interview issue 32

Hybridity in Indigenous Writing: An Interview with Poet Elgin Jumper

by Rosa Sophia

Elgin Jumper is a Seminole poet and artist whose poetry collection, Nightfall, was published by the American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His work was recently presented in a documentary from Seminole Media Productions entitled “Elgin Jumper’s Colorful Journey,” which premiered at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Clewiston at Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in October of 2021. Elgin is also one of the co-founders of the Florida Indigenous Writers Group, together with Krystle Young Bowers. He is a regular contributor to the Seminole Tribune and lives in Hollywood, Florida. He was interviewed by Gulf Stream poetry editor Rosa Sophia. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Elgin Jumper (Courtesy SMP)

Rosa Sophia: When you first began writing seriously, did you feel there was any kind of support system for writers?

Elgin Jumper: Not the way I envision it today. When I got older and started seeing how other people were writing together all over the country, all over the world, that’s when I began to get the idea of putting a group together—the Florida Indigenous Writers Group—a group that meets, encourages and supports each other and hopefully inspires each other. 

RS: How old were you when you first started writing?

EJ: When I was six or seven, I told my brothers and sisters that I would be a writer, that I would write books and poetry. I still remember that day. One of my sisters was walking by, and I said, “I’ll write one about you,” and then I wrote “My Sister” at the top of the page. 

RS: Your work strikes me as very hybrid in that you’re combining poetry and prose, experimenting with form, painting, and multimedia art presentations. Hybridity has been more of a focus in literature only recently, but do you think this is something that Native American artists and writers have always naturally incorporated into their work? 

EJ: I think so. The older generations already have that in their thinking. I’ve had uncles suggest to me that I draw, paint, and then write about what I’m painting. Out west, early on, tribes told stories in petroglyphs. 

RS: Do you think that’s one of the reasons why it’s important to have the writers’ group, to encourage them to hold on to traditions? 

EJ: Yeah, I think so. There hasn’t always been a writing group getting together. That’s breaking new ground, too. It takes time. You have to send a crew across. That’s what Alexander the Great did when he sent an advance crew into Persia before going in and conquering it. He sent one of his best generals, and then he established a beachhead, getting it ready…but at a certain point, they’re all going to come across.

Every generation moves it further along and in its own way. One generation came out of the Everglades, out of the Seminole Wars, and they still had their belief in the old ways. They did it their own way. When the next generation comes on, they’re different from the generation before. Every generation gets more attuned to the world around them. When I was younger, things were different. I went to a different kind of school—the school of hard knocks. Even if a writing group existed when I was growing up, I didn’t go for it because I was into other things, which probably weren’t so good. 

RS: But those things informed your writing.

EJ: Definitely. There’s a rebellious quality that comes into my writing, a different voice, an in-your-face kind of voice. More of a sense of humor. Not so much trying to come to terms with the old ways versus the new ways, but it seems like there’s a character taking over and I’m just writing what I hear from that voice. 

RS: When you say the old ways, do you mean Seminole ways?

EJ: Yes, tradition. 

RS: How do you see this playing out among the writers in your group? 

EJ: I still see the old ways in the writing of the generation that’s coming up now, the one that’s still in school. They’ve grabbed onto it. In some of the writing—maybe one out of ten—you see a voice that’s really rebellious and into the old ways.

RS: You see rebellion as connected to the old ways, rebelling against the more modern ways?

EJ: Yes, and fearless in what they want to say. 

RS: What kind of work is being done in your writers’ group? 

EJ: I think every writer is at their own level, and they’re curious about what we’re doing. We do writing exercises and prompts. Maybe they aren’t at the point yet where they want to come in all the time. Some people only come once, some come two or three times. 

I look at it like this—something’s being done. It’s a journey. Some people are farther along on the journey, they’ve been at it longer than others. Younger people are coming to see what we’re doing. This is all new, uncharted territory for us. When we were meeting in Big Cypress, we drew writing prompts from each other’s work. It was Krystle’s idea—Krystle Young Bowers. She’s in our group, she’s a biologist and a writer, and she’s married to the artist Wilson Bowers. She’s working on a children’s book about Seminole culture, past and present.

RS: How would you like to see your group interact with other writers in the area, or beyond? 

EJ: I would like to see more interaction between indigenous tribes with Native American poets and groups around the country. Joy Harjo has visited. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum sponsors our group, and they try to put us in contact with other organizations. We worked on a project with the Jason Taylor Foundation. They sent out a big group out of poets, and we read with them, and they spent the whole day at the museum. They all knew about my poetry and wanted to hear certain poems. 

We were talking about putting together a group anthology. Krystle already put together a literary journal called Around the Fire, with poetry, short stories, and essays. All the writers are indigenous. Some are from around here, some are from out of state. My short story, Excerpt from the Journals of Moccasin Flowers, is in it. 

I found a poem by Mary Oliver called “Moccasin Flowers.” I looked it up, and there’s a flower by that name. I thought it would make a great character name, so I wrote the story, which is semi-autobiographical. When I was growing up, I was 12 years old, and we were running around at the tribal fair, and that’s what Moccasin Flowers is writing about in his journal.

RS: I think what your group is doing is really important. It’s raising the visibility of Seminole culture and writing. Which Seminole poets or writers have inspired you?

EJ: They’re both Jumpers: Betty Mae Jumper and her son Moses Jumper, Jr. It seems like a lot of Jumpers are writers throughout tribal history. It runs in my family. Way back in the Seminole Wars, Jumper was a chief. He was responsible for the Dade Battle in 1835. He was one of the main leaders. They say he was eloquent, an orator, and he could really speak. I think that’s filtered through, all these generations later. All the reports say he was well-spoken and a great counsel whenever they brought them together. That’s just like writing. You’re able to express yourself. 

RS: And that’s part of the oral tradition.

EJ: Yes. Moses Jumper, Jr. and I grew up on the same reservation. He has a published chapbook called Echoes in the Wind, and he was always reading at different tribal events. They would call on him to say a prayer or read poetry. I’ll always remember that. Betty Mae’s stories, Legends of the Seminoles, were illustrated by Guy LaBree. 

I grew up watching Guy paint at his house. He and my dad were friends and grew up together. When I was a kid, I played with his kids. I would stop for a while and watch Guy paint and then go back to playing. I knew him all my life, and when I started painting seriously, he showed me a lot. Jimmy Osceola, Guy LaBree, and Nilda Comas at Legacy Art Studio in Fort Lauderdale all gave me a good foundation and taught me a lot about painting. Me and Jimmy used to go up to Fort Pierce to the Backus Museum, and we learned about how the Highwaymen painted, so we would drive out into the Everglades and find spots to paint outdoors. 

RS: How do you feel your poetry and artwork are in conversation with each other?

EJ: I think it’s in the soul. The soul feels its best when something—poetry or art—is being done. Throughout the day I’m doing both. The whole day is comprised of painting or writing. It weaves in and out seamlessly. It’s a natural thing. I go from the easel to my pen and paper, from where I paint to where I write. I don’t even think about it. 

RS: It feels like everything is a poem, really, or a piece of art, or has the potential to be. It just hasn’t manifested yet.

EJ: It is. I didn’t look at my life like that until 2004, which is when it all began. I started painting seriously, and it was all day. It never stopped. There’s no on or off switch. I don’t clock in and out. It’s all the time. Art encompasses everything. It’s infinite. 

The ideas are just like little butterflies. They’re all around. All you have to do is put your hand out, and it lands on your finger, and you see all the colors. Even in my dreams, I’m painting colors. I’m painting the dream as it’s happening.

RS: In terms of hybridity, when did you come to a place where you saw that your writing didn’t have to be in a box, that you could do anything you wanted?

EJ: In 2004, I was writing stream of consciousness. I called them sonnets, but they were blocks of words, and they were about anything. I got through all of that, and my writing changed. In the end, after a week, I felt like I had been through something and it was going to affect my writing. I could feel it even then. I had gone through something I needed to go through. It was awesome. When I got done, I got a Sharpie and wrote “63 Sonnets” on the cover, and put the notebook away.

When I was writing, an image kept coming into my mind’s eye—a rider on a horse, and he kept moving forward, so my words kept moving forward, all across, galloping into the sun with every sonnet. It’s like a paintbrush. Always keep the brush moving and don’t stop until you’re finished.

Elgin Jumper, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida as well as a member of the Otter Clan, is a poet, a short story writer, an essayist, and an artist.

Rosa Sophia is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poetry and creative nonfiction has appeared in Philadelphia Stories MagazineLimp WristIslandia Journal and others. She holds a degree in automotive technology and is the managing editor of Mobile Electronics magazine. She lives in Palm Bay, Florida.