Archive for December 29th, 2019

William Jay Smith was the first Native American poet laureate – and we’re still waiting for the Library of Congress to acknowledge it.

Sunday, December 29th, 2019
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The late Choctaw poet William Jay Smith: why is he being disrespected?

Last July, the Book Haven questioned the announcement that Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate. But the blogpost was soon forgotten in the general acclamation on Harjo’s appointment.

The problem is the truth: William Jay Smith, a poet of note, claimed Choctaw heritage, and wrote about his Native American heritage, including long poem on the Trail of Tears. It didn’t seem right, however worthy Harjo is as a successor to the poet laureate title, for her predecessor’s eminent reputation be thrown into the dustbin so that we could falsely claim yet another “first.” (Apparently, there was a time when even the Library of Congress acknowledged and honored Smith’s heritage, as we pointed out with some screenshots in our own post. But the Library of Congress changed its mind. Why? They won’t tell us.)

Forgotten first

Poet and translator A.M. Juster took the matter farther, and he’s written about the experience this month in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

He briefly wondered if he had made a mistake in writing of Smith as a Choctaw poet:

… I checked two reliable sources known for their fact checking, the Poetry Foundation and The New York Times, which both identified Smith as Native American. I became even calmer when I discovered, with some help from friends at Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop and discussion group, that the Library of Congress had itself identified Smith as “of European and Choctaw ancestry.”

I felt an obligation to notify the Library promptly, which I did. The first contact person had never heard of Smith and transferred me to another person who had not heard of Smith. That person took my name and number, but did not call back.

I too read some of the social media talk and the Eratosphere posts, and was dismayed by the tendency to dismiss or downplay Smith’s heritage, posthumously. After all, he died in 2015 and can hardly defend himself.

Juster got no answers.

Juster wrote a letter to the Library of Congress, asking: 1) had it decided that Smith is not a Native American; 2) if so, what was the standard for this decision, the evidence that supported it, and who made the decision; 3) was this decision made before the Harjo announcement or afterwards? And finally, he asked: 4) is the Library of Congress aware that its website has described Smith as being “of European and Choctaw ancestry” for 15 years?

In the LARB, he writes:

Almost surely the communications department believed that it could tough its way out of the mess it created based on the fact that so many Americans believe — falsely, but in good faith — that they have Native American heritage. Such issues are often resolvable, though, and I decided to try to resolve the question of William Jay Smith’s heritage by hiring an expert in Native American genealogy, Dr. William T. Cross.

Dr. Cross’s research confirmed that everything William Jay Smith claimed about his Choctaw heritage was correct. Rebecca Moshulatubbee King was the oldest daughter of Chief Moshulatubbee and married Samuel Jake Williams. One of their seven daughters, Catherine Permilia Williams, married Samuel Roswell Campster in 1850, and then gave birth to George Washington Campster in 1863. In 1913 George Washington Campster’s daughter, Georgia Ella Campster, married William Jay Smith Sr., the father of our Poet Laureate.

Harjo (Photo: Creative Commons)

Standards for tribal nation membership vary, but the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma simply requires lineal descent for membership, so William Jay Smith would have been fully eligible for membership if he had applied. There can be no doubt about Smith’s good faith in claiming that he was part Choctaw; at that time the benefits of such a claim would not offset the prejudices that it would generate. Nonetheless, the future Poet Laureate enthusiastically embraced his Choctaw heritage at an early age; it filtered into his poetry at least as early as the 1950s, when in “A Trip Across America” he repeated these lines:

Riding the powerful polished rails
Over abandoned Indian trails…

More than four decades later, he would do much more.

In the article, Juster wisely suggests that Harjo organize a conference to honor Smith’s legacy (and, we might add, by doing so honor her own). So what have we heard from the Library of Congress? Crickets.

Kind of disgraceful if you ask me.