by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States. Unfortunately, it seems to get scant attention, and far too many Americans know very little about the First Peoples of this hemisphere. Try to imagine that you believe everyone in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa all spring from the same culture, with very similar languages, traditions and ways of living, and you’ll begin to see the size of the misconception that “all Indians are alike.”
Much of how they lived before Columbus bumped up against what he thought were islands in the Indian Ocean, and misnamed all the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere “Indians,” has been lost, even to Native Americans, through wars, forced migrations and a long history of broken treaties with the ever-acquisitive people of European heritage. The U.S. Congress did not grant citizenship to Native Americans born in the United States until June 2, 1924, 133 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights.
But many voices tell stories of their lives today, even though they are not often heard in the “mainstream” of literature or the media. I’ve chosen four distinct voices here, as a tribute to this often-overlooked American history month.
Esther Belin (1968 – ) is a Diné (Navajo is a Spanish name) multimedia artist and writer who grew up in Los Angeles, California. She is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts and the University of California, Berkeley. Her first poetry collection, From the Belly of My Beauty (1999), won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her second book, Of Cartography: Poems, just came out last month.
Belin’s parents were relocated from the Southwest in the 1950s as part of the federal Indian relocation policy, and her work reflects the experience of a Native American living in urban Los Angeles. The attempts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture, as well as racism, alienation, and substance abuse are frequent themes in her work. In a 2000 interview for SAIL (Studies in American Indian Literatures) Belin said, “I see myself as an interpreter of what happened in my parents’ generation, and I want to let people know about their experiences, especially with boarding schools and relocation. I see my books as an anthropological text—telling what it’s like for Native people.”
Blues-ing on the Brown Vibe
And Coyote struts down East 14th
feeling the brown
melting into the brown that loiters
rapping with the brown in front of the Native American Health Center
talking that talk
of relocation from tribal nation
of recent immigration to the place some call the United States
home to many dislocated funky brown
more accurate tribal nation to tribal nation
and Coyote sprinkles corn pollen in the four directions
to thank the tribal people
indigenous to what some call the state of California
the city of Oakland
for allowing use of their land.
And Coyote travels by Greyhound from Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA thru
to Oakland, California, USA
Interstate 40 is cluttered with RVs from as far away as Maine
traveling and traveling
to perpetuate the myth
Coyote kicks back for most of the ride
amused by the constant herd of tourists
amazed by the mythic Indian they create
at a pit stop in Winslow
Coyote trades a worn beaded cigarette lighter for roasted corn
from a middle-aged Navajo woman squatting
in front of a store
and Coyote squats alongside the woman
talking that talk
of bordertown blues
of reservation discrimination
blues-ing on the brown vibe
a bilagáana snaps a photo
the Navajo woman stands
holding out her hand
requesting some of her soul back
she replaces her soul with a worn picture of George Washington on a dollar bill
and Coyote starts on another ear of corn
climbing onto the Greyhound
tired of learning not to want
waits there for the return of all her pieces.
And Coyote wanders
right into a Ponca sitting at the Fruitvale Bart station
next to the Ponca is a Seminole
Coyote struts up to the two
“Where ya’all from?”
the Ponca replies
the Seminole silent watches a rush of people climb in and out of the train
headed for Fremont
the Seminole stretches his arms up and back stiff from the wooden benches
he pushes his lips out toward the Ponca slowly gesturing that he too is from Oklahoma
the Ponca replies
the Seminole replies
Coyote gestures to the Ponca
the Ponca nods his head in affirmation
Coyote nods his head in content
to the Seminole
the Seminole now watching some kids eating frozen fruit bars
nods his head
and Coyote shares his smokes with the two
and ten minutes later
they travel together on the Richmond train
headed for Wednesday night dinner at the Intertribal Friendship House.
And Coyote blues-ing on the urban brown funk vibe
in and out of existence
tasting the brown
rusty at times
worn bitter from relocation.
“Blues-ing on the Brown Vibe” from From the Belly of My Beauty, © 1999 by Esther Belin – University of Arizona Press
Coyote, the trickster, appears in many tribal traditions, especially in the American Southwest. Like tricksters in other cultures, such as Set in Ancient Egypt and Loki in Nordic mythology, Coyote can be sometimes helpful, and sometimes harmful.
bilagáana is the Diné word for white people
The Ponca people were originally in Ohio, where they lived in small longhouse villages and raised crops of maize, beans and squash. They moved west as the white settlements began encroaching on them, adapting to the life of the Great Plains as hunters of bison, but then were pushed onto reservations in South Dakota and Oklahoma.
‘Seminole’ is a name which became a white catch-all applied to any native inhabitant of Florida, but the majority of these Floridians were moved out in 1838-39, with other tribes from Eastern U.S. states, by armed soldiers of the U.S. Army, over the ‘Trail of Tears’ to forced resettlement, on land in Oklahoma considered worthless by the white man – until oil was discovered.
Santee Frazier (1978 – ) is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He earned a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA from Syracuse University. His poetry collection, Dark Thirty (2009), was published in the Sun Tracks series of the University of Arizona Press.
His poems show Native Americans living on the fringes of contemporary America. He won the 2001 Truman Capote Scholarship from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program.
Her head bangs against the window
and dash when I stop and turn,
my legs too short to work
. . . . . Mama’s crooked
brow, her makeup smearing away,
slurs something about good
ol’ boy music, a pint of Kentucky
Deluxe in her hand. Two hours,
she said, and three days later,
Tuesday, she is finally wanting
to stop. I am getting better
at the turns, guiding her
Cutlass through these hills,
ten miles an hour, gravel roads,
. . . . . rattling out the last
fumes of gas. Engine stops,
the night dimly lit by the moon
hung over the treetops;
owls calling each other from
hilltop to valley bend.
. . . . . The radio
fades in and out of static,
tractors revving, cows lowing,
and we may never make it back,
home still five hills away, daylight
coming over rocky edges of the hills.
Red ambulance flicker, curbstone, wheels, a gurney. Down the breezeway a baby, crying out among the gawk-mouthed heads.
Knifed, sliced, the man bleeding through the gauze and onto his belly.
It reminds me of the night when my mother and I slept in our LTD while the cops surrounded our apartment complex.
I remember someone standing near the yellow tape saying 2A had robbed the market across the street, that the manager was shot twice-
once in the arm, once in the shoulder- and that the gunmen were held up in their apartment, squealing threats from their window.
When I think of it now, the danger, the eventual gunshots echoing off gray brick, I remember the panicked yells of inquiry,
a girl crying her daddy was shot.
But the knifed man, now under gauze and tubing, hadn’t robbed a store, and the baby, now on its mother’s hip, was quiet and drooling.
When the cops searched 2A, they found money stuffed in the couches, in posts and
pans, in the pages of storybooks, and as each officer, one by one, emerged from the apartment holding pistols and rifles, my mother told me to go back to sleep.
I don’t remember her carrying me to my bed, only waking the next day when the girl who cried daddy,
knocked at our door, asked if I could come out and play.
Now when I look at her, that same girl, with a busted eye and lip, I wonder: if when
she stabbed was she stabbing the boyfriend who beat her for burning supper or was
it her dad for wrenching his arm around her neck, prodding a pistol at her head on that balmy night of echo and threat.
For a second I think of asking her, “Whatever happened to your dad? Is he still in jail?”
But I realize it may not even be the same girl, though I want it to be.
For some reason I think if she kills that man, if he bleeds to death before the ambulance can make it to the hospital,
somehow the brief triumph of metal over flesh would rid my memory of the deafening crack of gunpowder, and its long shout in the night.
“Bluetop” and “The Robbery” are from Dark Thirty, © 2009 by Santee Frazier – University of Arizona Press
dg nanouk okpik is an Inupiaq, Inuit from Alaska’s Artic Slope. She grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and received a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA from Stonecoast College in Maine. okpik is a recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship. Her first chapbook was included in Effigies: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from the Pacific Rim (Salt Publishing, 2009), and her poetry collection, Corpse Whale, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2012.
When an Inuk leaves a round home
and enters into a square house
he gets a headache and gets nervous.
The seal talked to me with sharp eyes in my dream.
Altered, I was able to be with both of you mothers.
Light the seal oil lamp, elder women, as I draw thunder
from the sky at dusk. Water crests on the river sound like beams
touching the surface or a spark crystal in a whiteout.
A flare falls on the edge of the ocean, I shudder at the black dry snow.
Seldom have I thought of rapid growth in years,
you both with heads of hair like whalebone strings,
white, and tenacious. I seldom listen to only one voice
or, to only those standing in a row in the night. They stand up
as rays of sunstrokes just when the night turns to a gleam ripple
on the glass water. Then as the ligature of Inuit light flux and flows
like herds of walrus, passing along the coast, Yes then, but maybe
this is a seal hook of bear claws clipping me to the northern tilt,
pinning me to the cycle of night when the day slows, the wind shifts
to cloud, and the moon shadow grows to sun loops.
It is then I answer the coal seal eyes with throat song,
standing on one strong foot in dance with white gloves.
II. Natural World Adoption
I learned to crack mussel shells, to collect moss on rocks,
save strewn caribou hides across malleable tundra,
how to stop my finger joints from cracking in frost,
to dye my hair garnet to fit in, to feel earthquakes,
uprooting soapstone and jade, to count milliseconds
by watching a brook run, to count cracks in an ice floe,
to drink water from a horsetail reed. Now my ball and sockets
rub and roll like hummocks bound and rivet the northern tip
of the Rockies. I read books until my eyes chart points in words
down 4000 miles in desert sounds. My tongue clipped to the brow antler,
the words rubbing sealskin to make thunder then lightning.
I guide the harpoon-line hanging in the singing house with many blessed eggs
for mothers, for children. I stitch you around my eyes, down my chin,
though my altered states to remember it is you who guards me
from long ice needles. Is it you threading the singe on my sealskin,
patching letters tied to ink blood. I am seeing only will-full DNA
tattooed to the snow knife for cutting ice blocks of chins,
perhaps for a house, a shelter, a lean to in a starved storm but,
had I not prayed for this moment, this dissension into fish or birds,
if what I wanted was to make it until the large stocks of dried
musk oxen are gone. Then, I choose sable day and flux night.
III. Man’s Law
I think of that day 14,156 days ago, when in blackness
we first shared eyes, domed eyes, in Anchorage,
as the place on the old river, as the place where spiders braid,
not where laws stay on one bank of the river.
We are in the upside down world, where the sunless earth
came into cold and then at once turned over to fire light.
Yes, my home where black flint makes arrow-heads,
where slate makes knives for sharpening fingers
on smooth, dark, whetstones, each filed to a perfect 3 inches.
One finger per hand to point like a ruler, to measure words
on paper a foot at a time in concrete, paved increments in proxy’s,
in dusk and glare of another steel box.
Mother, I was taken in dark dawn to drink from a whale
bone cup, to use a bird dart to catch willow ptarmigan and grouse,
to smoke a pipe made of willow stick. I used a stone maul
on my underground thoughts of you. I caught bees for you,
placed them in a silent box to dry, for when you dance
in grandfather’s ceremonial house. Sometimes, I’d find myself
naming my doll after you, practicing for when I learn to dry northern pike
on alder poles, learn to break their necks below the head
on the first bone of the spine, learn to slit their bellies of blood flesh
like berry juice or boil, their eyes in their head for soup.
Every year or two I prepare to sod my roof, so I can make due another winter.
I make a hole in the ceiling for smoke and prayers to rise together in song.
I remember cleaning smeared smelt off my hooks sharpening them
to catch mirror-back salmon, fins spread, heading the opposite way,
nosing up the river to spawn in eclipse water when the sun moves
around the earth and all days are ebony backwards.
“For-The-Spirits-Who-Have-Rounded-The-Bend IIVAQSAAT” from Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing. Copyright © 2009 by dg nanouk okpik – Salt Publishing
Jimmy Santiago Baca (1952 – ) was born in Santa Fe, of Apache and Chicano ancestry. Abandoned by his parents, he ran away at 13 from the orphanage where his grandmother had placed him. Baca was convicted on drug charges in 1973, and spent five years in prison, where he learned to read, and began writing poetry. His semiautobiographical novel in verse, Martin and Meditations on the South Valley (1987), received the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award. He has also published over a dozen books of poetry. Social justice, addiction, the disenfranchised, and the barrios of the American Southwest are common themes in his work. In a Callaloo interview, Baca said, “I approach language as if it will contain who I am as a person.”
It was a time when they were afraid of him.
My father, a bare man, a gypsy, a horse
with broken knees no one would shoot.
Then again, he was like the orange tree,
and young women plucked from him sweet fruit.
To meet him, you must be in the right place,
even his sons and daughter, we wondered
where was papa now and what was he doing.
He held the mystique of travelers
that pass your backyard and disappear into the trees.
Then, when you follow, you find nothing,
not a stir, not a twig displaced from its bough.
And then he would appear one night.
Half covered in shadows and half in light,
his voice quiet, absorbing our unspoken thoughts.
When his hands lay on the table at breakfast,
they were hands that had not fixed our crumbling home,
hands that had not taken us into them
and the fingers did not gently rub along our lips.
They were hands of a gypsy that filled our home
with love and safety, for a moment;
with all the shambles of boards and empty stomachs,
they filled us because of the love in them.
Beyond the ordinary love, beyond the coordinated life,
beyond the sponging of broken hearts,
came the untimely word, the fallen smile, the quiet tear,
that made us grow up quick and romantic.
Papa gave us something: when we paused from work,
my sister fourteen years old working the cotton fields,
my brother and I running like deer,
we would pause, because we had a papa no one could catch,
who spoke when he spoke and bragged and drank,
he bragged about us: he did not say we were smart,
nor did he say we were strong and were going to be rich someday.
He said we were good. He held us up to the world for it to see,
three children that were good, who understood love in a quiet way,
who owned nothing but calloused hands and true freedom,
and that is how he made us: he offered us to the wind,
to the mountains, to the skies of autumn and spring.
He said, “Here are my children! Care for them!”
And he left again, going somewhere like a child
with a warrior’s heart, nothing could stop him.
My grandmother would look at him for a long time,
and then she would say nothing.
She chose to remain silent, praying each night,
guiding down like a root in the heart of earth,
clutching sunlight and rains to her ancient breast.
And I am the blossom of many nights.
A threefold blossom: my sister is as she is,
my brother is as he is, and I am as I am.
Through sacred ceremony of living, daily living,
arose three distinct hopes, three loves,
out of the long felt nights and days of yesterday.
“Ancestor” from Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems, © 1977, 1981, 1990 by Jimmy Santiago Baca – New Directions Publishing
When we hear that time-worn phrase, “America, the Great Melting Pot,” we think of all the waves of immigrants who came here full of hope, seeking a new home and a better life. The original inhabitants of this vast continent are seldom taken into account. Yet how many of their words have remained the names of rivers and plants, or become the names of America’s towns and cities and states.
The long and difficult histories of the First Peoples, with all their bloodied or missing pages, are part of America’s heritage. They are the ones who paid most dearly for the stretching of our nation “from sea to shining sea.”
- Trickster Coyote Brings the Stars
- McGee Creek Road, Oklahoma
- Ambulance with flashing lights
- Alaska, Early in Winter
- Naichez, painting by Paul Sachtleben
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud