Kenny, Maurice

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KENNY, Maurice

KENNY, Maurice (b. 16 August 1929), writer.

Maurice Kenny was born in Watertown, New York, his father Mohawk and his mother part-Seneca. When he was thirteen, his parents separated, and he moved with his mother to New Jersey. Unhappy at school, his truancy led a juvenile judge to recommend that he be placed in reform school. His father intervened and brought him back to upstate New York, where he completed high school.

Kenny began writing poetry as a teenager. He was especially influenced by Walt Whitman, whose natural language and rhythm were qualities he later found in Native American oral literature. He enrolled in Butler University in 1952 and received a B.A. in English literature. In 1956, he entered St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and with the encouragement of novelist Douglas Angus wrote the poems published in his first chapbook, The Hopeless Kill (1956). At his father's urging, he enrolled at New York University in 1958, where he studied with poet Louise Bogan. His first full-length collection, Dead Letters Sent and Other Poems, appeared that year. A hiatus followed, during which he traveled in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and also began drinking heavily. Eventually, friends brought him back to New York, and soon thereafter he moved to Chicago, where he wrote obituaries for the Chicago Sun-Times, and, in his free time, began writing poetry again. After a year, he returned to New York in 1967, and a Brooklyn Heights apartment became his home for the next two decades.

Kenny's career coincided with a period of political and cultural upheaval for Native Americans. In 1969 Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island, garnering international attention. Two years later, the American Indian Movement was formed, and a series of confrontations with federal authorities ensued, culminating in the violent face-off at Wounded Knee, North Dakota, in early 1973. Less visible, but more lasting, was a growing trend among Indians to reject assimilation and embrace their traditional cultures. The 1970s renaissance in Native American literature was in large part the result of native writers and poets seeking to chronicle these events and articulate authentic Native American identities. Poets especially were able to draw on the native oral heritage to produce a creative synthesis of tradition and modernity in their work.

Kenny credits his late 1960s poem, "First Rule," with leading him back to this heritage. This exploration came to fruition in the long poem, "I Am the Sun" (1973), written in response to the Wounded Knee events. Consciousness of his native heritage is also evident in North: Poems of Home (1977), his first full-length collection in nineteen years, and Dancing Back Strong the Nation (1979). Kenny's style has been described as oracular and incantatory, leading some to refer to his poems as chants. Kenny, however, reserves the term "chant" for writings of a ritual nature.

In 1976, Kenny asserted his gay identity with the publication in Gay Sunshine of the poem, "Winkte," and an essay, "Tinselled Bucks: An Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality." In his essay, Kenny claimed the berdache, or two-spirit, tradition as an exemplar for contemporary Indians. He was among the first nationally recognized American Indians to come out publicly.

With Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues (1982) Kenny ventured into the genre of historical poetry, telling the story of a Jesuit missionary martyred by the Mohawks in 1646. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and received the National Public Radio Award for Broadcasting (1984). The death of his mother led him to write about his childhood and family in The Mama Poems (1984), which received the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation. In Rain and Other Fictions (1985; reprinted 1990) he made yet another departure, publishing short stories and a one-act play. Kenny returned to historical poetry with Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant (1992), which recreates the voice of a prominent Mohawk woman who married an Englishman. In this and other historical works, he portrays individuals who are multiply located. Like himself, they cross (and sometimes transgress) boundaries between cultures and ways of being, whether as Indians in a white world, missionaries among Indians, Indian women married to white men, or gay men in a heterosexual world. This interest in historically grounded storytelling distinguishes his work from the mythico-poetic style of feminist Native authors such as Paula Gunn Allen.

The search for historical Native American voices eventually led Kenny to re-evaluate the legacy of Walt Whitman. In "Whitman's Indifference to Indians" (1992), he criticized the poet's silence on U.S. Indian policies and argued that Whitman's failure to include Native Americans among his subjects was a tragic loss. Kenny himself promoted diverse authors throughout his career, establishing Strawberry Press in 1976 to publish Native Americans' work, editing collections of Native American writings, and encouraging writers of color as editor of the journal Contact/II.

In 1986, he moved to Saranac Lake in upstate New York. He continued to travel frequently to lecture and teach. He has been poet-in-residence at North Country Community College and the State University of New York at Potsdam. In 1995, he received an honorary doctorate from St. Lawrence University. Kenny has published over thirty collections of poetry, fiction, and essays, and his works have appeared in nearly a hundred journals, magazines, and anthologies in several languages. Joseph Bruchac has ranked him among "the four or five significant Native American poets."


Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: Sun Tracks/University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, ed. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, 1989.

Will Roscoe

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