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Q&A: Native American, ASU poetry professor writes about sustainability

ASU English professor Natalie Diaz "can't not talk about sustainability."
Natalie Diaz's work described by NY Times as 'ambitious' and 'beautiful.'
April 6, 2017

Renowned poet Natalie Diaz says life in the Fort Mojave Indian Village informs her work

Arizona State University has long been a leader in conservation, offering the first comprehensive degree on the concept through its School of Sustainability. The university has worked to engage indigenous communities, with a groundbreaking doctoral program for Native scholars and mentoring and college readiness programs for high school students who grow up on reservations. And it’s become known for cross-disciplinary studies, with faculty and students receiving encouragement and opportunity to merge subjects in search of new ideas.

To those ends, ASU has hired a nationally renowned poet who grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village near the California-Arizona-Nevada borders and now teaches about sustainability on Native American reservations through her poetry.

“I can’t not talk about sustainability,” said Natalie Diaz, an assistant professor in ASU’s Department of English. “I grew up on the Colorado River, and our tribal name means ‘the water runs through our body and land.’”

Diaz became an academic after life as an athlete, which she says continues to inform her thinking and writing process. She attended Old Dominion University, playing point guard on the women’s basketball team, reaching the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and the Sweet Sixteen her other three years. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia, she returned to Old Dominion, and completed an MFA in poetry and fiction in 2007. Five years later she penned her first book of poems, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” which The New York Times described as an “ambitious … beautiful book.”

Diaz is finishing her first semester at ASU and recently spoke to ASU Now about poetry, language, sustainability, the Dakota Access Pipeline and how her days on the basketball court continue to inspire her.

Question: You’re a person who has always had a foot in both societies. Reflecting back, what was it like for you growing up on the Fort Mojave Reservation?

Answer: Most modern Natives have a foot in both worlds. The reservation is a paradox. It’s a place where we weren’t supposed to survive. But many of us did survive, and it’s one of the reasons why our traditions have been protected.

I think there’s a certain honesty that I have with my work and myself. It feels complicated sometimes to make certain negotiations in the business world and even in academia. That has a lot to do with being in the desert, which is in your face and wide open. A lot of people see this as resiliency and strength — yes, that’s true — but the other side that people don’t often see is that there are certain things I’m vulnerable about and that has actually helped me.

The fact that I can be vulnerable means that I’m willing to look at things or that I’m willing to ask myself questions where I don’t have the answers a lot of the time.

Q: The NCAA tournament just wrapped in Phoenix on Monday. Did it evoke memories of your playing days?

A: My little sister is a high school coach and she and her husband both went to the tournament. She texted from the championship game and wrote, “I can’t believe you were here. This is crazy. I can’t even hear myself.” When she said that, I felt it in my body, and there was a flood or charge in my chest when I thought about being there.

What I miss the most about basketball is the way you can trust the body in ways in other worlds I move in like literature and academia, those systems of trust aren’t there. There’s a different gauge.

In basketball, you always know if you’re doing well. You know if you’re winning or losing. There’s no BS'ing. Basketball makes you honest.

I miss the physicality of it but in a lot of ways, that’s how I do my best writing. As soon as my heart rate gets moving, that’s when I have a lot of my best ideas. It’s really the way my body works — it still works as an athlete’s body.

Q: Your work as a poet is interesting in that there’s a big focus on sustainability.

A: I can’t not talk about sustainability. I grew up on the Colorado River and our tribal name means “The Water Runs Through Our Body and Land.” It’s an awful and strange consideration when the river is gone. What will our name even be?

It’s strange to me that there’s so much tension surrounding Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline because what’s happening there is happening in so many different places around the country.

What’s become more visible is the fact that natives have been fighting to keep their lands — many of our lands are the last wildernesses. Look at the Colorado River. It’s got 19 different dams and doesn’t reach the gulf anymore. At some point it will just be agricultural runoff.

What non-Native Americans will learn from all this is how to fight for your land. How to fight for your existence in a way that finally feels urgent. It has always felt urgent to indigenous people. It’s always been there for us. We were born into this constant struggle to not just exist or survive, but to live and to flourish. Natives have done this in many ways.

What we’re starting to see is just a small ripple but it will continue to build momentum. And it’s going to take all of us — every citizen of the United States — to fight for these things in a way that we’ve never had to do that. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

Q: Your work with language revitalization is also well noted, but are you seeing signs of success?

A: One of the signs of success is do people want to know more about it? One of the toughest things with young natives is they do have a foot in both societies and they live in a modern world where it’s not always encouraged or embraced there. It’s tough to engage a teen in a language they feel doesn’t work on the outside. It has to be able to evolve. For example, if you see a teen texting in their native language, that’s a sign of success.

Time is an interesting accordion in language work. I have a teacher named Hubert who I’m now able to have a conversation with in our native language, and one day I was really keen on myself and said, “Isn’t it amazing that in a short period of time we’re able to hold this conversation?” He said, “You’re looking the wrong way. Look at how much you don’t know.” And then, the accordion got smaller (laughs).

Q: April is National Poetry Month. What does it mean to you?

A: To be honest, it doesn’t mean a lot. I know for everybody else it means we should be listening to poets right now. And for the most part, I do think our country has been listening to poets more as thought leaders and resistors.

This shows that language is what determines who you are, what you're against, what you’re for and language has a real energy to it. The American language is very violent and has an awful track record, but it also has the power to do positive things. It can bring people together, it can heal, it’s also how we get all of our ideas.

People are looking for places to feel and that’s really what poetry is. It operates under a different time frame, a different power structure. The power of a poem is that for the duration someone reads it, they’re willing to feel something. It doesn’t mean what you’re going to feel is always comfortable but that's how I live. It’s in me and with me all of the time. I don’t need National Poetry Month to tell me I’m a poet.

It’s the same reason why I don’t participate in Native American History Month. I’m a Native American 12 months a year.

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Q&A: ASU dean encourages students to do the 'write' thing

ASU dean co-edits new book on postsecondary writing aimed at student success.
April 7, 2017

Duane Roen, who is also a professor of English, on why communication skills are crucial in the workplace

Arizona State University’s Duane Roen constantly hears from employers that this generation of learners needs to develop effective oral and written skills, required for success in the global economy.

“If you look at people who are highly successful in organizations and rise within those organizations, they’re the ones who possess effective communication skills,” said Roen, dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and professor of English.

That’s why Roen agreed to co-edit a new book called “The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” which was recently published by Parlor Press in South Carolina.

Roen said schools can do more to prepare students for the 21st century if administrators and, especially, teachers are familiar with what is required for success in the real world.

To level the playing field for all students and ensure they're prepared for life beyond the classroom, Roen enlisted fellow co-editors and ASU alumni Nicholas N. BehmBehm is also an associate professor of English at Elmhurst College in Illinois. and Sherry Rankins-RobertsonRankins-Robertson is an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. and more than 20 contributors to pen a strategic document for educators to transition students from secondary- to college-level writing.

Roen — who also is offering a two-hour writing consultation through the Sun Devils Rewards app (details below) — spoke to ASU Now about how he got involved with the book, how writing extends beyond the classroom and what habits can be incorporated to ensure success.

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ASU Dean Duane Roen

Question: What led to your involvement with “The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing”?

Answer: When some of the states developed the Common Core State Standards, they consulted some faculty, but they did not consult the professional organizations that focus on literacy — even though those organizations asked to be involved. As a result, three organizations — Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project — developed the document “The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.”

As an active member in the first two of those organizations and as president of CWPA, I promoted the document from the beginning, leading focus groups at several professional conferences. I recognized how important the document could be, and that certainly has been the case.

Q: You point out that not only must high schools prepare students for college, but students must also have exposure to colleges and expectations. Why are both important?

A: If high school students can learn early on what college is like, the easier it is for them to make the transition. That’s one of the reasons that ASU offers so many summer experiences for K-12 students. When we can engage them on campus, they begin to feel more comfortable learning in a university environment. They realize that they can be successful in college.

Q: The book also discusses the “eight habits of mind” students must develop in college. What exactly are those?

A: Curiosity — the desire to know more about the world; openness — the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world; engagement — a sense of investment and involvement in learning; creativity — the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating and representing ideas; persistence — the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects; responsibility — the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others; flexibility — the ability to adapt to situations, expectations or demands; metacognition — the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

I was fortunate to grow up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, where I got an early start at developing some of those habits of mind. Through my life experience, I have come to understand how important these habits are. And I share that observation with incoming freshmen and their families at the many orientations that we offer from April through July.  

Q: You stress that success in postsecondary writing extends to four areas of life: academic, professional, civic and personal. Can you elaborate?

A: Even though the eight habits of mind are essential for success in college writing courses, I have come to appreciate that they are crucial for success in college in general and in life. Life consists of four arenas: academic, professional, civic and personal. If you think about it, you realize that all four are very important. Most students will be in college for four years, but they need to be successful in the other three arenas for many more decades after college.

Q: What do excellent writing skills mean for the future workforce of America?

A: Employers tell me over and over that the skills that they value the most are written and oral communication, problem solving, teamwork, technology skills and “good work habits.” The good work habits are captured in the eight habits of mind. Writing, in particular, is very important in the workforce. And there is no one way to write. Each situation in the workplace demands a different kind of writing — reports, proposals, memos, tweets and others. Effective writers are those who can adeptly handle the writing task at hand.


Dean Duane Roen is offering two experiences through the Sun Devil Rewards app: a two-hour consultation to help you polish your professional writing skills, and a dinner in which he'll discuss being an author and his passion for researching genealogy. Sun Devil Rewards is a free app that connects users to everything ASU. Earn "Pitchforks" for reading ASU news stories, checking in at events, taking polls, playing trivia games and more — and earn prizes that money can't buy (only Pitchforks can!). Win ASU gear, VIP tickets to games, backstage passes to ASU Gammage performances, experiences such as the two with Roen, and tours of unique ASU spaces such as the flight-simulator building and the School of Earth and Space Exploration's "clean labs" — even win a free month of working space at ASU SkySong. Download it from the App Store or Google Play