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Native team competes in national youth poetry slam

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Six American Indian students stepped outside their comfort zone and into the spotlight when they competed in the Brave New Voices national youth poetry slam in San Jose, July 17 - 21.

About 45 teams representing cities from across the country were expected to participate in the event. According to Tim McLaughlin, teacher and coach for team Santa Fe, his students have made great strides over the past few years and now, perhaps, a bit of history, too.

''Notable is the fact that the Native voices are very often absent from the poetry slam world in general and certainly from the youth poetry slam world. I think our group will be the first Native squad in the 10-year history of this event,'' McLaughlin said.

Representing Santa Fe were Fantasia Lonjose, Zuni; April Chavez, Santo Domingo/Dine'; Nolan Eskeets, Dine'; Althea Morningdove, San Felipe/Acoma; Andrew Nutumya, Isleta/Laguna/Hopi; and Selinda Garcia, Santo Domingo. With the exception of Lonjose,18, team leader and 2007 high school graduate, the students are all 17-year-olds. They are also members of the Santa Fe Indian School Poetry/Spoken Word Club, which serves as a creative outlet for students interested in writing. The biannual arts fest hosted by the club also allows students to showcase their talents in poetry, music playing, singing, dancing and other positive expressions in all art forms.

The students on team Santa Fe are no strangers to competition. As a group, they placed first in two previous slams on the local level, but the event in California was the team's first competition on a national level. Individually, however, Lonjose advanced to the Poetry Out Loud finals in 2006 - '07 in Washington, D.C. The competition, hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts, proved to be a successful one. McLaughlin, who traveled with Lonjose to the finals, said, ''She finished among the top 12 finalists in the nation out of an estimated 100,000 competitors.''

Unlike the Poetry Out Loud competition, in which students memorize and recite the works by well-known poets, Lonjose and her team members had the opportunity to perform and recite their own original poetry. McLaughlin, who joined Santa Fe Indian School in 2002 and teaches creative writing, not only works with his students on their poetry writing skills, but on the stage performance of their work as well. Under his guidance and dedication, the students are unanimous about their gratitude and respect for him.

In the competition, all the teams had a chance to perform four poems.

''The arrangements can be one person reciting a poem, or two people, or a group performance,'' said McLaughlin. ''The choice is up to the teams.''

One of the selected poems that four of his students wrote and performed is called ''We Pray.'' A moving and spiritual piece of poetry recited in four languages: Zuni, Navajo, Keres and English, it is also a powerful, personal statement that resonates and touches the deepest places of those witnessing these students' messages:

''I am Atsa-lejineeh, the Black Eagle. I am Tsu'tsa ni'tay stah koo koo-chin-'ak koo-med-y n'ak. I am Kee Chin Baa, Woman Who Comes Back From War, Ka Hen na Tha, the Heavens. I am Keshi ho Willa leshina, my name Willa. ... I pray the laugher of children will resonate and resurrect the lost stories of yesterday ... I pray for blindness to the death of my ancestors' memories. I pray for the discord of my two hearts to unify under the harmony of a pulse. I pray for something to restore my balance.''