Simon Ortiz: 'What Indians?' (complete)

The Truth Is: “No kidding?” “No.” “Come on! That can't be true!” “No kidding.”


“What Indians?” is my too-often unspoken response to people who ask “When do the Indians dance?” Like other colonized Indigenous peoples, cultures, and communities throughout the world, Native Americans have experienced and endured identities imposed on them by colonial powers, most of which originated in Europe. This imposition has resulted to a great extent — more than we admit and realize — in the loss of a sense of a centered human self and the weakening and loss of Indigenous cultural identity.



April 9, 1999, 9:15 A.M.

Snow in soft wet knots


coming down

through gray trees.


                                    Strange to think of Iowa and Kansas.

                                    And Washington where I've never been in winter.

                                    And Portland, Oregon, where I've lived

                                    -- elms and pines dripping with rain

                                    on Umatilla Street in weather like this –


Sellwood Bridge

over the Willamette River.



                                    Nebraska, South Dakota, elsewhere...



But this is Salt Lake City, Utah.


Yeah, it could be elsewhere. In fact,

                                          it could be Somewhere Else City,

                                          United States of America, Planet Earth,

                                          but this is Salt Lake City

                                          right smack on the western edge

                                          of the center of the world, believe it or not.


Yeah, it's not elsewhere. It's not Somewhere Else City. It is


Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

No where else but.

And, yeah, what a place, what a place.


       What a place to think of Indians.


"Where are the Indians?"

"What Indians?"

"You know, Indians."

"I don't know what you're talking about."




                                         To believe or not to believe,


this was the question.



                                         Asked and answered and believed

                                         by the greatest believers

                                         and disbelievers the world has ever known.


Where are the Indians?

Where are the real Indians?


                                         There are no Indians.

                                         There are no real Indians.


There were never any Indians.

There were never any Indians.


                                         There were never any real Indians.


You mean... you mean, there were never any Indians? No real Indians?

   No Indians?







Real or unreal.

Real and/or unreal.

They were made up.

It didn't matter.

                                                 They were what people in Europe believed.

                                                 They were what people in Europe wanted:

                                                 to believe.

                                                 They were what people in Europe wanted.

                                                 To believe.


Indians were what people in Europe wanted to believe. Indians were what

people in Europe wanted to believe. Indians were what people in Europe

wanted to believe.


"Indians" were what people in Europe wanted to believe.


"Indians" were what Europeans wanted. To believe.


"Indians" were what Europeans believed.


"Indians were what Europeans believed."


Believe it or not.

Believe it or not.

Believe it or not.

Believe it or not!

Believe it or not!





They believed!

Oh my, yes, they believed!

Soon, very quickly, there were Indians!


If it's one thing Europeans knew how to do, it was to believe!

They still do, you won't believe it even though it's true!


Oh, their belief in the power of belief is powerful!


Their power to believe was beyond belief!

It was overwhelming!

They believed, they believed!


                                  Soon the Americans believed

                            since they were originally Europeans

                           and they yearned for "the old country."

                                       Oh my, they believed!

                                     They absolutely believed!




Indians were made up?




They became what people in Europe believed them to be? Indians?




Yeah, Indians.


Soon there were Indians all over the place. But mainly in the New World,

especially in America! Indians thrived in the New World. That's where they

were seen the most. That's where they "belonged." That's where they

were the most Indian!


             Soon even "the Indians" believed there were "Indians."

               Soon even the "Indians" believed they were Indians.


Nonetheless they were people.

They were hanoh. They were people who were themselves.

They were people who were their own people.


                                             See Indians.

                                          See real Indians.

                                       See real Indians play.

                                      See real Indians work.


                                 But there was nothing to see.

                                       There was nothing.

                               Because there was nothing there.

                                            Nothing real

                                              or surreal.

                                                To see.


                                          See real Indians.





                                              No where.




So where were the Indians?

What did Europeans see?

Did they see anything?

What did they see?

Did they see people?

Did they see people like themselves?

What did they see?


                                            What did they see?

                                            What did they see.

                                            What did they see.


                                     "Indians" who are our people

                              (The People, Human Beings, Hanoh, etc.)


              knew themselves as people. Different from each other. Speaking

            different and distinct and separate languages. They heard each others'

             languages. Their people had different names. They wore different

           clothes. They ate different foods. They danced different dances. They

           celebrated their differences. Yes, they were different but they were all

                                                   the same:

                              The People, Human Beings, You, Me.





                                 and meantime

                                   and always


                                After and before

                                    and during

                                    and always


           always no matter what always and always and even despite

the greatest believers and disbelievers in the world, they/we were people

they/we were/are people we/they are people four times and without

number or need for number we/they are people like you and just

like me



Umatilla Street, in Sellwood, near Portland, Oregon, through which the Willamette River passes to join the Columbia River.

 Back to Line

hanoh: Acoma word for 'people.' Back to Line


Original Text: Ortiz, Simon J., Out There Somewhere. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2002.


[EDITOR'S NOTE.  In the process of preparing a second expanded edition of Technicians of the Sacred with a particular emphasis on survivals & revivals of indigenous cultures & poetries, my attention turns again to the work of poets like Simon Ortiz.  Ortiz in particular, I would say, in the early years of ethnopoetics as a largely poet-driven project, was a powerful voice & a close companion when Dennis Tedlock and I were bringing much of the discourse into Alcheringa & related publications.  A native of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, he has continued over the years as a major figure in the still active American Indian literary renaissance and in the “new American poetry” over all.  It is hard for me to imagine a genuine ethnopoetics without his authoritative voice & presence. (J.R.)]