Her grandmother is a recurring figure in Kinsale Hueston’s poetry. In “squashblossom,” the narrator kisses her departed grandmother’s forehead during the funeral ceremony “to whisper her to sleep.” In “Grandmother,” she struggles to accept her grandmother’s declining health. Hueston, a first-year at Yale College, writes: “Through her gray crown, she cannot hear me; she floats back to Grandfather, nali, adeezhi.” The focus on her grandmother has given Hueston a way to explore her Navajo culture and her connection to her Indigenous roots.
“My grandmother has the biggest impact on my poetry,” says Hueston, a 2017 National Student Poet who is featured as one of 34 “People Changing How We See Our World” in TIME Magazine’s February 2019 issue on “The Art of Optimism.” “She was the strongest figure in my life. My mom talked about her all the time. She was the first person we saw whenever we visited the reservation.”
Hueston’s voice cracks when she talks about losing her grandmother a year and a half ago, just as her poetry was gaining recognition. “She had all these stories she told me,” Hueston says. “She had a way of living and persevering.”
Hueston was raised in Orange County, California, one of the only Native Americans in her peer group. As she began to explore her Native heritage in high school —and gather family stories — she felt more drawn to her Native identity but also more separate from her classmates. Poetry helped her to bridge the gap. “Poetry was a healing mechanism,” Hueston says, “and it was also a way to inform my classmates and community in California about my culture.”
She was soon drawn to the activist community in Los Angeles, and found that there, too, she could use poetry to address issues affecting contemporary Indigenous people, including poverty, racism, and exploitation. She began to research more, so she could have the facts at hand, but never lost the personal narrative. “It’s easier to connect with an audience when you’re baring your soul,” she says.
Hueston first came to Yale in high school, as a winner of the Young Native Storytellers Contest sponsored by the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. She loved the campus, the residential colleges, the Native community, and the opportunity to study with poets she revered like Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry, a 2016 MacArthur “genius grant” winner, and author of the bestselling poetry collection “Citizen: An American Lyric.” “She’s brilliant,” says Hueston, who is currently in Rankine’s advanced poetry writing class with a small group of undergraduates and graduate students from across disciplines. “It’s intimidating — you know she’s not going to be skirting around an issue. But I know when I come out of class, my poetry will be better.”
She also writes longform pieces for the Yale Daily News Magazine, contributes to the Yale Literary Magazine, and is a spoken word poet with WORD, Yale’s oldest spoken-word group. She’s competing with Yale’s annual slam poetry team at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) at the University of Houston April 10-13. “Coming to Yale, I didn’t have much experience in spoken word,” she says. “But it’s really fun, and a whole different style.” Poems like Hueston’s “Love Letters from Occupied Lands,” seem tailor-made for the slam poetry stage:
he tries to write me with moccasins,
but their skin
melts on the city blacktop.
I wear nikes, white and fresh.
Hueston uses her growing social media presence as an opportunity to share her poetry and activism more broadly — to teach, learn, and connect. At public speaking events, she wears clothes from Bethany Yellowtail, an Indigenous L.A. fashion designer behind the line B. Yellowtail, and is often featured in Yellowtail’s promotions. “I have to be aware that I have an audience,” says Hueston. “I am always true to myself, and immersed in my Indigenous culture.”