Presence: The Heartspeak of Indigenous Poets: Clarissa Mendiola


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


Untitled or Nameless or Grieving a Life Not Lived

All that passes washes ashore: kelp detached from cold forests, tumbled shells vacated, deconstructed jellyfish, a diluted sting.

Baby whales, too, starved to death on bellies full of plastic.

You, once a shadow, a figure without a flicker of heart. My eyes desperately scanned the image for signs of life while blood carved a twisted map down my legs.

Washed up kelp clings steadfast to its base.

How many times have I held tightly to something that has long let me go? How many embryos flushed down toilets, saved in the freezer, buried under potted plants for lack of ceremony?

I wonder, did you make your way to sea?

Across the entire Pacific, all the way back home, carried by omniscient currents. My great great great great grandmother might have kept you gi i gima and considered you an ancestor.

Perhaps it is you I invoke when chanting guela yan guelo.

What I mean is, I sat down to write you into a poem, memorialize your tiny existence, connect you to some thread of ocean, a wave fizzled to foam, a creature finding its end at the shoreline.

But all I can muster is another litany of unanswerable questions—
a memory of sand dollars I hoarded as a child, smooth, lifeless, unbearably whole.


gi i gima – in the house

guela yan guelo – grandma and grandpa, the opening of an invocation to ask permission from ancestors to pass through sacred lands

Clarissa Mendiola is a native daughter of Guåhan, the southernmost island in the Mariana archipelago. She is a mother, a poet, and she has lived in San Francisco for more than two decades. As a Chamoru woman raised in diaspora, poetry is the method by which she bridges the distance between her home island and where she stands. Clarissa’s work can be found in various journals and publications including As Us, Literary Hub, Omniverse, Storyboard, and the Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia anthology from the University of Hawai’i Press. She received a BS from the University of San Francisco and an MFA in Writing from the California College of Arts. She was a 2011 Hedgebrook Writer in Residence and currently teaches creative writing camps at a San Francisco high school where she also serves as a communications writer. More from this author →