Navajo Student Wins Highest National Honor for Young Poets
Tanya H. Lee
To say Navajo student Kinsale Hueston, 17, is an aspiring writer would be to miss the point. The senior at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California is by any definition an accomplished poet who has just been named one of five National Student Poets for 2017, the nation’s highest honor for young poets.
The National Student Poets Program is a project of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which administers the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
The Navajo student will go to Washington, D.C., at the end of August for the official award ceremony at the Library of Congress. The weekend will include a private workshop with the 21st US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Awardees will travel to communities, libraries and museums as literary ambassadors over the next year, and receive a $5,000 academic award.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity I can’t even put it into words,” Hueston told ICMN. “I never imagined I could be on this track doing what I loved—I really love writing and being an activist and sharing my work and my poetry and sharing my identity. I just find it incredible.”
Hueston was born and raised in southern California. “My mom grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Navajo Mountain, Utah. When I was growing up we would take a lot of trips out to the reservation. I would always love coming out and talking to my family, my cousins, and a lot of what I wrote in my early poetry was about being home on the reservation,” she said.
But, the Navajo student explained, “as I grew older I had trouble staying connected to my culture while I was in California. Poetry was my way of reconnecting with my roots and my Native American heritage.”
Hueston talked about how poetry and being Navajo are inextricably connected for her. “I seek to contemporize Native culture with my poetry. A lot of Navajo culture is about tradition and I focus my poetry on important things in Navajo culture, especially the maternal childhood figures in my life like my grandmother and my aunts and my mother. Navajo have a matrilineal society so that plays a lot into my poetry.
“Also I am activist, so I talk about social justice issues. I write about violence against Native women, the loss of Native languages, racial prejudice and other social justice issues that affect my culture. It’s amazing that now I can speak about these issues on a national scale and continue to do what I love, thanks to the National Student Poets Program,” she said.
Hueston is president of her school’s Native American Culture Club, and in April, her family hosted a group of students at Navajo Mountain. “With the guidance of my mother, who was extremely helpful in educating my classmates about Navajo culture and customs, we organized a service trip for 11 kids out to the reservation over spring break. We worked at the high school and we helped out around the community wherever we could, especially helping elders take out all the trash that had accumulated over the years because there’s no formal trash system out here. The students who went on the trip made really profound connections with the people here,” Hueston said.
Hueston has an older sister, Tara, who is a veterinarian, an older brother, Ryan, who is an artist, and a younger sister, Shea, who also attends St. Margaret’s. Her father, John Hueston, was a U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles before he became the lead prosecutor in the Enron case that resulted in the conviction of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling for manipulating stock prices in the late 1990s. “That case kind of launched his career and he’s become such an incredible speaker and father and role model,” the Navajo student said.
Her mother, Mabelle Hueston, grew up on the Navajo Reservation, attended boarding school and then went to Dartmouth College, followed by a stint at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she earned her master’s in teaching. “She teaches Native American history at Cal State Long Beach,” said her daughter. “She’s an amazing mentor and role model to me. I’ve always admired her for how hard working she was and how hard she worked to get where she is now.”
While she finishes up her high school career and decides which college she wants to attend, this Navajo student said she intends to make the most of her year as a National Student Poet. “I dream that I can encourage young writers to continue writing and be a role model for young Native American writers who perhaps went through the same identity crisis I went through when I was feeling very disconnected from my culture.”
Some of Hueston’s poems can be read on the Art and Writing website.