Last reviewed: June 2017
Acoma Pueblo poet, fiction writer, and scholar
May 27, 1941
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Simon Joseph Ortiz is a native of the Acoma Pueblos and was raised bilingual in Acoma and English. He grew up in Deetseyaamah, a rural village of the Acoma Pueblo community, a place also called McCartys, New Mexico. His parents, Joe L. and Mamie Toribio, along with other members of his clan and residents of his birthplace, shaped his values and provided him with an emotional and cultural home that has grounded him in his life and work.
His father, a woodcarver and elder of the tribe, worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. He imbued his son with a respect for his culture and a sense of connection with all living things. His mother, a potter and storyteller, passed along legends and myths engendering reverence for everyday activities and stories, ancient and new, that form personal and cultural identity.
Ortiz’s first significant contact with the American, or the “Mericano,” culture came when he and his family relocated to Skull Valley, Arizona, a residential site for railroad workers. There Ortiz first contrasted his life in the minimal housing provided by the railroad company with the lives of suburban Americans as presented in the “Dick and Jane” stories in the elementary school readers. Soon he would leave his family in order to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs School, St. Catherine’s, in Gallup, New Mexico. Efforts to Americanize native students by punishing them for speaking their own language left the homesick child feeling lonely and estranged. Later he attended high school in Grants, New Mexico, and became in many ways a typical high school student while excelling in academics and leading his peers.
His parents prized education and learning and encouraged Ortiz to continue his education. After high school, he began work at Kerr-McGee, a uranium mine in Grants, thinking the job might lead to a career in science. Instead it took him from typing in an office to laboring in the open pits, an experience he would recall in Fight Back. In 1962, he began to study chemistry at Fort Lewis College. He left to enlist in the United States Army, serving from 1963 to 1966. This experience reinforced for him the differences between the Mericano and Indian cultures and the lack of respect for American Indians that prevailed.
After military service he enrolled in the University of New Mexico, where he began studying literature and creative writing. He was accepted into the writing program at the University of Iowa, where he earned an M.F.A. in 1969. Soon afterward his poems were being accepted for publication in journals and magazines. In 1976, his first major collection of poems, Going for the Rain, was published to critical acclaim and introduced him as a major American Indian voice.
Ortiz became an established poet, teaching writing, lecturing, and gaining an audience. He has taught at San Diego State University; the Institute of American Artists in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Navajo Community College; College of Marin in Kentfield, California; the University of New Mexico; Sinte Gleska College in Rosebud, South Dakota; Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, Oregon; and the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario. As of 2017, he was Regents’ Professor of English and American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, where his personal and professional papers were archived. He has also served on the advisory boards of the literary journals Cold Mountain Review and Malapais Review.
He has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, the Lannan Foundation, and the Qinghai Lake International Poetry Festival. He has received the “Returning the Gift” Lifetime Achievement Award, the WESTAF Lifetime Achievement Award, and the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in Art. He received the Pushcart Prize for Poetry for From Sand Creek and was honored poet in the White House Salute to Poetry and American Poets, 1980.
As his career moved forward, Ortiz published other collections of poems, stories, essays, and children’s books and edited anthologies. Both his artistic work and his interviews have been anthologized. He has been the subject of analytical and critical articles. He had three children: Raho Nez, Rainy Dawn, and Sara Marie. Sara Marie was born after he married Marlene Foster in 1981. That marriage ended in divorce in 1984.
Despite the positive reception of his work and the satisfactions derived from family and children, Ortiz has suffered the disorientation and alienation that many native people have experienced in assimilating into the Mericano culture. In addition to feelings of anger, rejection, and dislocation, he has suffered bouts of alcoholism. His career has been punctuated with periods of struggle to overcome alcohol abuse.
Many poems and collections, such as From Sand Creek, express both the grief and loss associated with past abuse and the suffering of veterans. However, Ortiz’s work as a whole expresses optimism and hope. He reiterates his belief in the healing, sustaining value of story. He looks to Coyote of native lore and sees in this clever, scrappy transformer a symbol of native people able to survive and embrace their cultural values. He adopts the voice of Coyote, describing himself as a survivor who can pull himself back together and restore himself through a symbolic fragment that recalls his origins.
Reflecting the high value he places on his people and their land, Ortiz took the office of lieutenant governor for the Acoma Pueblo in 1989. He later chaired the board of trustees for the Acoma Pueblo Tribal Museum (Haak'u Museum) between 2008 and 2011. Ortiz also coordinated the Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community at Arizona State University, a series of talks that seeks to shed light on Indigenous Americans' perspectives on topics across many disciplines.