation went, what was a fragment or a run-on. Perhaps by reading Brautigan and Diane Wakoski and the like.

 Kirk Robertson, my first husband, may have been a 'single point' that definitely got me going, led to me first publishing.  He was just starting "Scree" a small press literary magazine. I’d help him edit...he'd have the accepted pile, the maybe pile, and the reject pile. I'd go through the ‘maybe’ pile. Reading good and bad writing helped me. Kirk encouraged me to submit my stuff to places like Wormwood and Vagabond, and everything I sent out for years got accepted....

 RD: You live on the Rez.  What does that entail? 

I'm Shoshone from my mother and Chippewa from my father. We live on the Stillwater Paiute Shoshone Reservation in Fallon [Nevada]. Living on a rez means you have your own tribal government, services, etc. much like a very small rural town...with no landscaping, no lawns, and dead cars in the yard. We have our own police, clinic, social services and we have cultural programs like language classes or craft classes to try and retain a sense of 'Indian-ness'. Even though we're on the rez, doesn't mean you're restricted from going to town or living elsewhere, but a comfort exists from being surrounded by family and relatives. It's not as transient as urban environments.

RD: Where do you draw inspiration from? 

Certainly my environment shapes my observations, my poetry. but so do relationships with men. 

RD: Was there a point where you began to think of yourself as a writer as opposed to a mother or whatever? 

I didn't actually think of myself as a writer until fairly recently (the last 2 years), though I did think of myself as a poet ever since I first got published in 1975.  I started thinking of myself as a writer when I started grant-writing and also doing my poetry. Then I realized writing was 'supporting' me financially and emotionally.

RD: In "Love at Gunpoint", you write a lot about the shitty relationships between you and your man…how much of that is true?  Do you embellish the truth or do you go straight for the gut?

Hey, as far as I’m concerned…it’s all truth. But if you talk to him…I’m sure he’d have his own versions. And just think, we were still married and I was trying to be nice!  

Though in general, I usually ‘embellish’ by cutting out all the small talk and focusing on other details.

RD: I imagine that poetry has changed a bit since the "old days" when you first started doing it.  Can you talk about this?

My poetry or poetry in general? I don’t think mine has changed that much other than being a little more comfortable spitting it out. But I never was big into re-writes, so whatever went down on the paper stayed that way…unless an editor had some suggestions. As to poetry in general….I don’t read poetry very often.  I do recognize rap, spoken word and slam though. I love slam poetry with its competitive nature and audience involvement. And I like spoken word for taking poetry readings to a performance art level. It’s not so boring.

RD: What advice can you give to poets today to help them improve their craft?

Read. Read good poets so you know what to aim for and read bad poets so you can try to avoid doing what they’re doing. Get on internet poetry sites where they have a critique section.

RD: Aside from the academic writer/poet, do you think that it's possible to actually make a living as a poet?  Or is it, by necessity, an avocation?

I’m the wrong person to ask….Aside from Sherman Alexie, I don’t know of anybody that isn’t employed by a school or college nor has some other means of support that makes a living from it. It’s certainly not me.

RD:  Apart from the writers in your immediate circle, is there anyone, any poet(s) you would like to recommend to our readers?

Of course Bukowski, but everybody already knows about him, and Sherman Alexie. I love Sandra Cisneros. And I like slam poets like the Suicide Kings.

RD:  What are your plans for the future?  Projects?  Inspirations?

No plans really. Just hope publishers keep asking for my work. I’ve got manuscripts waiting for the asking. Inspirations….Not today, maybe tomorrow.

Nila reads from Love at Gunpoint


                        $100 was big money 

                        $100 is big money
                        20 years ago
                        when my children were small
                        & i sat on hard chairs
                        in the state welfare office
                        number 32
                        & they just called
                        number 15
                        i fantasized
                        that some man
                        would walk in the doors of
                        the welfare office
                        scan the lowered dark heads
                        women clutching babies and children
                        and pick my child
                        pick my child in thrift store sale clothes
                        in 3rd go round of hand-me-downs
                        lucky to have had older cousins of the
                        same sex that grew fast enough
                        to not wear holes in the knees
                        or puke green beans or squash
                        or really red kool-aid
                        that, for sure, would stain
                        the damn #3 red-dye kool-aid
                        that would never wash out from clothes
                        & who knows what it did to internal organs
                        of baby-children                       

                        i fantasized about some stranger
                        cruising through the welfare office
                        pushing a crumbled $100 bill into some
                        thin needy hand
                        wishing it was me
                        he never came
                        i never got the $100 fantasy of top of the line
                        disposable diapers
                        or playtex baby bottles that were plastic
                        and didn't need boiling
                        but i made do
                        and the babies grew to happy children
                        surrounded with love
                        i hope for $1,000.    



                        felony assault with a deadly weapon

                        not a firearm
                        but a handy empty wine bottle
                        his blood
                        much brighter than
                        the cabernet sauvignon
                        it had contained                        

                        i've been busy
                        nursing welts from
                        plastic handcuffs                        

                        don't mess with me you
                        fucked up meth bitch!
                        i'm in here for
                        felony assault with a deadly weapon!                        

                        wrap your arms around your head
                        when you sleep                        

                        jail? i've seen it before
                        & it's becoming a bore                        

                        not exactly the belly of the beast
                        as i cry quietly
                        'but i'm the victim'                        

                        i'm my own victim of
                        my own shortcomings
                        & sins
                        they close the metal doors                        

                        i wrap my arms
                        around my own head
                        & try to sleep on concrete floors
                        colder than my heart.



48 hours part 1                                                                                                           

I get booked in
Around 8:30 pm
Belongings inventoried
Meds allowed
If I wore white panties
I could keep them
The polka dots have to go
Somebody has estimated
My size correctly
The faded black and white stripes fit
No hairclips, jewelry
I can keep my glasses
Lead down a meandering white hallway
With gray floors
Little peepholes on each cell door
Part bars part wall
It’s clean
I’ve seen worse 

They are all young girls
Like to say ‘bitch’ & ‘fuck’ a lot
But their over-all demeanor
Is upbeat
Loud friendly chatter 

10 per room plus 3
From lockdown
In the day they are allowed
In here
cause there’s a
TV table and telephone
All the essentials
Except for
Fresh air

I walk in
Somebody says
‘you smell good
Like the outside’
I let her smell my arm
Softened by raspberry frappe lotion
She inhales deeply and sighs

The big eyed blonde offers
To help me make my bed
Telling me to tie
the bottom sheet together
so it doesn’t come apart
I wonder if Martha learned
To knot her sheets
Or did she use hospital corners?

nila northSun