Intimate Grammars

An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry

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On April 24, 2013, Luci Tapahonso became the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, possibly the first Native American community to create such a post. The establishment of this position testifies to the importance of Navajo poets and poetry to the Navajo Nation. It also indicates the Navajo equivalence to the poetic traditions connected with the U.S. poet laureate and the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, author Anthony K. Webster asserts, as well as its separateness from those traditions.

Intimate Grammars takes an ethnographic and ethnopoetic approach to language and culture in contemporary time, in which poetry and poets are increasingly important and visible in the Navajo Nation. Webster uses interviews and linguistic analysis to understand the kinds of social work that Navajo poets engage in through their poetry.

Based on more than a decade of ethnographic and linguistic research, Webster’s book explores a variety of topics: the emotional value assigned to various languages spoken on the Navajo Nation through poetry (Navajo English, Navlish, Navajo, and English), why Navajo poets write about the “ugliness” of the Navajo Nation, and the way contemporary Navajo poetry connects young Navajos to the Navajo language. Webster also discusses how contemporary Navajo poetry challenges the creeping standardization of written Navajo and how boarding school experiences influence how Navajo poets write poetry and how Navajo readers appreciate contemporary Navajo poetry.

Through the work of poets such as Luci Tapahonso, Laura Tohe, Rex Lee Jim, Gloria Emerson, Blackhorse Mitchell, Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, and many others, Webster provides new ways of thinking about contemporary Navajo poets and poetry. Intimate Grammars offers an exciting new ethnography of speaking, ethnopoetics, and discourse-centered examinations of language and culture.

“This fascinating work is a natural follow-up to the author’s earlier book, Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics. Its goal is to further the examination of contemporary Navajo poetry and the output of selected Navajo poets in order to explicate what is being said in these poems. The overarching messages are to
learn to listen and respect diverse languages and ways of speaking, and to challenge your own biases toward others and the diversity of languages.”—Charlotte J. Frisbie, co-editor of Navajo Blessingway Singer: The Autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881–1967


“By way of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, the author can reveal things about published and performed poetry that go beyond the critical approaches applied by literary scholars.”—Dennis Tedlock, author of 2000 Years of Mayan Literature


“One of the most powerful contributions of Intimate Grammars is the in-depth analysis of American Indian English.”—Journal of Anthropological Research
Intimate Grammars
208 Pages 6 x 9 Published: 2015 Hardcover (9780816531530)
Paperback (9780816534197)

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