SANTA FE, N.M. — The memories of long summers spent on Navajo land as a little boy have stayed with Nolan Eskeets, like the words his grandfather spoke from his deathbed.
“Up, little one,” his grandfather said to him in Navajo, a language Nolan did not understand.
Now a barrel-chested 18-year-old, with a rush of long brown hair, Nolan summons these memories — the days herding sheep through the valleys, the redolence of fresh fry bread, the unfamiliar language of his grandfather — whenever he picks up a pen.
Nolan will use that pen and his baritone when he competes this summer in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C. He and a group of fellow students at the Santa Fe Indian School are part of a growing program that has won a slew of local and regional poetry slams and twice earned an invitation to the festival, which pits teams of the country’s top young spoken word poets against one another.
While Nolan and his teammates do not hail from the gritty urban surroundings that are often a breeding ground for slam poetry, where poets are judged on both performance and writing, their team is drawing national attention for its decidedly American Indian take on an art form that has grown increasingly popular with young people over the last decade.
The success of the Indian School’s poetry program has particular importance in New Mexico, where 10 percent of the population is American Indian and where Indian students from grades 3 to 11 lag behind all other groups in reading proficiency, according to a 2007 state report.
Teachers and administrators at the Indian School say the program counters any perception that Indian students cannot excel in English and writing.
“Tears dance down my cheeks in the rhythm of Santo Domingo’s corn dance/Tattered textbooks and Presbyterian Bibles bark violent incantations and shriek curses of assimilation,” thundered April Chavez, a senior reciting her poem “Indian Education” at a recent rehearsal.
April, whose family comes from the Santo Domingo pueblo and the Navajo nation, plans to attend Stanford in the fall. Like other students on the Santa Fe team, she often wraps her poems in the pulsing staccato of Indian words.
“For the kids, spoken word is a reconnection with the oral tradition, a return to the origin of language, its sound, its music,” said Tim McLaughlin, a creative writing teacher at the school and the team’s coach.
Mr. McLaughlin began the program at the Indian School, a sprawling Indian-run boarding institution with some 700 students in grades 7 through 12, many from New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and the Navajo nation.
He remembers well the challenge of getting his students, many more reserved than the typical teenager and “brought up to be listeners first,” to write about their lives at home.
Topics that might make for powerful poetry — ceremonies, families, the complexities of their identity — seemed off limits.
“The kids wanted to build awareness about issues that are confronting native people, but they had to balance that by not violating things that are considered sacred and are to be left sacred,” Mr. McLaughlin said
Mr. McLaughlin, who is white and from Virginia, said he occasionally found himself on the phone with a student’s parent or grandparent, to make sure it was acceptable for a particular subject to be addressed in a poem.
Gradually, as the students grew emboldened by their work, themes began to emerge — the loss of language, the legacy of the reservation and pueblo and, especially, their relationship with their grandparents.
Soon, students were bellowing poems about what it was like to grow up Indian. “Nali,” a poem by Santana Shorty, a bubbly freshman mostly raised by her white mother and with little connection to reservation life before Indian School, recalls Santana’s worn memory of her grandmother, who spoke no English, speaking to her in Navajo, which Santana did not understand.
“Her words nourish and sting me simultaneously,” Santana recited. “I struggle and cry to her with my eyes/A crease of ‘I’m sorry’ spreads across her forehead.”
The poems impressed James Kass, the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, which produces the festival. Mr. Kass invited the team to participate in 2007 after hearing about them from Mr. McLaughlin, and he recalled seeing the students mesmerize a packed crowd at a San Francisco slam last year.
“They did a good portion of their poems in their native languages, which was amazing,” he said. “They weren’t trying to mimic poets from New York or Chicago.”
After failing to advance past the quarterfinal round last year, the Santa Fe team is poised for a stronger showing next month. They will be the only exclusively American Indian team among the 44 competing. An HBO camera crew has been following the students as they prepare and will be there to record the final competition as part of a documentary.
For the students, though, there is something more meaningful at stake: the expression of who they are to all who will listen.
At a recent performance in Santa Fe, Nolan Eskeets performed a poem, “Letter to Grandpa.” In it, he speaks of never learning Navajo, despite a promise to his grandfather, and of his painful struggle to pronounce his own Indian name.
In the end, Nolan writes that the poem itself has finally allowed him to use his language in a way that would have made his grandfather proud.
“Grandpa,” Nolan concludes, “Let me sing for you.”
After the performance, Nolan’s usually stoic father grew emotional. He strode up to Nolan and clasped his hand.
“Thank you,” he told his son in Navajo.
Be sure to see the Multimedia feature of the students reciting their poetry at