Rex Lee Jim ’86: ‘I write mostly in Navajo because it is who I am’
dibe naakai lei’
hanii eegai nisin
rows of white crosses
you you are
Poem No. 3 was written for Princeton’s 250th anniversary.
Ni means you. Eiya means you are. Yaah is an expression of awe or fear of something, but always with tremendous regard and disbelief that something so magical, mystical and powerful could exist, be within our reach. Ni means you. A rough translation: Awe is yours. In other words, you are awesome.
Here is the yaah part of the poem. Ni sounds similar to ni’ meaning ground, earth. Ei of eiya (though physically not) is a breathing in of fresh air. Ya of eiya sounds similar to ya meaning sky. So the expression of ni eiya is going from the earth to the sky, breathing in air. We simply reverse that with yaah ni. Ya means sky, ah is breathing out, and ni means earth. The full expression then is a breathing in and out as you go from earth to sky and then back from sky to earth. This breathing in and out normally takes place at dawn, when Navajos meet the dawn, praying and asking the gods for a wonderful day and life. In one breath, you bring the earth and the sky together. In this new dawn, you become the very link that brings the earth and the sky together; you become the very essence of dawn, new beginnings, new creations, new inventions, new explorations, new discoveries. You become the center of the universe. It is your own breathing that creates life, that holds the universe. With one breath, you behold the universe. Princeton University. With One Accord.
Navajo is a tonal language. Meanings change accordingly. There are many ways to look at this poem. But it comes down to one breath, one’s own breath, with one accord.
The other two poems are the same; here I only give literal translations.
In response to the question of what I write about: Well … I write about almost everything. First and foremost, I write to explore who I am, how I exist and live, in relation to all living things. I write mostly in Navajo because it is who I am. I write in Navajo because it is a simple way of showing the world that other languages exist, that there are other ways of looking at the world, that there are other ways of living. My book Saad focuses on how we interact with nature, and how that interaction informs the way we think, the way we act. It is about a sacred relationship with the land, the universe, and the gods. The poems are more conceptual, shorter. They are like taking a breath, one breath at a time. They tend to be more philosophical. Longer poems in the other books are narrative and address social and political issues, extractive industry and agriculture, loss of language and written Navajo, gang and education, etc.
– Rex Lee Jim ’86, October 2010