Indigenous – aboriginal, earliest, first, native, original
November is National Native American Heritage Month, and the day after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day.
Of course, some Native Americans don’t want to be called Native Americans – and ‘Indian’ also gives offense to many. What if you were an explorer who made landfall in China in 1492, but thought you had reached Europe. How do you think the Chinese, who have over 200 dialects and 55 ethnic minorities, would like it if you kept calling all of them ‘Europeans’?
There are big cultural differences between tribes that evolved from early nomadic hunter-gatherers and those descended from cliff dwellers; between crop growers and animal herders; or the desert-dwellers of the southwest and people living on the tundra above the Arctic Circle.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), currently recognizes 566 tribes. Before Europeans showed up, it’s estimated that there were 1000 languages indigenous to North America. Today, there are about 250 left, but many of those are in danger of being lost. In too many cases, there is only a single ‘language keeper’ still fluent in their ancestral tongue. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages launched the Enduring Voices Project to offer assistance in keeping as many languages alive as possible.
Carlos Nakai is a musician whose heritage is both Navajo and Ute. He has traveled across America and around the world studying the music of many tribes. Here, he plays a contemporary piece on his traditional flute that is a bridge between past and present.
The gifted storytellers and poets who are descendants of the First Peoples publish in English in order to earn a living. But even so, their words are infused with their different cultures. Translations of traditional blessings and songs show differences between tribes.
For example, here’s a translation of the northern Algonquin Song of the Stars:
We are the stars which sing,
We sing with our light;
We are the birds of fire,
We fly over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We make a road for spirits,
For the spirits to pass over.
Among us are three hunters
Who chase a bear;
There never was a time
When they were not hunting.
We look down on the mountains.
This is the Song of the Stars.
Compare it to this Navajo blessing, Walking in Beauty:
Today I will walk out, today everything unnecessary will leave me,
I will be as I was before, I will have a cool breeze over my body.
I will have a light body, I will be happy forever,
nothing will hinder me.
I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me.
I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me.
I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful.
In beauty all day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons, may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With dew about my feet, may I walk.
With beauty before me may I walk.
With beauty behind me may I walk.
With beauty below me may I walk.
With beauty above me may I walk.
With beauty all around me may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
My words will be beautiful.
Elise Paschen (1959 — ) is an Osage Nation poet. Her poem tells a story of injustice from the past.
Anna Kyle Brown. Osage. 1896-1921. Fairfax, Oklahoma.
Because she died where the ravine falls into water.
Because they dragged her down to the creek.
In death, she wore her blue broadcloth skirt.
Though frost blanketed the grass she cooled her feet in the spring.
Because I turned the log with my foot.
Her slippers floated downstream into the dam.
Because, after the thaw, the hunters discovered her body.
Because she lived without our mother.
Because she had inherited head rights for oil beneath the land.
She was carrying his offspring.
The sheriff disguised her death as whiskey poisoning.
Because, when he carved her body up, he saw the bullet hole in her skull.
Because, when she was murdered, the leg clutchers bloomed.
But then froze under the weight of frost.
During Xtha-cka Zhi-ga Tze-the, the Killer of the Flowers Moon.
I will wade across the river of the blackfish, the otter, the beaver.
I will climb the bank where the willow never dies.
Here, Jimmy Santiago Baca intertwines his Apache-Chicano heritage with the flight of birds, and the changing season into a love poem of much power and grace.
Yesterday, the sunshine made the air glow
Yesterday, the sunshine made the air glow
pushing me like a sixteen-year-old
to toss my shirt off, and run along the river shore,
splashing in the water, wading out to the reeds,
my heart an ancient Yaki drum
and I believed,
more than believed,
the air beneath trees was female blue dancers
I approached, and there in the dry leaves, in the crisp twigs,
I turned softly as if dancing with a blue woman made of air,
in shrub-weed skirts.
I knew the dance that would please the Gods,
I knew the dance that would make the river water
smile glistening ever silvering,
I knew the dance steps that praised my ancestors.
Yeah, I wanted to write you a poem woman
for two days,
and today it was gray and snowy and overcast,
about how I startled the mallards from their shallow
refuge beneath the Russian olive trees
and how the male purposely
came close to me
diverting my attention to it
its female love went the other way
risking its life,
that’s what I saw,
the male fly before the hunter’s rifles, circle in sights of hunters
and take the shots, the roaring rifle blast
and circle beyond over the fields to meet its female companion.
That’s how I miss you, that’s how I wanted to write you a poem
since we left
you one way
me another way. I was the male
taking with me the hunters that would harm you
risking my heart so yours wouldn’t be hurt,
fronting myself as possible prey
so you could escape,
that kind of poem
I am writing you now.
Circling as hunters aim down on me
while you rise, rise, rise into the blue sky
and meet me over in the next fields.
I wanted to write you a poem for two days now
to tell you how happy I was,
seeing a white crane arc
between banks in the irrigation ditch
with furious efforts, its big wings flapping
like an awkward nine-year-old kid
much taller than the others his age
with size twelve sneakers
flapping down the basketball court.
But once the white crane
found its balance, its wings their grace, it glided more perfectly
than a ballet dancer’s leap across air,
all of its feathers ballet dancer’s toes,
all of its feathers delicate dancers
all of its feathers, in motion
made me believe in myself,
when it rose, swooped up,
the line of ascent up
made me think of the curve of your spine,
how I traced my finger down your spine
when you slept,
is the ascent of the crane
toward the sunshine,
and my hands my face my torso and chest and legs and hips
became air, a blue cold arctic air
you glided up in your song of winter love.
In this poem, Santiago Baca shows us another face of Winter.
Into Death Bravely
throws his great white shield
on the ground,
breaking thin arms of twisting branches,
and then howls
on the north side of the Black Mesa
a deep, throaty laughter.
Because of him
we have to sell our cattle
that rake snow for stubble.
Having lived his whole life
in a few weeks,
slow and pensive he walks away,
dragging his silver-stream shield
and over the ground,
he keeps walking slowly away
Margo Tamez is an enrolled citizen of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, of Lipan Apache, Jumano Apache, and Spanish heritage. With stark and commanding imagery, she tells us of her struggles in a world where she feels no one sees or hears her.
Drinking under the Moon She Goes Laughing:
When the end was near
He threatened hands trembling
There is no end never his hands reaching to my face
You can’t leave taking off his shirt going for his pants
The trickle of sweat beading off his nose
Moon-orb spray metallic shimmer slicklove
Tripping numb night shadows
Crows perched on a streetlight
We’re terrestrial ants living in fragility
On Huhugam sacred ground
Jar of our dead
Like ragged cats my ghosts and I
Gossip in the alley behind a bar
My eyes grasp theirs a spark revolution
Feet without tracks on gravel
Our existence erased far off
From clinking beer bottles and vanity
On the bench outside a bookstore
We get erased see the news of the street
Resistance getting milled
My favorite ghosts and I bear down harder birth ourselves
On the bench outside a bookstore
Frigid wind wants to snatch our secrets
Hey nay ya na ya na ya na
I thank you thank you for your presence
My ghosts I thank you for your presence
Hey nay ya na ya na ya na ya na
This dilemma oh ancestors
O! ancestors !!!! I thank you thank you thank you
Hey nay ya na ya na ya na ya na
I’m still the Lipan Jumano land-grant mongrel
Nobody sees nobody recognizes an invisibility
Scudding through all the checkpoints
Border towns train tracks pesticide flybys welfare lines
Wings shifting shape
Scorpion’s venom injects me for the night
Green light spasms in the click click delete cut past
fucking do something do something different
Tripping grandmother rabbit on the moon
Always with that sorrowful look on her face
Make the medicine
Do what is necessary
Ofelia Zepeda (1952 – ) is a member of the Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) Nation. In her first poem, she deals with Tourists with patience and humor.
Deer Dance Exhibition
Question: Can you tell us about what he is wearing?
Well, the hooves represent the deer’s hooves,
the red scarf represents the flowers from which he ate,
the shawl is for skin.
The cocoons make the sound of the deer walking on leaves and grass.
Question: What is that he is beating on?
It’s a gourd drum. The drum represents the heartbeat of the deer.
When the drum beats, it brings the deer to life.
We believe the water the drum sits in is holy. It is life.
Go ahead, touch it.
Bless yourself with it.
It is holy. You are safe now.
Question: How does the boy become a dancer?
He just knows. His mother said he had dreams when he was just a little boy.
You know how that happens. He just had it in him.
Then he started working with older men who taught him how to dance.
He has made many sacrifices for his dancing even for just a young boy.
The people concur, “Yes, you can see it in his face.”
Question: What do they do with the money we throw them?
Oh, they just split it among the singers and dancer.
They will probably take the boy to McDonald’s for a burger and fries.
The men will probably have a cold one.
It’s hot today, you know.
In Zepeda’s next poem, she talks about the different scents that remind her of home.
Smoke in Our Hair
The scent of burning wood holds
the strongest memory.
Mesquite, cedar, piñon, juniper,
all are distinct.
Mesquite is dry desert air and mild winter.
Cedar and piñon are colder places.
Winter air in our hair is pulled away,
and scent of smoke settles in its place.
We walk around the rest of the day
with the aroma resting on our shoulders.
The sweet smell holds the strongest memory.
We stand around the fire.
The sound of the crackle of wood and spark
Smoke, like memories, permeates our hair,
our clothing, our layers of skin.
The smoke travels deepto the seat of memory.
We walk away from the fire;
no matter how far we walk,
we carry this scent with us.
New York City, France, Germany—
we catch the scent of burning wood;
we are brought home.
Traditional wedding blessings and vows are burnished over time. Here are some especially lovely words, the first from the wedding ceremony of the Inuit peoples of the far north.
You are my husband/wife
My feet shall run because of you.
My feet shall dance because of you.
My eyes shall see because of you.
And I shall love because of you.
These words are from the traditional Apache ceremony.
Now you will feel no rain,
for each of you will be shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold,
for each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there will be no loneliness,
for each of you will be companion to the other.
Now you are two persons,
but there is only one life before you.
- “Wi’-gi-e” from Bestiary, © 2009 by Elise Paschen, Red Hen Press
- “Yesterday, the sunshine made the air glow” from Winter Poems Along the Río Grande, © 2004 by Jimmy Santiago Baca, New Directions Publishing
- “Into Death Bravely” from Black Mesa Poems, © 1989 by Jimmy Santiago Baca, New Directions Publishing
- “Drinking under the Moon She Goes Laughing” from Raven Eye, © 2007 by Margo Tamez, University of Arizona Press
- “Deer Dance Exhibiton” from Ocean Power. Copyright © 1995 by Ofelia Zepeda. University of Arizona Press
- “Smoke in Our Hair” from Where Clouds Are Formed, © 2008 by Ofelia Zepeda, University of Arizona Press
- Elise Paschen (1959 — ) is co-founder and co-editor of Poetry in Motion, a program which places poetry posters in subways and buses across the country. She is the daughter of the renowned prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. Dr. Paschen teaches in the MFA Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her three poetry collections are Houses: Coasts (1985), Infidelities (1996) and Bestiary(2009). She was the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America (1988-2001), and has edited numerous anthologies, including Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America (1997)
- Jimmy Santiago Baca (1962 – ) was born in Santa Fe NM, of Chicano and Apache descent. His works include Immigrants in Our Own Land, Healing Earthquakes,and Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande. He has received an American Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature.
- Margo Tamez was born in Austin, Texas, and grew up in San Antonio. A teacher and activist, Tamez earned an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University in 1997. Her poetry collections include Alleys and Allies (1992), Naked Wanting (2003), and Raven Eye (2007). She received a Poetry Fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, an Environmental Leadership Award and an International Exchange Award from the Tucson Pima Arts Council. In 2004 Tamez and Joni Adamson organized the Symposium on Globalism and the Environmental Justice and Toxics Movement in Tucson AZ
- Ofelia Zepeda (1952 – ) grew up in Stanfield, Arizona, and earned an MA and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Arizona and is the author of a grammar of the Tohono O’odham language, A Papago Grammar (1983). Zepeda’s poetry collections include Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (1995) and Jewed’l-hoi/Earth Movements, O’Odham Poems (1996). Zepeda was director of the American Indian Language Development Institute. She edits Sun Tracks, a book series which publishes work by Native American artists and writers, at the University of Arizona Press.
- Milky Way viewed near Palomar in Southern California
- Navajo sand painting of the Creation
- Robbers Creek Bluff OK
- Edge of Winter
- Mountain Ash after ice storm
- Margo Tamez
- Deer Dancer by Pablita Velarde
- Smoky fire
- Apache couple – photo by A Frank Randall
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud