Elizabeth Woody is the first American Indian to be named poet laureate of Oregon. She has overcome many obstacles to earn multiple advanced degrees, share her poetry and art, and voice her support for many causes.
But now, at 57, Woody is facing another challenge: unemployment. Being an honored poet doesn’t always pay the bills, and she’s worried about whether she’ll need financial assistance in her older years.
Her last job, as program officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, was eliminated last August during a reorganization. At the time, she had been dividing her time between Portland and Warm Springs. Now, she’s given up her Portland home and is living in her mother’s home on the Warm Springs Reservation. Sadly, her mother died last October.
When she applies for jobs, potential employers tell Woody she is “too experienced,” words she translates into being “too old.”
But challenging circumstances are not new to Woody, an American Navajo who was denied her graduation diploma due to an absence they termed “truancy.” She says she had earned all her credits and missed a day to work on a portfolio for college.
Without that diploma, it took Woody 20 years to finish her education. Despite being gifted, lack of a high school diploma meant she had a tough time getting into college or acquiring much-needed scholarships.
“There were great financial drawbacks,” she says.
Her father, a Navajo, was a laborer working for the railroad and her college-educated mother, Charlotte Pitt, was a counselor for alcohol treatment centers and on the board of the Urban Indian Center in Portland.
Over the years, Woody has felt the sting of poverty, living in a single-room dwelling and eating at the soup kitchen. She had a meager income from her tribe, and used food stamps to buy groceries as she worked to bridge her way to better times. That was when she wrote her first book of poetry and received the American Book Award for “Hand into Stone.”
Nonetheless, this strong, independent woman earned several degrees. After studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico from 1980-83, she earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities with an emphasis in English from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In 2012, she received a master's degree in public administration through the Executive Leadership Institute of the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
“I’ve worked all my life to get by,” Woody says. “Being a writer and artist does not guarantee a living income.”
Woody’s activism was influenced by her mother, with whom she marched to support farmworkers and union strikes, and against the Vietnam War.
“The FBI surrounded our home and my mother made them coffee and donuts and at one point she fixed their car for them,” Woody says. “I remember getting searched by police when we left the reservation. In the era of Ronald Reagan people were being assassinated and killed. There was a lot of division in the country.”
That is the nature of democracy, she says. “It is cyclic. We are a very violent country. We are still the Wild West. Democracy is very young. We are working toward refinement.”
It is, then, no surprise that her poetry revolves around the human condition, whether it be family, culture, the land or matters of historical context.
Woody is the author of books, anthologies, interviews and critical essays. She is also an artist working with mixed media, photography, fine art and ceramics. She was born into a family of artists, so drawing came naturally. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally.
Noted Portlander Lillian Pitt, an American Indian artist from the Columbia River region, is her aunt. Her works identify ancestral Columbia River petroglyphs in order to affirm the indigenous presence in the region.
Woody was studio manager for her aunt, “a taskmaster,” for 12 years before she was a professor for the Institute of American Indian Arts.
She is also on the board of Soapstone, Inc., an organization dedicated to providing a reading retreat for women.
The poet laureate
Woody says being a poet laureate is “a responsibility” as she becomes an ambassador promoting the art and craft of poetry.
“There are few opportunities for a writer or artist,” she says. “An example of how exposure to art can change a life is when the Ashland Shakespeare Company came to my high school. I had hated Shakespeare. I had never seen a live actor’s performance. It was like magic. They picked some students to work with them, almost like street theater. I learned that Shakespeare was a man of the people in that his work portrayed universal conflicts.”
With libraries shutting down throughout the state and “a lot of disenfranchised people in Oregon,” it doesn’t bode well for the arts, Woody says, especially in rural areas. These areas have no revenue because of the closing down of the forestry industries, the fisheries and others.
“In order for people to find work in gentrified Bend they have to commute horrendous miles to work in that city,” she says. “I hear all kinds of stories about that. We live in a pocket in Portland. Medford, Klamath Falls, Redmond, even Portland are violent cities. One might ask why.”
Her poetry comes out of experiences, of topics that interest her, such as Nazism, having lived around the corner from their headquarters when white supremacists beat Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw to death in his Portland apartment in the 1990s.
She remembers teaching about Indian history to high school students and “afterward they came up to me and told me they had never known any of that information,” she says. “The real truth of history needs to come out.”
Woody says she sees her work as bringing resources to people who need assistance. “I like to see people make gains,” she says. “I like to work with people passionate about their work and support children and the elderly, that’s what I have a passion for. I also need to tend to myself. I am thinking about how I will live 10 years from now. I might need assistance.”
This comment led her to question, “How we compare the Bundys with the homeless people downtown depends upon the agency confronted. We have a human deficiency. Too many live in isolation. People need each other. Unfortunately, corporations rule over the individual.”
And then people die from hypothermia because they cannot afford rent, she continues. “Letting people die is wrong.”
Courtesy of Ecotrust
Elizabeth Woody recently was named as Oregon’s poet laureate. Her responsibilities include fostering the art of poetry, encouraging literacy and learning, addressing central issues relating to humanities and heritage, and reflecting on public life in Oregon.
Courtesy of Ecotrust
Elizabeth Woody (fourth from the left) stands with other recipients of the Indigenous Leadership Award, given by Ecotrust to tribal leaders for their dedication to their culture and their work to improve economic and environmental conditions of their homelands and people. (group shot)