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Meghan Sullivan

Indian Country Today

Laura Tohe of the Navajo Nation is among 23 recipients of the Academy of American Poets’ 2020 Poet Laureate Fellowship, a distinction that comes with a $50,000 grant for civic poetry programs.

Tohe, who is Sleepy-Rock People clan and born for the Bitter Water People clan, grew up at the base of the Chuska Mountains in Crystal, New Mexico, and currently lives in Phoenix. She is Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation, a professor emerita with distinction at Arizona State University and the author of several books and librettos, including “Tseyí / Deep in the Rock,” “No Parole Today,” “Making Friends with Water,” “Code Talker Stories” and most recently, “Nahasdzaan in the Glittering World.”

The fellowship recipients were announced Thursday.

Tohe plans to use her fellowship to teach writing and poetry throughout rural communities and schools on the Navajo Nation. 

She views poetry as a key tool for language revitalization.

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“According to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the Navajo language is listed as vulnerable, so writing poetry in Navajo supports revitalizing our language and recitation of our oral tradition,” her fellowship statement of purpose reads.

It is the second year of the Academy of American Poet’s fellowship program, which was expanded from 13 recipients in 2019 to 23 in 2020. The program has received $4.5 million in funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, making it the country’s largest financial supporter of poets, according to the academy.

This year, the community-based program is facing interesting challenges as COVID-19 continues to impact the nation. 

However, Tohe aims to work around pandemic-related obstacles by hosting workshops for Navajo students via Zoom and other online mediums.

“As we face the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are turning to poetry for comfort and courage," said Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets. “We are honored and humbled in this moment of great need to fund poets who are talented artists and community organizers, who will most certainly help guide their communities forward.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @mfatesully