Origin stories at Hugo House

portrait of writers Demian DineYazhi, Tommy Pico and Elissa Washuta.
Left to right: Demian DineYazhi, Tommy Pico and Elissa Washuta.

“I think it’s important to start out by acknowledging we are on stolen land,” Demian DineYazhi said, starting off the night of writing by Indigenous Writers at the Hugo House in Seattle last weekend.

Elissa Washuta, Tommy Pico and Demian DinéYazhi’ are part of different nations and presented very different styles of writing. Their shared identity as indigenous writers brought a variety of perspectives that drew a full house and an appreciative response from audience members.

Board member of Seattle City of Literature JC Sevcik said that he “enjoyed the reading immensely” and emphasized how important this type of event is for a community. “It’s through this sort of sharing of art and identity that we can bring about increased understanding of the other and ultimately effect a more just and equitable society.”

Left to right: Demian DineYazhi, Tommy Pico and Elissa Washuta.

Demian DineYazhi began the night with a newly written piece, still in progress. The stream of consciousness and snapshot imagery juxtaposed beauty and pain, indigenous identity and societal structures that restrict. DineYazhi is described in his bio as a “Portland-based transdisciplinary artist born to the clans Naasht’ezhiTabaaha (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water) of the Dine (Navajo).”

After the reading, he discussed the way he uses writing as a tool for empowerment. “I’ve used every opportunity to tell my truth through words and as a way to use language against a colonizing force, use it as a tool for resistance, to use it as a tool for giving people knowledge,” he explained. His work is best understood through the lens of curatorial inquiry, ‘zine production, street interventions, education, workshops and art production.

Elissa Washuta’s essay followed and dug deep into her family history of coal miners, as well and how that relates to her experience as a writer. Sevcik said this is the piece that resonated with him the most out of the night, especially the ways in which she identified “the stress we put ourselves under as writers” and questioned “how much of it is necessary and how much of it is manufactured, maybe even masochistic because somewhere we learned to carry a belief that writing has to be hard and painful and personally damaging.”

Washuta has published two autobiographical books and says she uses writing as part of a lifelong process of “figuring out how to survive and where I’m going to draw my power from.” When discussing the feeling of writing with other native writers, she said she doesn’t have to “explain myself […] that it feels comfortable in a different way.” She is on her way to New Zealand to share her writing and participate in a panel with other indigenous writers, namely the Maori.

Tommy Pico joined the other two writer’s as a stop on a book tour that will culminate in a book release party in New York. He shared an excerpt from his book, “IRL,” which “is a sweaty, summertime poem composed like a long text message, rooted in the epic tradition of A.R. Ammons, ancient Kumeyaay Bird Songs, and Beyoncé’s visual albums. It follows Teebs, a reservation-born, queer NDN weirdo, trying to figure out his impulses/desires/history in the midst of Brooklyn rooftops, privacy in the age of the Internet, street harassment, suicide, boys boys boys, literature, colonialism, religion, leaving one’s 20s and a love/hate relationship with English.” He says when it comes to him writing now means “making a new ceremony” because the only ones he knows from his own tribe are those that are to do with “death because that happened so often”.

As the audience members left, many stayed to mingle with the three writers and to continue the conversation. As they drifted off into the sunny Seattle evening, they took with them stories of Native struggle, empowerment and identity, and images of survival that will continue the story they are constantly telling, one page at a time.