TCS: In Beauty – Poems for Indigenous Peoples Day

. . Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings.
This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning
a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.


“Above all, it seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke
historical assumptions about environmental practices of native
peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. … By invoking
this assumption [that they were/are better environmental stewards
. . . ] to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that
it would be OK to mistreat them if that assumption could be refuted.
In fact, the case against mistreating them isn’t based on any historical
assumption about their environmental practices: it’s based on a moral
principle, namely, that it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess,
subjugate or exterminate another people.”

― Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed


While the U.S. Federal Government still calls this Columbus Day, ten universities, and over 130 cities and towns now call it Indigenous Peoples Day. Eight states – South Dakota, Minnesota, Alaska, North Carolina, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, and Wisconsin – are doing the same. Three states have separate days to honor the First Peoples, but in September: California and Nevada celebrate Native Americans Day, while Tennessee celebrates American Indian Day.

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 became the names of American towns and cities and states.

There is a wide diversity of cultures among the First Peoples of the Americas. Their traditional origin myths and legends, religions, dress, housing, diet, art, and languages vary greatly, 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.

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.

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.”


I’m going to begin and end today with poems by Joy Harjo, our newest U.S. Poet Laureate, because she is the first indigenous person to be chosen as poet laureate, and she now carries the responsibility to reach out with her words to all Americans. This is a task for which I believe she is very well suited.

Eagle Song

by Joy Harjo

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
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

“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.


The Pont de Québec is a road, rail and pedestrian bridge across the lower Saint Lawrence River in Canada. The bridge failed twice during construction, at the cost of over 100 lives, in 1907 and again in 1916, and took over 30 years to complete. At least 33 of those killed were Mohawk steelworkers.


 by Joseph Bruchac

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.

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

Joseph Bruchac is an Abenaki poet, storyteller and editor who has won a Cherokee Nation Prose Award, a 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. He was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. He edited the anthology Breaking Silence (1983), which won an American Book Award.


Deer Dance Exhibition

by Ofelia Zepeda

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: Poems from the Desert , © 1995 by Ofelia Zepeda – University of Arizona Press

Ofelia Zepeda (1952 – ) grew up in Stanfield, Arizona, 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



by Jimmy Santiago Baca 

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

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.”


Perhaps the World Ends Here

 by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, © 1994 by Joy Harjo – W.W. Norton & Company

Joy Harjo (1951—  ) is a gifted teacher, in the classroom, and as a poet and musician. She is member of the Mvskoke tribe, and brings the past into the present, making a bridge between peoples that have often found each other incomprehensible.



  • Golden Eagle
  • Pont de Québec/Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907
  • Deer Dancer by Pablita Velarde
  • Naichez by Paul Sachtleben
  • Kitchen Table


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 TCS: In Beauty – Poems for Indigenous Peoples Day

  1. Thanks for posting these wonderful pieces! I especially love the work by Joy Harjo.

    • wordcloud9 says:

      Thank YOU Becky for reading –

      Joy Harjo is one of my favorite poets – I particularly love “Perhaps the World Ends Here.”

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