BILLINGS, Mont. - ''When my mother passed away, somehow poetry became the thing that saved me. It was the only thing I could do to cope with that grief,'' Mandy Smoker said at the recent High Plains BookFest in Billings.
''The Spirit of Women'' was the BookFest's theme. The event included a Native writers panel that spoke at Billings' Western Heritage Center museum, which is also home to the American Indian Tribal Histories Project that includes the histories of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow as told from their perspectives.
The panel included the published authors and poets Alma Snell, actress and poet Lois Red Elk, and Mandy Broaddus, who goes by the pen name M.L. Smoker. The panel was moderated by Northern Cheyenne filmmaker Rubie Sooktis.
Smoker gave a reading for her nationally acclaimed poetry book, ''Another Attempt at Rescue,'' at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2005.
While working on her master's degree at the University of California - Los Angeles, Smoker decided that she wanted to study only American Indian poetry.
''And that was just a revelation: to really begin studying the full spectrum of American Indian poets,'' Smoker said. ''It was something really fascinating to me. It's especially fascinating that every tribal group was so different. And I couldn't take for granted that I understood what they were relating, or what their experiences were, or what was going on in their culture just because I was Indian too.''
Smoker explained how people presume that all Indians must fit some kind of general preconceived ''pan-Indian'' mold. ''But every tribe is so unique, and you really have to single them out if you really want to understand the depth of their literature,'' she said.
Sooktis concurred. ''People attempt to put us into a 'one size fits all' with the Native American image.''
However, Sooktis recalled spending time in Port Orchard, Wash., when an acquaintance was showing her around - and she realized that she herself lumped all Caucasians together casually.
''She was saying, 'The Irish did this, and the Irish did that,' while describing parts of the city historically. I said, 'What do you mean, 'the Irish did this?' Because in my mind, we referred to them as 'the white people did this, and the white people did that.'''
She learned that there were differences among American people of European descent, just as there were among Native people.
But perpetuated myths still exist about how Indians live even today. Red Elk related a story about how a teacher from ''back East'' wanted to come to the reservation to teach: ''But she also wanted to know if there was any room in the fort,'' she said, explaining that the woman was serious in asking the question. ''Sometimes it's funny, but other times it's like, 'What are these people thinking?'''
Panel members said they want to encourage younger generations to find their own individual voices in writing.
Smoker said she was afraid of becoming the seemingly designated spokesman for her tribe as a result of her published writing. She gave an example of author Sherman Alexie being labeled as just that for the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indians.
''And I don't want that, and I don't think anyone wants to be the spokesperson for their tribe,'' Smoker said. ''I'm just waiting for more kids to come out of the woodwork and become their own writer so we have views from every perspective, from lots of different tribe affiliations, so that we really understand the complexities of Indian peoples' lives.''
From those who live on reservations and may live a more traditional lifestyle and speak their own language, to those who perhaps grew up in an urban environment and have had to navigate between both worlds, American Indians must strive to pioneer their own voices in writing, panelists said.
''It's only been under 40 years since the Native American writing renaissance,'' Smoker said, referring to Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday's 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ''House Made of Dawn.''
''And we're in this place where so many people are going all over in so many directions,'' she said. ''It's so fascinating; and I hope people keep watching and keep trying to understand the different ways Indian people live, and grow up.''