Presence: The Heartspeak of Indigenous Poets: Roanna Shebala


This country carries a heavy history of words weaponized in so many unspeakable ways. We must face these times of worry and fear with all of our strength and ancestral power. Storytelling and bearing witness through art is a communal tool for survival. These continue to be times where we need poetry the most. And so, we come together to share experience, songs, stanzas, and phrases to invoke resilience and grit to challenge obstacles and embrace the humanity of Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month I would like to celebrate and uplift several Indigenous writers whose words inspire us to continue to share our voices and our truths. 

We are still here, I type these words while sitting on Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lands. We are still here, fingers on keys. We are still here, voice in throat. We are still here, blood in memory, we remember. We are still here, we re-member ourselves into survivance. The presence of these poets’ pulses through the literary landscape to help us survive our loneliness and silences, to bless us with light, and to bear witness to our presence in all forms.

– Tanaya Winder


MMIW: Pocahontas

When the president called Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’,
He thought he was clever and funny
Only confirming the idealization of a child that has been turned into fetish.

In 2017, nearly 10,000 Indigenous women were reported missing in the US.

Her real name was Matoaka,
Powhatan for ‘Flower between two streams.’
She resembled her mother,
So she took on her name, Pocahontas.
Dies at 21.
Taken by English captors.

Ask yourself,
if your favorite princess were alive,
would she be hashtagging #MeToo?
Taking her name back for all indigenous women,
Screaming “I survived!?”

1995: she becomes a Disney Princess.
She becomes a Halloween Costume.
Her 10-year-old body becomes full-figured, a Barbie Doll Collectable.
That’s the year John Smith’s story became a musical staring a rape victim.
It was the year I learned I had to know all the colors of the wind.
It was the year I learned that saving white men always makes you the hero.

1617: our daughter dies in England,
Renamed Rebecca.
You know, a good Christian name,
For a Good Indian.
How else would she be accepted,
If she wasn’t whitewashed?
Language lost.
New clothes, new name, new her.
Would we have put out an Amber Alert?
Posted pictures of the assailants?
Described the ship in detail?
Filed her name along with the others?

We are still searching for her bones.
Wanting to bring her home.

When you call Native women ‘Pocahontas’,
Your breath reeks of a missing persons report
When you call us ‘Pocahontas’ it says, little girls tickle your fancy.
Murdered Missing Indigenous Women, is no recent epidemic.
And you wonder why we’re so quick to go to battle.
Because History has never been kind to our women.

Roanna “Rowie” Shebala is a Native American of the Dine (Navajo Tribe) and Shiwi (Zuni Tribe). Shebala is Tsenjikini clan, Born for Deeshchii’nii clan, her maternal grandparents are the Tótsohnii, and her paternal grandparents are the Naasht’ezhi Dine’e’. She is from Fort Defiance, AZ. Shebala earned her BS in Theater at Northern Arizona University and is a current MFA in Creative Writing student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. She is a spoken word artist who has been featured on four National Poetry Slam teams, a five-time representative on the Women of the World Poetry Slam, and a two-time representative for the Individual World Poetry Slam. Her work has been featured in Button Poetry, Indian Country Today, in various zines, and magazines such as Annick Press, Red Ink, Wicked Banshee Press, and Suspect Press. Shebala has performed her spoken word poetry at the Lincoln Center for the Out of Doors Project and nationally. She credits her father for gifting her with storytelling; her works combines story, poetry, and performance. She is also a member of Saad Bee Hozho: Dine Writiers’ Collective. More from this author →