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Spoken Word Comes to the Smithsonian

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Most museum goers confine themselves to murmurs of appreciation or the occasional reverent flip of a program page.

Not so for the high school spoken word team from the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. The group of six, fresh off a successful stint at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, treated visitors to a strident production of Native American spoken word recently in the museum’s main hall.

What is Native American spoken word? Good question. It consists of poems, on a variety of Native American themes, performed aloud either in groups or singly.

It’s as ancient as the Navajo creation myth, in which humanity crosses through four worlds before finding its real home, or the ancient Navajo ritual by which a young girl transitions into womanhood. It’s as fresh as Common, whose angry flow and political awareness the speakers sampled when they talked about uranium mining and alcoholism.

It’s at its best when spoken in multiple languages: English, yes, but also the Hopi and Navajo dialects.

For the space of fifteen poems, the audience, like the speakers, got to ask some serious questions. What does it mean to respect the Earth? What does it mean to come of age? What does one say to one’s ancestors? How does one reconcile American politics and wigwam wisdom?

They were not new questions, but when set to rhyme and cadence by a group of bright-eyed spoken word artists, they seemed urgent and universal.

The great thing about spoken word is how it adapts itself so well to many different causes and voices. Sure, it’s been around the hip-hop block (cf the Roots, Erykah Badu, etc) but the performance at NMAI felt like something new.

What do you think? Can spoken word stay real if it moves to the museum world? Got a rap you’re itching to share? Let us hear it in the comments area below.

(Photograph courtesy of Katherine Fogden/NMAI; left to right: April Chavez (Santo Domingo/Diné), 18, class of 2008; Nolan Eskeets (Diné), 18, class of 2008; Davin Coriz (Santo Domingo/San Juan/Picuris), 18, class of 2008)

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About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she serves as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine.

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