“Whitman’s Song Sung the Navajo Way”

Kenneth Morrison Roemer


“Whitman’s Song Sung the Navajo Way”

Kenneth Roemer

University of Texas at Arlington


            One of the most important contributions of Native American and Indigenous studies had been the movement away from heavy or even total dependence upon non-Native theoretical and critical interpretive lenses and a move toward using indigenous aesthetics and worldviews to interpret Native texts. There has been less interest in using Native interpretive perspectives to interpret non-Native texts.  That’s unfortunate. This reorientation of the critical lens can, not only offer “new” and insightful readings of Euro-American texts, it also highlights the importance of American Indian interpretive strategies. In this paper I will offer a case study: what happens when we read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” though the lens of the aesthetics, functions, and worldview of an English translation of the Navajo Nightway?  One result is obvious: many of the poetic devices in “Song” that are typically labeled innovative, liberating, and even revolutionary  -- for instance, his uses of repetition with variation and parallelism and his creation of a persona whose identity transcends its individual corporality and selfhood – were performed by the Diné hundreds of years before the publication of Whitman’s poem. Fundamental concepts of function and audiences are also transformed. The Navajo medicine’s person use of linguistic forms that have parallels in Whitman’s poetry are aimed at creating hózhó (order, balance, and harmony) in a chaotic world for specific patient(s) and for the community of humans, non-human animals, and the physical environment. This expansiveness can make Whitman’s enlarged persona seem limited to those relatively select individuals seeking to break out of what they perceive as static lives. Finally the concepts of word power intrinsic to the Nightway –the literal believe that the words, if done correctly, can create hózhó, or can create imbalance, even live-threatening illness, if performed incorrectly – these concepts, by comparison, can make Whitman’s powerful words appear more limited to the spheres of transformed perceptions of self and the act of reading. 


Navajo, Whitman, oral literatures, poetry

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Copyright (c) 2018 Kenneth Morrison Roemer