At Fort Mojave, the reservation where I grew up and recently moved back to, I am not a poet—my work is in language revitalization. There are only three living Elder speakers of our Mojave language. My Elders and I work together—against history, against memory, and especially against silence—to document and record our language, to teach it to others, to make it live again.
Where does Elizabeth Bishop fit into this picture? Well, I carry her with me. She and I share at least one thing in common, our loss. And as she has said and re-said: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. This line is a small prayer that I push through my mouth’s machinery daily.
I come from a life shaped by winning—in my first season as a Lady Monarch basketball player at Old Dominion University, I won 34 games and only lost 2. When I played overseas, I received bonuses for winning games. But in this new chapter of my life, the work I do with my Elders to save our Mojave language has tested the values that made me one of the best athletes in the nation. Language revitalization is, in a sense, the art of losing. The fate of our language exists in the tongues of the three Elders who still speak it and in the hands of those of us working to preserve it. It was a hard lesson for me to learn and one that kept me from sleeping for almost two years: no matter how many hours I worked, no matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to save all of my language. I would lose some of it, a lot of it. There are words that once existed that I will never hear, that my Elders have forgotten. One of the saddest moments is when my Elder teacher cannot answer a question, when he looks at me and says, You are asking me because you don’t know the answer, but I also don’t know the answer, and there is nobody left for me to ask. When I began this work, I did not know that I had taken on a job of loss. In order not to be crushed by it, I have had to embrace it, to learn to exist within it and be successful at it, as successful as anyone can be at losing.
While Bishop and I have loss in common—don’t we all?—her loss and my loss are different—aren’t everyones’? For example, in the poem, Bishop loses a watch: I lost my mother’s watch. If I translated Bishop’s line into Mojave, I would say: Intay nyanya ‘achinaalym.
But our word ’anya means more than one thing—and since Mojaves never had watches, it only recently means “watch.” So while Bishop can be overcome by the singular loss of her mother’s watch, an object that means and means to her, that carried away memory and emotion and love with it—the loss for my language and people is even more devastating and vast than hers. What I mean is, in the Mojave language, the line Intay nyanya ‘achinaalym can also mean each of these things:
I lost my mother’s hour.
I lost my mother’s sun.
I lost my mother's light.
I lost my mother’s day.
I lost my mother’s time.
Or maybe Bishop and I have lost exactly the same thing—equally vast—we have lost our mothers, we have lost our pasts, the part of our lives when suns and days and time were not measurements of pains or failures. But whereas Bishop might have been stopped by her loss, I must keep going.
Loss doesn’t mean to me what it once did. What I cannot do doesn’t stop me anymore—it now shapes what I can do and helps me to appreciate what I do have. I choose not to stare into the void of loss, but instead I step inside it, stick my fingers into it, put my ear to it, try to find as many words for it as I can. This is no different from the way I build my poems. I don’t run from the disaster of what history has done to my people and our language, I chase it down. Sure, I will lose some things, I lose something—a thousand things—every day, but I know that I can be both farther and faster, and what I will gather and succeed at in my losing is ultimately what I can save of my language.
“Vanishing Languages,” a National Geographic article, opens with this fact: One language dies every 14 days. So, two weeks from now, there will be one less language spoken and heard on this planet. At Fort Mojave, we have decided that it will not be our Mojave language.
Soon after earning my MFA, I was lucky enough to meet the poet Ted Kooser at a writing festival in Idyllwild, California, and we began exchanging small notes and postcards in the mail. Most often, we talked about my desert and his barn, the slow back roads we both drove, maybe about the owl that hooted through his night, and if so, then surely about what owls mean to my people. Most of his post cards were his own illustrations. On the back of one that hangs in my office, he wrote: It might be that the work you are doing for your tribe will be far more important that any poem you will write. Of course, he is right.
Learn more about our Mojave language revitalization--click here to watch this PBS special on Fort Mojave language recovery efforts.