Lummi member is state’s first Native American poet laureate

One of Rena Priest’s main goals will be to celebrate poetry in tribal communities in the state.

Rena Priest is the first indigenous poet to be appointed Washington State Poet Laureate. (Lela Childs/ArtsWa/HumanitiesWashington)

Rena Priest is the first indigenous poet to be appointed Washington State Poet Laureate. (Lela Childs/ArtsWa/HumanitiesWashington)

By Kie Relyea / The Bellingham Herald

Rena Priest, a Bellingham writer and member of the Lummi Nation, has become the first Native American poet to serve as Washington state’s poet laureate.

Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Priest to be the state’s sixth poet laureate, the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington announced on Thursday, April 1.

Her two-year term begins April 15.

Priest said she was “excited and honored” by the appointment.

“I’m fascinated by the way people come together around poetry. I am always delighted by how they gather in quiet rooms and let themselves be drawn in, lit up, and transformed by the words of other people,” the Lummi tribal member said in a news release. “It’s a powerful way of connecting.”

Priest succeeds Claudia Castro Luna, the current poet laureate and a Seattle resident.

One of her main goals as poet laureate will be to celebrate poetry in tribal communities in the state.

“There are 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington, composed of 140,714 tribal citizens,” Priest said in the release. “I’m sad to say that in the hundreds of poetry readings I’ve attended over the years, I’ve only met a handful of Native poets. I know that this is not because we don’t exist, but because we don’t have the same access to writing communities as people living in cities and towns.”

She also wants to use poetry to focus attention on the natural world and its protection at a critical juncture.

“We are in an important historical moment when science has given us a deadline to make significant changes to heal our planet,” she said in the release. “I want to use poetry as a tool to offer new perspectives and generate enthusiasm for the idea that we can slow and reverse the effects of ecological destruction simply by loving the Earth.”

Her literary debut, “Patriarchy Blues,” received the 2018 American Book Award. Her most recent work is “Sublime Subliminal.”

In addition to her poetry, some might recognize Priest from a video for young learners titled “Explorer Classroom — Saving Tokitae,” in which she discussed efforts to free the orca Tokitae from the Miami Seaquarium and bring her home to the Salish Sea.

State officials said that laureate candidates were evaluated on their writing acumen as well as their promotion of poetry and commitment to reaching diverse communities.

“The panel was impressed by Rena’s skill and compelling nature of her poetry and work,” Karen Hanan, Washington State Arts Commission executive director, said in the release. “She was also chosen for the depth and breadth of her connections to communities and her capacity to further extend those connections through her role as State Poet Laureate.”

Priest’s term as Washington’s poet laureate ends March 31, 2023.

The state’s poet laureate program is a joint effort of the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington.

Passing of the Laurel

A virtual celebration of Rena Priest’s appointment as Washington state’s newest poet laureate runs 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on April 14.

The event is organized and hosted by the Lummi Nation, Humanities Washington, the Washington State Arts Commission and the Washington Center for the Book.

Past laureates will be honored during an evening of poetry, speech and song.

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