Word Cloud: FIRST


Indigenous – aboriginal, earliest, FIRST, native, original

Continuing this week with poems for National Native American Heritage Month, which happens in the U.S. every November, but with less fanfare than it deserves.

Of course, some Native Americans don’t want to be called Native Americans – and ‘Indian’ also gives offense to many. There are big cultural differences between peoples that evolved from early nomadic hunter-gatherers and those descended from cliff dwellers; between crop growers and animal herders; or desert-dwellers in the southwest and people living on the tundra above the Arctic Circle.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), currently recognizes 573 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, offering assistance in keeping as many languages alive as possible.


Here are four contemporary poets of the first peoples, beginning with Elise Paschen, who 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.




Jimmy Santiago Baca intertwines his Apache-Chicano heritage with the flight of birds and the changing season to make 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
after 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,
but more,
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,
your spine
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.



Margo Tamez is an enrolled citizen of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas. Her heritage is Lipan Apache, Jumano Apache, and Spanish. With stark and commanding imagery, she shows us 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

An orgasm of light at the slippery edge
One good time to die
And live spreading like osmosis

Tripping grandmother rabbit on the moon
Always with that sorrowful look on her face
Make the medicine
Be artistic
Do what is necessary


Ofelia Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) Nation. In this 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
is ephemeral.
Smoke, like memories, permeates our hair,
our clothing, our layers of skin.
The smoke travels deep to 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.


The Poems

  •  “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
  • “Drinking under the Moon She Goes Laughing” from Raven Eye, © 2007 by Margo Tamez, University of Arizona Press
  •  “Smoke in Our Hair” from Where Clouds Are Formed, © 2008 by Ofelia Zepeda, University of Arizona Press

The Poets

  • 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 (1962 — ) 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. She 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


  • Robbers Creek Bluff OK
  • Edge of Winter
  • photo of Margo Tamez
  • Smoky fire

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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