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poetry American Arithmetic

“I am doing my best to not become a museum,” writes Native American poet Natalie Diaz of complexities of preserving her identity as a person among people.

American Arithmetic 

By Natalie Diaz

Native Americans make up less than
one percent of the population of America.
0.8 percent of 100 percent.

O, mine efficient country.

I do not remember the days
before America — I do not remember the days
when we were all here.

Police kill Native Americans more
than any other race. Race is a funny word.
Race implies someone will win,
implies I have as good a chance of winning as —

Who wins the race which isn't a race?

Native Americans make up 1.9 percent
of all police killings, higher than any race,
and we exist as .8 percent of all Americans.

Sometimes race means run.

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We are not good at math.
Can you blame us?
We've had an American education.

We are Americans and we are less than 1 percent
of Americans. We do a better job of dying
by police than we do existing.

When we are dying, who should we call?
The police? Or our senator?
Please, someone, call my mother.

In Arithmetic and in America,
divisibility has rules —
divide without remainder.

At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the U.S.
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.

I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.

But in this American city with all its people,
I am Native American — less than one, less than
whole — I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let's say, I am only a hand —

and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover
I disappear completely.

“American Arithmetic” was originally published in The Mighty Stream: Poems in celebration of Martin Luther King (Bloodaxe Books, 2018) 

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press. She is a Lannan Literary Fellow and a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. She was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, a Hodder Fellowship, and a PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation Residency, as well as being awarded a US Artists Ford Fellowship. Diaz teaches at the Arizona State University Creative Writing MFA program.