by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
November in the U.S. is Native American Heritage Month. It was not something that happened easily.
In 1915, Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfoot nation, rode his horse from state to state seeking approval from 24 separate state governments for an “American Indian Day” – in December of 1915 he presented the petition to the White House, apparently with no positive result.
Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian and director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y., persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” and for three years the BSA adopted the day. In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association, meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, formally approved a plan concerning American Indian Day. It directed its president, Reverend Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, to call upon the country to observe such a day. Coolidge issued a proclamation on September 28, 1915, which declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day and contained the first formal appeal for recognition of Indians as citizens of the United States.
The first American Indian Day in a state was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York. Several states celebrated the fourth Friday in September. Illinois legislators enacted such a day in 1919. Several states have since designated Columbus Day as Native American Day. It was not until 1990 that a joint resolution of Congress proclaimed November as Native American Heritage Month. It has been proclaimed each year since.
There is a vast diversity of culture among the first peoples of the Americas. Their traditional origin myths and legends, religion, dress, housing, diet, art, and language vary widely, but the natural evolution of almost every group was irrevocably altered by the arrival of white people, who pushed most of the tribal nations far away from their original home grounds.
Today, the storytellers and poets of the first peoples publish their work in English in order to make a living. But their words are still infused with their different cultures. Even translations into English of traditional blessings and songs show differences between tribal groups.
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.
Many contemporary Native American poets write about alienation, and about trying to find their balance while straddling clashing cultures.
The Sacred Circle
Numanah, Grandfather, grant me the grace
of a new song far from this lament
of lame words and fossils of a losing game.
No more flat pebbles skimmed between the wetness
of tongue and thigh and eye again!
I never asked to be the son of a stained mattress
who contemplated venison stew and knew
the shame hidden in grease clouds stuck to the wall
behind the woodstove where Grandmother cooked.
I only wanted to run far, so far from Indian land.
And, God damn it, when I was old enough I did.
I loitered in some great halls of ivy
and allowed the inquisition of education:
electric cattle prods placed lovingly
to the lobes of my earth memories.
I carried the false spirit force of sadness
wrapped in a brown sack in the pocket
of a worn, tweed coat.
In junkie alleyways I whispered of forgotten arrows
in the narrow passages of my own discarded history.
Then, when I was old enough
I ran back to Indian land.
Now I’m thinking of running from here.
– Pine Ridge, South Dakota
“The Sacred Circle” from Fire Water World, © 1989 by Adrian C. Louis – West End Press
Adrian C. Louis (1947 – ) is a member of the Lovelock Paiute tribe. He grew up in Nevada, and earned his BA and MA from Brown University in Rhode Island. He is a journalist and editor, and co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. In addition to a dozen books of poetry, including Ceremonies of the Damned and Savage Sunsets, he is the author of the novel Skins, and Wild Indians & Other Creatures, a short story collection.
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
“Eagle Poem” from In Mad Love and War, © 1990 by Joy Harjo — Wesleyan University Press
Joy Harjo (1951 — ) is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She often uses myths and imagery from Mvskoke tradition in her poetry and songs. Harjo is also a vocalist and a saxophone player, performing for years with her band, Poetic Justice. She says: “The name Harjo means ‘so brave you’re crazy.’” Her memoir, Crazy Brave, won a 2013 American Book Award.
Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation
Angels don’t come to the reservation.
Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.
Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing—
death. And death
eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel
fly through this valley ever.
Gabriel? Never heard of him. Know a guy named Gabe though—
he came through here one powwow and stayed, typical
Indian. Sure he had wings,
jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. Wherever he stops,
kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.
Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.
Maybe in a Christmas pageant or something—
Nazarene church holds one every December,
organized by Pastor John’s wife. It’s no wonder
Pastor John’s son is the angel—everyone knows angels are white.
Quit bothering with angels, I say. They’re no good for Indians.
Remember what happened last time
some white god came floating across the ocean?
Truth is, there may be angels, but if there are angels
up there, living on clouds or sitting on thrones across the sea wearing
velvet robes and golden rings, drinking whiskey from silver cups,
we’re better off if they stay rich and fat and ugly and
’xactly where they are—in their own distant heavens.
You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do,
they’ll be marching you off to Zion or Oklahoma,
or some other hell they’ve mapped out for us.
“Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” from When My Brother Was an Aztec, © 2012 by Natalie Diaz — Copper Canyon Press
Natalie Diaz (1980 – ) grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles CA, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community of the Mojave. She went to Old Dominion University to participate in their basketball program, and was about to leave for a professional career after earning her BA, when a knee injury gave her six months with a lot of time on her hands outside of rehab. She attended creative writing workshops with some of her old professors, and discovered her true vocation. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia, she went back to Old Dominion for her MFA. She writes works of fiction, but compares poetry to basketball: “. . . because some of the physical rhythms are similar . . . Poetry still feels very physical to me, because you’re trying to be concise, and every word counts.” Her poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published in 2012.
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.
“Deer Dance Exhibiton” from Ocean Power, © 1995 by Ofelia Zepeda – University of Arizona Press
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.
I must become small and hide where he cannot reach.
I must become dull and heavy as an iron pot.
I must be tireless as rust and bold as roots
growing through the locks on doors
and crumbling the cinderblocks
of the foundations of his everlasting throne.
I must be strange as pity so he’ll believe me.
I must be terrible and brush my hair
so that he finds me attractive.
Perhaps if I invoke Clare, the patron saint of television.
Perhaps if I become the images
passing through the cells of a woman’s brain.
I must become very large and block his sight.
I must be sharp and impetuous as knives.
I must insert myself into the bark of his apple trees,
and cleave the bones of his cows. I must be the marrow
that he drinks into his cloud-wet body.
I must be careful and laugh when he laughs.
I must turn down the covers and guide him in.
I must fashion his children out of playdough, blue, pink, green.
I must pull them from between my legs
and set them before the television.
I must hide my memory in a mustard grain
so that he’ll search for it over time until time is gone.
I must lose myself in the world’s regard and disparagement.
I must remain this person and be no trouble.
None at all. So he’ll forget.
I’ll collect dust out of reach,
a single dish from a set, a flower made of felt,
a tablet the wrong shape to choke on.
I must become essential and file everything
under my own system,
so we can lose him and his proofs and adherents.
I must be a doubter in a city of belief
that hails his signs (the great footprints
long as limousines, the rough print on the wall).
On the pavement where his house begins
fainting women kneel. I’m not among them
although they polish the brass tongues of his lions
with their own tongues
and taste the everlasting life.
“Fooling God” from Baptism of Fire, © 1989 by Louise Erdrich – Harper & Row
Louise Erdrich (1954 – ) grew up in North Dakota, where her Chippewa mother and German-American father taught at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She describes the land as a place where the “earth and sky touch everywhere and nowhere, like sex between two strangers.” Erdrich was the oldest of seven children. Raised Catholic, she spent some time in a Catholic School.
“I was very young when I started reading, and the Old Testament sucked me in. I was at the age of magical thinking and believed sticks could change to serpents, a voice might speak from a burning bush, angels wrestled with people. After I went to school and started catechism I realized that religion was about rules . . . It all seemed so dull once I realized that nothing spectacular was going to happen . . . I’ve come to love the traditional Ojibwe ceremonies, and some rituals, but I hate religious rules. They are usually about controlling women. On Sundays when other people go to wood-and-stone churches, I like to take my daughters into the woods.”
Traditional wedding blessings and vows are burnished over time. Here are some especially lovely words. The first is translated from the wedding ceremony of the Inuit people of the far north.
You are my husband/wife
My feet shall run because of you.
My feet shall dance because of you.
My heart shall beat because of you
My eyes shall see because of you
And I shall love because of you.
These words are a translation of 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.
- The Milky Way viewed near Palomar Observatory
- Trickster Coyote Brings the Stars – Diné sand painting
- Sky Rock petroglyphs – West Coast
- Golden Eagle
- Mosa, Mohave girl by Edward S. Curtis, 1903
- Deer Dancer, painted by Pablita Velarde
- Lion of Judah statue, Addis Aababa, Ethiopia
- Inuit couple
- Apache couple
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud