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.
The literature of the aboriginal people
of North America defines America.
It is not exotic. The concerns are
particular, yet often universal.
– U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo
November is National Native American Heritage Month
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 tribe was irrevocably altered by the arrival of white people, who pushed most of the tribal nations far away from the lands they called Home and Sacred.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), currently recognizes 574 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.”
“Without poetry, we lose our way.” – U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo
This Morning I Pray for My Enemies
by Joy Harjo
And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.
‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems; © 2015 by Joy Harjo – W. W. Norton & Company
by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
“Remember” from She Had Some Horses, ©1983 by Joy Harjo – W. W. Norton & Company
Joy Harjo (1951 – ) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She says the name Harjo means ‘so brave you’re crazy.’ Harjo is a poet, musician, playwright, a Native American rights activist as well as a women’s rights activist, and a gifted teacher. Harjo has been the U.S. Poet Laureate since 2019, the first Native American to be appointed to the position. Her books include She Had Some Horses, Crazy Brave, The Woman Who Fell from The Sky, and An American Sunrise. Among her many honors and awards are the 1990 American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the 1991 Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award in Poetry by the Academy of American Poets, and the 2017 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize.
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.”
Indian Boarding School: The Runaways
by Louise Erdrich
Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
The rails, old lacerations that we love,
shoot parallel across the face and break
just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.
The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.
All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub
the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work.
Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs
and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark
face before it hardened, pale, remembering
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.
“Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, © 2003 by Louise Erdrich – HarperCollins Publishers
Louise Erdrich (1954 – ) American author, novelist, children’s book writer, and poet. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a tribe of the Anishinaabe, and considered one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance. Her first novel, The Plague of Doves, was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction for her novel The Round House. Erdich has also published three collections of poetry: Jacklight; Baptism of Desire; and Original Fire. She owns Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis which focuses on Native American literature.
Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation
by Natalie Diaz
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
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
thrust into Mohawk land.
A dull rainbow
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
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.
the cable lifts.
and sing in sun.
Tacked to the sky,
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 Exhibition” 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.
Mvskoge wheel symbol
Deer Dancer – painting by Pablita Velarde