For this final day of Native American Heritage Month, I offer you some poems by Joseph Bruchac (1942 –)  an Abenaki poet, storyteller and editor who won a Cherokee Nation Prose Award, the Hope S. Dean Award for Notable Achievement in Children’s Literature, and both Writer of the Year and Storyteller of the Year awards from the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Bruchac was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. He also edited the anthology Breaking Silence (1983), which won a American Book Award.

This storyteller says about his own life story:

My grandmother was a person who loved books. Although my grandfather could barely read and write, there were books in every room in our house, classics, the Stevenson books, the Kipling books, the works of Shakespeare. So, from my earliest years on I would pull books off the shelves and try to read them and then eventually did read them. I wanted books of my own too. There were no book stores. The nearest book store was in Albany, which was 35 miles away . . .

When I was a child, there really were no books about Native Americans or American Indians – you know, either term is okay – that were available. There was just nothing. There were historical books. There were books that talked about culture in terms of books written by anthropologists. And there were some books like oh say Two Little Savages where you had white kids playing Indian.

But as far as something that really reflected Native reality, I couldn’t find anything. Maybe it was that lack of those books that spurred me on to write the books I would later write.

A story is a burden which must be carried with as much
care as we carry a sleeping child.   – Joseph Bruchac

. . . some years ago I helped put together a series at Symphony Space in New York City called “Coyote Walks Around.” It was performances of dance by Native dancers from different tribal traditions interwoven with traditional stories, and I did the storytelling. And the dancers were from various regions of the North American continent.

And in putting each one together I’d work with them. “What should I tell? How should I tell it? When should I tell it? Where should it be told?” And in one case a Cheyenne grass dancer, Mr. White Man, said to me, “I’d like you to tell the story of the grass dance.” I said, “I don’t know it.” He said, “I will teach it to you, but you have to tell it right, and you have to promise me you’ll only tell it when a grass dance is going to be done.” And so I’ve only told that story three times in my life, and it’s always been when a grass dancer has said, “I hear you know the story of the grass dance as we tell it. Could you tell it before I do the dance?” That to me is an example of a very, very real connection between the tradition, the story, and the proper telling of it.



Seeing photos
of ancestors
a century past

is like looking
at your own

and lines
you can’t

until someone else
with a stranger’s eye
looks close and says
that’s you.

“Prints” from Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas © 2011 by Joseph Bruchac –  University of Arizona Press



Near the Mountains

Near the mountains
footsteps on the ground
sound hollow

as if to remind us
this earth is a drum.

We must watch our steps closely
to play the right tune.

“Near the Mountains” from Near the Mountains, © 2008 by Joseph Bruchac – White Pine Press


Birdfoot’s Grampa

The old man
must have stopped our car
two dozen times to climb out
and gather into his hands
the small toads blinded
by our lights and leaping,
live drops of rain.

The rain was falling,
a mist about his white hair
and I kept saying
you can’t save them all
accept it, get back in
we’ve got places to go.

But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life
knee deep in the summer
roadside grass

he just smiled and said
they have place to go

“Birdfoot’s Grampa” from Entering Onondaga, © 1978 by Joseph Bruchac – Cold Mountain Press



We need to walk
to know sacred places.

Healthy feet feel the heartbeat
of our Mother Earth,
Sitting Bull said long ago.
Walt Whitman knew that, too.

When we go by wheel
we roll over the land
as if it were nothing
but miles left behind.

When we go by air
we cut off our vision
and even our spirits
may take so long
to catch up to our bodies
that our eyes will be empty
of all but flight.

We need to walk
to remember the songs,
not only our own
but those of the birds,
those kept in the arms
of the hills and the wind.

We need to walk
to know sacred places
those around us
and those within.

“Walking” from No Borders, © by Joseph Bruchac – 1998 Holy Cow Press



for Rick Hill and in memory of Buster Mitchell


Steel arches up
past the customs sheds,
the bridge to a place
named Canada,
thrust into Mohawk land.

A dull rainbow
arcing over
the new school,
designed to fan
out like the tail
of the drumming Partridge—
dark feathers of the old way’s pride
mixed in with blessed Kateri’s
pale dreams of sacred water.


When that first span
fell in 1907
cantilevered shapes collapsed,
gave like an old man’s
arthritic back.

The tide was out,
the injured lay trapped
like game in a deadfall
all through that day
until the evening.

Then, as tide came in,
the priest crawled
through the wreckage,
giving last rites
to the drowning.


Loading on,
the cable lifts.
Girders swing
and sing in sun.
Tacked to the sky,
reflecting wind,
long knife-blade mirrors
they fall like jackstraws
when they hit the top
of the big boom’s run.

The cable looped,
the buzzer man
pushes a button
red as sunset.
The mosquito whine
of the motor whirrs
bare bones up to
the men who stand
an edge defined
on either side
by a long way down.


Those who hold papers
claim to have ownership
of buildings and land.
They do not see the hands
which placed each rivet.
They do not hear the feet
walking each hidden beam.
They do not hear the whisper
of strong clan names.

They do not see the faces
of men who remain
unseen as those girders
which strengthen and shape.

The Pont de Québec is a road, rail and pedestrian bridge across the lower Saint Lawrence River. The bridge failed twice during construction, at the cost of 88 lives, in 1907 and and again in 1916, taking over 30 years to complete.

“Steel” from Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas – © 2011 by Joseph Bruchac



About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 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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2 Responses to Word Cloud: EARTHDRUM

  1. These wonderful poems and the Word for the Day bring to mind the powerful drumming of professor Byron Metcalf. This is one of his shorter pieces. He has some videos that last an hour or more. Wonderful for focusing during meditation, or helping one drift off to sleep.

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