WARNING: This story describes violence against women and children and acts of genocide.
For Elizabeth Woody, the intersections between sexism and racism are often top of mind.
“You know, I’m Native American, but I’m a woman as well, and that’s even more ostracizing,” she said. “Growing up, we knew that Indigenous women would be reviled or considered sex objects. Not just sex objects, but objects to rape. All of the west talks about coming into our camps and raping us and killing us and smashing the heads of our babies.”
Woody, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs with Yakama descent, approaches her art and poetry as essential to her existence — her way to make sense of both the beauties and brutalities of life. She writes about the unsaid, the unseen, and her identity as an Indigenous person and a woman.
Woody is currently working on an essay about the forced sterilization of Indigenous women that will appear in an upcoming anthology titled “The Big M,” edited by celebrated Portland author Lidia Yuknavitch and scheduled to be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2025.
“It’s going to take a lot of my personal introspection plus talking to the women that I know have had a really difficult time,” Woody said. “The sterilization of women is still something that impacts us.”
These are the realities Woody is unafraid to write about, and in a literary industry that has historically elevated the voices of some at the expense of many others, Woody has watched respected writers establish themselves using dominance and discrimination.
“There's a lot of misogynist male writers out there,” Woody said. “They belittle you first and they do not care for women and do not write about women. And if they're writing about women, oftentimes they're writing about sex and being belligerent. A woman is being really awful, a woman is being mean, or something to that effect.”
“As long as I'm alive and as long as you're alive, we are representing”
The drive to the roughly 1,000-square-mile Warm Springs Reservation passes snow-capped Mount Hood along roads lined with Douglas firs, before descending into the high desert.
There, in the small community of Warm Springs, a turquoise and salmon colored sign for the Museum at Warm Springs juts out. Inside the museum is an array of artifacts reflecting the culture of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Every piece has a story, but a few of the interactive displays no longer work.
One that is still operational shows Woody, now 63, sitting on a bench outside the glass display, watching the lights move from character to character while the recorded voice of her younger self is projected to share knowledge about her tribe. And her poetry, prose and essays offer the chance to learn more about her, her rich family history and her experiences as an Indigenous woman, all of which helped earn her the prestigious title of poet laureate of Oregon in 2016 — the first Native American and second woman to do so.
The road to becoming an icon started with Woody attending a creative writing program at Lewis and Clark College. She later earned a master’s degree in public administration.
Her 1988 collection Hand into Stone was the 1990 winner of the American Book Award. This would later be republished with a new collection for Seven Hands, Seven Hearts. Woody’s third book, published in 1994, was Luminaries of the Humble.
Woody is a founding member of the Native Arts and Culture Foundation, which awarded her the National Artist Fellowship in 2018. She is also a board member for Soapstone, a nonprofit organization that supports women writers. And she helped design the selection process for the Poet Laureate of Oregon, where she specifically insisted on nominations. Her time as a mentor, teacher and icon came from a spark that was ignited long ago.
“There was a time when I was working with different artists and writers and we were breaking down doors and breaking down places that were excluding us as Native writers,” Woody said.
Despite this work, and the work of many others, misogyny is often still the norm.
“People still look to the male voices as the standard,” she said.
Woody was greatly influenced by the female presences in her life that she felt built a foundation for a new standard. In particular, she emphasizes her connection with her grandmother.
“Women have a powerful presence,” she said. “When you’re raised with women who understand that, you start to learn it, too. My grandmother was a feminist before there was feminism. Women weren’t allowed to have their own job, their own car, their own bank account in her era, but she did. You couldn’t go out and buy things without some man representing you.”
Woody wishes to be like her grandmother — able to say something important in five words or fewer, and be a loving person. But she’s also a warrior.
“People thought I was fierce or something, but the thing is, I was very passionate,” Woody said. “I just had a lot of energy. That can be manifested in your writing, it can be manifested in your sexuality, and it can be manifested in your robustness and your savoring of life.”
Despite this ferocity, Woody radiates tranquility and peace with eyes that are bright, full of laughter and often deep with thought. On a sunny and warm June day at the Museum at Warm Springs, her long dress printed with blue and yellow flowers sways gently as she moves and talks. Her beaded lanyard holding a key to so many doors in the museum where she is currently executive director symbolizes the doors she’s opened for so many.
Woody is hesitant to accept her status as an inspiration for Natives and women, and at times has struggled over how to engage with her fans.
“I just couldn't go and have coffee with them because it wasn't based on knowing me; it was based on what they felt about my work,” Woody said. “And I don't mind the relationship of me as an author being on a panel or being a teacher and talking about it in work, but to be with someone who just absolutely loves me because of the work, I felt like I disappoint them so badly because I'm, you know, I'm a hardass. I'm a fucking volcano.”
A woman’s truth is her own to reconcile, to overcome, to celebrate, to do with whatever she pleases. Woody’s life shows that art and writing provide outlets for both trauma and joy. She leads by emphasizing the importance of self-nurturance — of respecting one's own thoughts and finding the people who will understand.
“Poetry opened a door for a lot of steps for me to become this person,” Woody said. “When somebody says there's a lack of representation, as long as I'm alive and as long as you're alive, we are representing. And what we write better have that power to contribute for freedom, for justice, for love.”
Lead image: Elizabeth Woody is executive director of the Museum at Warm Springs, a position she took over after the death of her mother. (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)