Diane Burns: Native American Poet, East Village Prophet
Native American poet Diane Burns was a luminous, integral fixture of the Downtown arts scene beginning in the 1970s until her death in 2006. Her poetic body of work contains achingly earnest descriptions of her personal experiences as a Native American woman to droll, prophetic indictments of early gentrification in the East Village.
Born in Lawrence, Kansas on January 11, 1956, Burns had a wandering childhood that amplified her wondrous writing. Her Anishinabe mother and Chemehuevi father were both teachers at a Native American boarding school in Riverside, California, where the family resided until Burns was 10 years old. They eventually relocated to the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin and later to Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents continued to teach and Burns continued to write.
She exhibited a preternatural interest in poetry and art at a young age, talents that would come to define her later works. Burns’ mother recalls that she was constantly writing and drawing in grade school, even winning a first-place prize for her poem, “A Pencil Can Travel” in the third grade.
A young Burns seemed to take this poem’s title as her own philosophy. She studied at the American Indian Art Institute of Sante Fe, New Mexico during her senior year of high school. Her success there earned her a scholarship to Barnard College, where she set her sights on becoming a lawyer. However, she dropped out of Barnard during her senior year for reasons unknown, a move that would eventually propel her toward professional poetry.
No longer in school, and itching to make her mark downtown but unsure how, Burns began her poetry career almost by accident. She received a call from the American Indian Community House looking to book a Native American poet for an upcoming event. “I didn’t have anything, so I stayed up all night scribbling and ended up onstage with Audre Lorde,” Burns recollected. “I actually got paid $50. I’m the only poet I know who got into the field for money,” she joked.
She became a well-known performer at downtown poetry readings, her magnetic persona and wry wit searing into the community’s consciousness and memory. She took the stage at revered venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café, she made her mark at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (where her memorial was held in 2007) with the Poetry Project, and she captivated audiences at the Bowery Poetry Club.
Her identity as a Native American woman was essential to her being all the while. She continued to perform at the American Indian Community House’s events throughout the years, frequently performing at their Variety Shows in the 90s. The AICH, founded in 1969, sought to increase the visibility of American Indian cultures in New York City and across the nation. Today, they continue to serve the New York Native American community by providing services like substance abuse and HIV counseling while also seeking to uplift Native American voices in art and media with the only American Indian owned and operated art gallery in New York City. Burns’ longtime friendship with the organization notably conveys her commitment to authentically celebrating and revealing the Native American experience.
Though her only published book is a collection of sixteen poems called Riding the One-Eyed Ford (1981), Burns’ keen, irreverent works are still relevant today. In her poem and video Alphabet City Serenade, recorded for Bob Holman’s Poetry Spots series, Burns uses East Village imagery to conjure up a portrait of a bygone neighborhood, weaving expressions of resentment toward the changes downtown with descriptions of Native American customs contrasted with urban struggles. Though Burns was reacting to a specific moment in our neighborhoods’ history, her critiques still ring true.
Burns’ stardom in the downtown arts scene persisted for decades, but ultimately ended when the poet died at 50 after her battle with substance abuse resulted in kidney and liver failure. In the years before her death, Burns drifted from couch to couch, staying with the many friends that were drawn to her indomitable, whimsical spirit through the years. “They’ve taken me on as a project,” she joked, displaying the same sense of humor and pride that defined her legacy.