A Rio Rancho educator helped create a guide that teachers around the country can use to help students connect with Native American poetry and culture.

Third-term U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold that Library of Congress position, is conducting “Living Nations, Living Words” as her signature project. It involves an interactive story map featuring 47 Native poets from across the nation and an online collection of recordings of those poets reading and discussing their work.

Francis Vigil
Courtesy of the National Indian Education Association

Rio Ranchoan Francis Vigil, a National Indian Education Association tribal education specialist, helped develop a guide to make “Living Nations, Living Words” more accessible to teachers and students after the Library of Congress reached out to the NIEA on the issue.

Vigil is an enrolled member of Zia Pueblo, with ties to Jemez Pueblo and the Jicarilla Apache tribe. He said Harjo’s project and its guide help non-Native students engage with Native voices.

“It allows the reader to take a dive into that view, overcome stereotypes and really situate us in the now,” Vigil said.

The pandemic hindered development of the guide last year, but Vigil and colleagues started working on it in January. The group included members of the National Council for the Social Studies and National Council of Teachers of English.

The guide launched online this fall.

“We really wanted to make this accessible for people with varying understanding and knowledge of Native Americans,” Vigil said.

Library of Congress educational outreach specialist Kaleena Black helped bring together the coalition and develop the guide.

She said it contains prompts and activity ideas, with the story map and poetry as starting places for students and teachers to explore “Living Nations, Living Words.”

Kaleena Black
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

It’s written for middle and high school, although Vigil said it might also be useful at the college level. The vocabulary might be too advanced for elementary students.

The development group focused on the recorded poetry and story map. Black said the audio recordings allow students to hear how each poem was meant to be read and how the poet’s voice sounds.

Vigil said the story map shows “where these voices are emerging from” and “how Native American voices are really connected in space.” Black said it combines geography and poetry, so the guide-development group put forth ideas useful in both English and social studies classes.

“When you look at the poems, those themes really do emerge,” she said.

November is Native American Heritage Month, but Vigil and his colleagues wanted to make the guide applicable throughout the year.

“We would really like to see this conversation embedded in other places and spaces in the curriculum and even cross-curricular studies,” he said.

Vigil said the federal government recognizes 574 Native American tribes in the country, all with similarities and differences. He feels the 47 diverse poets in “Living Nations, Living Words” cover past and present Native experiences.

“We really wanted through these voices to let people know we are still here,” Vigil said.

Joy Harjo
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The “Living Nations, Living Words” story map, recordings, educators guide and other resources are available through the U.S. Poet Laureate website.