A week after announcing the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award will go to John Trudell and Jim Northrup posthumously, the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas announced that its 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award will go to the very much alive Dr. Duane Niatum (Klallam).
Dr. Niatum was born in Seattle, where he still lives, and served in the U.S. Navy after high school. He earned a B.A. from the University of Washington, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
He has published more than 20 books of poetry, including After the Death of an Elder Klallam, Taos Pueblo and Other Poems, Songs for the Harvester of Dreams, The Crooked Beak of Love, and The Pull of the Green Kite.
Dr. Niatum has edited two major anthologies of modern Indian literature, Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry and Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century Native American Poetry. He has also published short fiction, including Stories of the Moons and Nesting Out for the Stars and Other Stories.
The Native Writers Circle of the Americas awards are significant because they are bestowed by Native writers on Native writers with no non-Indian validation required. The Circle was born at an event attended by between 300 and 400 Indian writers and storytellers at the University of Oklahoma in 1992, called “Returning the Gift” in recognition of what we indigenous writers and storytellers owe to our indigenous communities.
The 25th Anniversary Returning the Gift festival will be held July 7-9 in Norman, Oklahoma. NWCA held a competition for artwork to serve as the logo for the conference won by Kim Shuck (Cherokee) for Warrior Trout, created with 15/0 glass beads on brain-tanned hide. In October of last year, NWCA publicly declared support for the water protectors at Standing Rock, and Shuck’s artwork was, she said, inspired by that theme:
I was thinking about how brave, how focused fish are when they go upstream, what a great image that is for water protection.
This focus on water is generational. When I settled in to work with my dad on some poems nearly all of the stories he told me were about the waterways through and around Picher, Oklahoma. He learned to swim in Tar Creek. For those who don’t know, Picher is now condemned because of the pollution there.
At the 25th Anniversary of Returning the Gift, NWCA will honor Dr. Duane Niatum and the memories of John Trudell and Jim Northrup in a festival where “more than a hundred award winning tribal writers, storytellers, and artists will create workshops, dances, staged readings, poetry slams, comedy sketches, documentary films, pedagogical discussions, literary studies, environmental social justice projects, and live art.”
At the first Returning the Gift, 25 years ago, indigenous writers and storytellers united around the idea that representatives of the settlers do not get to decide which of our artists deserve recognition. That commitment to celebrating indigenous creativity continues today and into the future.