Native American Literature (ENGL/ETHN 245B; ENGL/ETHN 445E/845E)

Selected Poetry Texts

To the Bottom

anna wauneka comes to my hogan         --Norman H. Russell

anna wauneka comes to my hogan
she tells me
mother must go back to the hospital
who has the whiteman's disease
i say to anna we must ask my mother
my mother says no
I say to anna then she will not go
anna says that then she will die

then I tell anna wauneka that i think
my mother will die anyway
in the white man's hospital
that it is better for her to die here
than in that other house of the dead

when my mother dies
we will close the hogan
we will build another hogan
we will sing a song to my mother

this will not be for a long time yet
until that time comes
I will dress my old mother each morning
I will carry her into the new sunshine
so that she will see the dawn come
so that she will hear the bird sing.

from the journal Midwest Quarterly, 1970 (reprinted in From the Belly of the Shark, 1973)

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I'm Not Going to Get Burned Out         --Ed Edmo

I'm not
  going to get burnt out
with your amphetamines
      even though
my People's lodges
    were burnt
    U.S. Cavalry
"well-meaning" citizens

I will not
  be flooded out
    by YOUR
and strong whiskey
  even though
        of dams
cover our once sacred
    promised grounds

I will not
by blue eyes
        blond hair
even though
"heroic" mountain men

from the anthology From the Belly of the Shark, ed. Lowenfels, 1973

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Thief         --Tom WhiteCloud

We knew of war
For we were warriors
The winner takes all

We knew of lies
For we were diplomats
in a small way.

We knew of politics,
for we were democrats:
a man was a man.

You took the land
We tried to understand;
You live on it, not with it.

But, my friends,
(And you were often good friends
As you understood friendship):

Why did you steal the smiles
From our children?

from the journal Akwesasne Notes, 1971 (reprinted in From the Belly of the Shark, 1973)

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The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee         --N. Scott Momaday  

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star
I am the cold of the dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to everything that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

from Angle of Geese, 1974

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The Time We Climbed Snake Mountain         --Leslie Marmon Silko  

Seeing good places
        for my hands
I grab the warm parts of the cliff
                and I feel the mountain as I climb.

Somewhere around here
        yellow spotted snake is sleeping on his rock
                in the sun.

        please, I tell them
                watch out,
don't step on the spotted yellow snake
                         he lives here.
The mountain is his.

from Laguna Woman, 1974

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Carriers of the Dream Wheel         --N. Scott Momaday  

This is the Wheel of Dreams
Which is carried on their voices,
By means of which their voices turn
And center upon being.
It encircles the First World,
This powerful wheel.
They shape their songs upon the wheel
And spin the names on the earth and sky,
The aboriginal names.
They are old men, or men
Who are old in their voices,
And they carry the wheel among the camps,
Saying: Come, come,
Let us tell the old stories,
Let us sing the sacred songs.

from The Gourd Dancer, 1976

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Four Poems for a Child Son         --Simon J. Ortiz  

                         December 18, 1972


It has to do with full moments
of mountains, deserts, sun, gods,
song, completeness.

It has to do with stories, legends
full of heroes and travelling.

It has to do with rebirth and growing
and being strong and seeing.

You see it's like this (the movement):
go to the water
and gather the straight willow stems
bring them home
work carefully at forming them
tie on the feathers
paint them with the earth
feed them and talk with them

You see, son, the eagle is a whole person
the way it lives; it means it has to do
with paying attention to where it is,
not the center of the earth especially
but part of it, one part among all parts,
and that's only the beginning.



Hitch-hiking on the way to Colorado,
I heard your voice, "Look, Dad . . ."
            A hawk
sweeping its wings

through the whole sky

                    the blue
                    the slow wind
fresh with the smell of summer alfalfa
at the foot of the Jemez Mountains.

(You see, the gods come during the summer
for four days amongst the people,
bring gifts, bring hope and life,
you can see them, I mean.)

Waiting for my next ride,
I sang,
        Look, the plants with bells.
        Look, the stones with voices.



In the late afternoon,
there was suddenly a noise of birds
filling up everything.

This morning in the newspaper,
I read about starlings at the Air Force base.

I guess they were but all I knew yesterday
was that they filled up the trees,
the utility wires, the sky, the world.

That's all I know.



Respect your mother and father.
Respect your brothers and sisters.
Respect your uncles and aunts.
Respect your land, the beginning.
Respect what is taught you.
Respect what you are named.
Respect the gods.
Respect yourself.
Everything that is around you
is part of you.

from Going for the Rain, 1976

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from Long time ago         --Leslie Marmon Silko  

Long time ago
in the beginning
there were no white people in this world
there was nothing European.
And this world might have gone on like that
except for one thing:
This world was already complete
even without white people.
There was everything
including witchery.

Then it happened.
These witch people got together.
[. . . .]
They all got together for a contest
the way people have basketball tournaments nowadays
except this was a contest
in dark things.

[. . . .]

Finally there was only one
who hadn't shown off charms or powers.
[. . . .]
This one just told them to listen:
"What I have is a story."

At first they all laughed
but this witch said
go ahead
laugh if you want to
but as I tell the story
it will begin to happen.

Set in motion now
set in motion by our witchery
to work for us.

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

[. . . .]

They will kill the things they fear
all the animals
the people will starve.

They will poison the water
they will spin the water away
and there will be drought
the people will starve.

They will fear what they find
They will fear the people
They kill what they fear.

Entire villages will be wiped out
They will slaughter whole tribes.
Corpses for us
Blood for us
Killing killing killing killing.

[. . . .]

Stolen rivers and mountains
the stolen land will eat their hearts
and jerk their mouths from the Mother.
The people will starve.

[. . . .]

They will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
Up here
in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.

[. . . .]

So the other witches said
"Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now–
[. . . .]
Take it back.
Call that story back."

But the witch just shook its head
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur
and feathers.
It's already turned loose.
It's already coming.
It can't be called back.

from Storyteller, 1981

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Columbus Day         --Jimmie Durham

In school I was taught the names
Columbus, Cortez, and Pizzaro and
A dozen other filthy murderers.
A bloodline all the way to General Miles,
Daniel Boone and general Eisenhower.

No one mentioned the names
Of even a few of the victims.
But don't you remember Chaske, whose spine
Was crushed so quickly by Mr. Pizzaro's boot?
What words did he cry into the dust?

What was the familiar name
Of that young girl who danced so gracefully
That everyone in the village sang with her–
Before Cortez' sword hacked off her arms
As she protested the burning of her sweetheart?

That young man's name was Many Deeds,
And he had been a leader of a band of fighters
Called the Redstick Hummingbirds, who slowed
The march of Cortez' army with only a few
Spears and stones which now lay still
In the mountains and remember.

Greenrock Woman was the name
Of that old lady who walked right up
And spat in Columbus' face. We
Must remember that, and remember
Laughing Otter the Taino who tried to stop
Columbus and who was taken away as a slave.
We never saw him again.

In school I learned of heroic discoveries
Made by liars and crooks. The courage
Of millions of sweet and true people
Was not commemorated.

Let us then declare a holiday
For ourselves, and make a parade that begins
With Columbus' victims and continues
Even to our grandchildren who will be named
In their honor.

Because isn't it true that even the summer
Grass here in this land whispers those names,
And every creek has accepted the responsibility
Of singing those names? And nothing can stop
The wind from howling those names around
The corners of the school.

Why else would the birds sing
So much sweeter here than in other lands?

from Columbus Day, 1983

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I Give You Back         --Joy Harjo  

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don't know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my daughters.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the white soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

I release you, fear, so you can no longer
keep me naked and frozen in the winter,
or smothered under blankets in the summer.

I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.

to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
You held my mother down and raped her,
but I gave you the heated thing.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won't hold you in my hands.
You can't live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
                             of dying.

from She Had Some Horses, 1983

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She Had Some Horses         --Joy Harjo  

She had some horses.

She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

She had some horses.

She had horses with eyes of trains.
She had horses with full, brown thighs.
She had horses who laughed too much.
She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.
She had horses who licked razor blades.

She had some horses.

She had horses who danced in their mothers' arms.
She had horses who thought they were the sun and their bodies shone and burned like stars.
She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.
She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet in stalls of their own making.

She had some horses.

She had horses who liked Creek Stomp Dance songs.
She had horses who cried in their beer.
She had horses who spit at male queens who made them afraid of themselves.
She had horses who said they weren't afraid.
She had horses who lied.
She had horses who told the truth, who were stripped bare of their tongues.

She had some horses.

She had horses who called themselves, horse.
She had horses who called themselves, spirit, and kept their voices secret and to themselves.
She had horses who had no names.
She had horses who had books of names.

She had some horses.

She had horses who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.
She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had horses who waited for destruction.
She had horses who waited for resurrection.

She had some horses.

She had horses who got down on their knees for any savior.
She had horses who thought their high price had saved them.
She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her bed at night and prayed as they raped her.

She had some horses.

She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

from She Had Some Horses, 1983

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Missing the Animals         --Linda Hogan  

                         Sick people are about to recapture
                         wild beasts that broke out of their blood.
                                                              Nellie Sachs

So many have escaped
space disappears.
The planet fills up
with loud gunshots killing death,
a wingbeat
going out an open hole in space.

The air holds nothing
like a silent cage, no roars,
no scratchings,
only our breath
and a whale with air dry on it
and initials people carved
to leave themselves
known to death.

The animals are leaving
and even gunshots
fired down the edge of the world
have missed them.

from Eclipse, 1983

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Who Will Speak?         --Linda Hogan  

If all the animals came from the hills,
if all the fish came from the rivers,
and the birds came down from the sky
we would know our lives,
somewhere between the mountain
and the ant.
We would see what we do pass by
and return
around earth's curve.

All I know are these rivers,
the air and wind
carving down the trees
with their invisible hands
until the trees are bent figures of old men
and then only the empty space,
a longing that passes.

And that sorrow says,
the animals,
who will speak for them?
Who will make houses of air
with their words?

And the mouth of a man,
the tongue
that belongs to grass and light
and the four-legged creatures.
He speaks of tomorrow.
He gives voice to the small animals.
He gives a seat to the eagles.
Words for the fish.
The golden light of creation.

The world returns.

I do not want to break this spell.
I do not want the words to fall away.
I do not want to break this spell.

                                (for Oren Lyons, 1978)

from Eclipse, 1983
(Section V. of a poem-sequence of the same title)

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Canticle         --Joseph Bruchac

Let others speak
of harps and
heavenly choirs

I've made my decision
to remain here
with the Earth

if the old grey poet felt he could turn and
live with the animals
why should I be too good
to stay and die with them

and the great road of the Milky Way
that Sky Trail my Abenaki ancestors
strode to the last Happy Home
does not answer my dreams

I do not believe
we go up to the sky
unless it is
to fall again
with the rain

from Near the Mountains, 1987

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woodpecker song         --Lance Henson


i am making this sound upon the earth
the curled leaf filled with water
holds a looking glass of sky
in a quiet place
i make this small sound


from Another Song for America, 1987

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Raven is Two-Faced         --Robert H. Davis

Raven eyes blink
day/night        day/night . . .

The world has its top
and its underside and
Raventracks lead every direction.
You can tell he's been busy.
Shifty. That he's got this game
of intrigue down because
definitely everything,
He's made certain,
is the opposite of something else.

There's no way out
of his two-sided setup;
you can turn
this poem inside
out, trying to interpret
its other meaning.

from Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, ed. Niatum, 1988

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My House Is the Red Earth         --Joy Harjo  

My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world. I've heard New York, Paris, or Tokyo called the center of the world, but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it, for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow, picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy scraps of fat. Just ask him. He doesn't have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief, after centuries of heartbreak and laughter–he perches on the blue bowl of the sky, and laughs.

If you look with the mind of the swirling earth near Shiprock you become the land, beautiful. And understand how three crows at the edge of the highway, laughing, become three crows at the edge of the world, laughing.

Don't bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It's a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

(three untitled prose poems) from Secrets from the Center of the World, 1989; combined as one song lyric in Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, 1997

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Eagle Poem         --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.

from In Mad Love and War, 1990

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For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars
(For We Remember the Story and Must Tell It Again So We May All Live)         --Joy Harjo  

Beneath a sky blurred with mist and wind,
      I am amazed as I watch the violet
heads of crocuses erupt from the stiff earth
      after dying for a season,
as I have watched my own dark head
      appear each morning after entering
the next world
      to come back to this one,
It is the way in the natural world to understand the place
                              the ghost dancers named
after the heartbreaking destruction.
                  Anna Mae,
                              everything and nothing changes.
You are the shimmering young woman
                  who found her voice,
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed.
You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.
(They prance and lope like colored horses who stay with us
      through the streets of these steely cities. And I have seen them
            nuzzling the frozen bodies of tattered drunks
            on the corner.)
This morning when the last star is dimming
                                    and the busses grind toward
the middle of the city, I know it is ten years since they buried you
the second time in Lakota, a language that could
                                          free you.

I heard about it in Oklahoma, or New Mexico,
how the wind howled and pulled everything down
in righteous anger.
            (It was the women who told me) and we understood
the ripe meaning of your murder.
      As I understand ten years later after the slow changing
                                    of the seasons
that we have just begun to touch
      the dazzling whirlwind of our anger,
we have just begun to perceive the amazed world the ghost dancers
                                    crazily, beautifully.

from In Mad Love and War, 1990

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The Real Revolution Is Love         --Joy Harjo  

I argue with Roberto from the slick-tiled patio
where house plants as big as elms sway in a samba
breeze at four or five in the Managua morning
after too many yerbabuenas and as many shots of
golden rum. And watch Pedro follow Diane up
her brown arm, over the shoulder of her cool dress,
the valleys of her neck to the place inside her
ear where he isn't speaking revolution. And Alonzo
tosses in the rhetoric made of too much rum and
the burden of being an American in a country
he no longer belongs to.

What we are dealing with here are ideological
differences, political power, he says to
impress a woman who is gorgeously intelligent
and who reminds me of the soft oasis
of my lover's cheek. She doesn't believe
anything but the language of damp earth
beneath a banana tree at noon, and will soon
disappear in the screen of rum, with a man
who keeps his political secrets to himself
in favor of love.

I argue with Roberto, and laugh across the
continent to Diane, who is on the other side
of the flat, round table whose surface ships
would fall off if they sailed to the other
side. We are Anishnabe and Muscogee.
We have wars of our own.
Knowing this we laugh and laugh,
until she disappears into the poinsettia forest
with Pedro, who is still arriving from Puerto Rico.
Palm trees flutter in smoldering tongues.
I can look through the houses, the wind, and hear
quick laughter become a train
that has no name. Columbus doesn't leave
the bow of the slippery ship.

This is the land of revolution. You can do anything
you want, Roberto tries to persuade me. I fight my way
through the cloud of rum and laughter, through lines
of Spanish and spirits of the recently dead whose elbows
rustle the palm leaves. It is almost dawn and we are still
a long way from morning, but never far enough
to get away.

I do what I want, and take my revolution to bed with
me, alone. And awake in a story told by my ancestors
when they speak a version of the very beginning,
of how so long ago we climbed the backbone of these
tortuous Americas. I listen to the splash of the Atlantic
and Pacific and see Columbus land once more,
over and over again.

This is not a foreign country, but the land of our dreams.

I listen to the gunfire we cannot hear, and begin
this journey with the light of knowing
the root of my own furious love.

from In Mad Love and War, 1990

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Snowy Owl Near Ocean Shores         --Duane Niatum

sits on a stump in an abandoned farmer's field,
a castaway from an arctic tundra storm.
Beyond the dunes cattails toss and bend as snappy
as the surf, rushing and crashing down the jetty.

His head glances round; his eyes, a deeper yellow
than the winter sun, seem to spot a mouse
crawl from a mud hole to bare grass-patch.
When half an hour of wind and sleet passes and nothing
darts, a North Pole creature shows us how to last.

The wind ruffles his feathers from crown to claws
while he continues gazes at the salt-slick rain.
So when a double-rainbow arced the sky
we left him to his white refrain.

from Drawings of the Song Animals, 1991

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The Intellectual in Pine Ridge         --Adrian C. Louis

                         "It was dark and terrible all about me, for all the winds of the world were fighting."
                                                              –Black Elk [According to John G. Neihardt]

On the wagon again,
Drinking diet Pepsi and potato chips,
typing the channel selector
I fly down Indianapolis Speedway
at 220 miles per hour when I collide
with an overgrown dentist's drill.
I run screaming from his office
but bees of hot lead kiss my body.
I feel the sprinkle of molten spill
from a foundry crucible.
Facedown on a crack dealer's street
I count the machine gun holes
ventilating my soul.

I stagger to my horse and gallop
to the village to warn
the people of charging cavalry
but CNN has beat me there.
I am wheeled into the operating room
to watch a doctor and nurse
shave each other's body hair.
I have won a freezer and a chance
at the mystery prize
but first I must see
which deodorant really works best.

I push the off button and sit in the dark
room waiting for Jesus.
My mind is blank. I cannot think.
My finger itches and touches the button.
The tube comes on and I live again!

from Among the Dog Eaters, 1992

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December 29, 1890         --N. Scott Momaday  

                         Wounded Knee Creek

In the shine of photographs
are the slain, frozen and black

on a simple field of snow.
They image ceremony:

women and children dancing,
old men prancing, making fun.

In autumn there were songs, long
since muted in the blizzard.

In summer the wild buckwheat
shone like fox fur and quillwork,

and dusk guttered on the creek.
Now in serene attitudes

of dance, the dead in glossy
death are drawn in ancient light.

from In the Presence of the Sun, 1992

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Nature Poem         --Sherman Alexie  

                         If you're an Indian, why don't you write nature poetry?

inside this bottle
stands of pine

Indian fire fighters
black ash faces
& 16 hour days

caught in the middle
ring of fire
they dug a hole

& burrowed in
pretending to be roots
or gophers, etc.

hoping the fires
would pass over
like an (eagle)

no one in the hole
was burned
fire sucked the air

from their lungs
buried in graves
they dug for themselves

from Old Shirts & New Skins, 1993

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Crow Law         --Linda Hogan  

The temple where crow worships
walks forward in tall, black grass.
Betrayal is crow's way of saying grace
to the wolf
so it can eat
what is left
when blood is on the ground,
until what remains of moose
is crow
walking out
the sacred temple of ribs
in a dance of leaving
the red tracks of scarce and private gods.
It is the oldest war
where moose becomes wolf and crow,
where the road ceases
to become the old forest
where crow is calling,
where we are still afraid.

from The Book of Medicines, 1993

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The Ritual Life of Animals         --Linda Hogan  

The animal walks beside me,
long-toothed partner
in a sacrificial dance.
It lies down on the land
as I walk upright.
It has come from the swampy beginnings
of blood, lung, hand.
Killing is the prayer
before its every meal.
And in the dark nocturnal waking,
there's the falling
to all fours, a wild seeing,
other ears hearing.

After breathing and clawing,
is the solemn rite of sleep
that crosses
into dream,
that holds
council with foreign tongues
and common hungers.
In the sleeping bird,
the dream is flying south.
The male
is the dance before the female,
and there is fear; I am the enemy
dreamed in the restless sleep of a whale,
bird, those who possess
the desperate gifts
of feigning death, running,
turning the color of snow.

In the silence
of night,
in the warmth of human bodies,
are the nocturnal wakings.
Something inside gets down on its haunches.
At the borders of our beds
are the strange ways, voices,
the slow shifting of eyes, turning of ears.
They hear us, smell us, dream us.
We lie down
in the long nights of their waking,
the world of animal law,
the house of pelvic truth.

from The Book of Medicines, 1993

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Travelers         --Linda Hogan  

The terrible cold
is a closing hand.
It takes back the edges of land and water
it once offered.

It is alive,
you mustn't doubt this,
and it holds danger in its fist.
It says a mirage
is a city of warmth,
but when you go there
it is always beyond
the next white horizon
that can never be possessed.

I was looking at that far city
the night snow lied
about the darker world beneath it,
that brittle night
it grew cold so fast
the geese froze into water
and couldn't fly.
Their fear cried out
across the helpless land,
and when I heard them
I was the hand of death gone soft
enough to hit the solid skin of water
with stick, with rock,
with fear that what held them
held me.

South was their way that night.
They wanted to follow it.
Even my human ears heard its blue voice
in the stretched and beating wings,
as I cut one leg loose, then another,
until breaking gave way
to currents above and below
that drew them. They pushed
against the broken edges of water,
long-necked angels that rose,
escaping me and ice
and sky took them in
beyond the curved edge of horizon
where one beautiful world
moved above another
skimming the flat white lake,
the wounded ice
left behind to heal itself.

from The Book of Medicines, 1993

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The Myth of Blackbirds         --Joy Harjo  

The hours we counted precious were blackbirds in the density of Washington. Taxis toured the labyrinth with passengers of mist as the myth of ancient love took the shape of two figures carrying the dawn tenderly on their shoulders to the shores of the Potomac.

We fled the drama of lit marble in the capitol for a refuge held up by sweet, everlasting earth. The man from Ghana who wheeled our bags was lonesome for his homeland, but commerce made it necessary to carry someone else's burdens. The stars told me how to find us in this disorder of systems.

Washington did not ever sleep that night in the sequence of eternal nights. There were whirring calculators, computers stealing names, while spirits of the disappeared drank coffee at an all-night cafˇ in this city of disturbed relativity.

Justice is a story by heart in the beloved country where imagination weeps. The sacred mountains only appear to be asleep. When we finally found the room in the hall of mirrors and shut the door I could no longer bear the beauty of scarlet licked with yellow on the wings of blackbirds.

This is the world in which we undressed together. Within it white deer intersect with the wisdom of the hunter of grace. Horses wheel toward the morning star. Memory was always more than paper and cannot be broken by violent history or stolen by thieves of childhood. We cannot be separated in the loop of mystery between blackbirds and the memory of blackbirds.

And in the predawn when we had slept for centuries in a drenching sweet rain you touched me and the springs of clear water beneath my skin were new knowledge. And I loved you in this city of death.

Through the darkness in the sheer rise of clipped green grass and asphalt our ancestors appear together at the shoreline of the Potomac in their moccasins and pressed suits of discreet armor. They go to the water from the cars of smokey trains, or dismount from horses dusty with fatigue.

See the children who become our grandparents, the old women whose bones fertilized the corn. They form us in our sleep of exhaustion as we make our way through this world of skewed justice, of songs without singers.

I embrace these spirits of relatives who always return to the place of beauty, whatever the outcome in the spiral of power. And I particularly admire the tender construction of your spine which in the gentle dawning is a ladder between the deep in which stars are perfectly stars, and the heavens where we converse with eagles.

And I am thankful to the brutal city for the space which outlines your limber beauty. To the man from Ghana who also loves the poetry of the stars. To the ancestors who do not forget us in the concrete and paper illusion. To the blackbirds who are exactly blackbirds. And to you sweetheart as we make our incredible journey.

from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994

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Promise         --Joy Harjo  

The guardians of dusk blow fire from the Rincons as clouds confer over the Catalinas in the fading tracks of humans. I interpret the blur of red as female rain tomorrow, or the child born with the blessings of animals who will always protect her.

I am always amazed at the skill of rain clouds who outline the weave of human destiny [density in original]. Crickets memorize the chance event with rainsongs they have practiced for centuries. I am recreated by that language. Their predictions are always true. And as beautiful as saguaro flowers drinking rain.

I see the moon as I have never seen the moon, a half shell, just large enough for a cradleboard and the child who takes part in the dance of evolution as seen in the procession of tadpoles to humans painting the walls with wishes.

From the moon we all look the same.

In two days the girl will be born and nothing will ever look the same. I knew the monsoon clouds were talking about it as they softened the speed of light.

You can manipulate words to turn departure into aperture, but you cannot figure the velocity of love and how it enters every equation. It's related to the calculation of the speed of light, and how light prevails.

And then the evening star nods her head, nearby a lone jet ascending. I understand how light prevails. And when she was born it rained. Everything came true the way it was promised.

from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994

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Prayer Animals         --Sherman Alexie  

Do not try to convince me the United States is anything other than savannah.
Weeds burst through the sidewalk.
Drought washes the car windows, then wipes its face with the same dirty handkerchief.
Secret meetings.
The newspaper explains about the food chain.

I am the gazelle in braids and powwow jeans.
Sometime before sunset, I scan the horizon, then bend my head to the stream.
The water is cold and clear.
I have 355 degree vision.
My only question: Will the hunter use the rifle or his teeth?

from The Summer of Black Widows, 1996

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Mount Rushmore & The Arm of Crazy Horse         --Tiffany Midge

I remember the view. 4 carved faces
fleshed out from the granite of those sacred hills.

I don't remember knowing what I know now,
only my childhood's awe & curious disbelief

at the stone-white faces cut out from the horizon
more massive than any god I could imagine.

Trapped within another mountain, a warrior's
arm pointed toward battle, exhibited a simpler

truth, clearer than any white colonial freedom fighter
could tell me. And when I think about it,

without stepping on a soap box, without screaming
at my conservative amway-loving friends,

without purchasing dynamite or spray paint,
that arm slowly sculpted into view, should have remained

just an arm–attached to a hand pointed toward
battle. Just an unfinished tribute to an unfinished war.

from Outlaws, Renegades and Saints: Diary of a Mixed-Up Halfbreed, 1996

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Crow Testament         --Sherman Alexie  


Cain lifts Crow, that heavy black bird
and strikes down Abel.

Damn, says Crow, I guess
this is just the beginning.



The white man, disguised
as a falcon, swoops in
and yet again steals a salmon
from Crow's talons.

Damn, says Crow, if I could swim
I would have fled this country years ago.



The Crow God as depicted
in all of the reliable Crow bibles
looks exactly like a Crow.

Damn, says Crow, this makes it
so much easier to worship myself.



Among the ashes of Jericho,
Crow sacrifices his firstborn son.

Damn, says Crow, a million nests
are soaked with blood.



When Crows fight Crows
the sky fills with beaks and talons.

Damn, says Crow, it's raining feathers.



Crow flies around the reservation
and collects empty beer bottles

but they are so heavy
he can only carry one at a time.

So, one by one, he returns them
but only gets five cents a bottle.

Damn, says Crow, redemption
is not easy.



Crow rides a pale horse
into a crowded powwow
but none of the Indians panic.

Damn, says Crow, I guess
they already live near the end of the world.

from One Stick Song, 2000

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Soon to Be a National Geographic Special         --Sherman Alexie  

All of the Indian boys in the world
gathered into one red Toyota Celica
or perhaps it was just Steve, Tom, and me
though, truthfully speaking, it wasn't Tom

at all. In fact, it was his brother Dan, but I want
to place Tom in the Celica with Steve
and me because Tom killed himself
a few years back, and I miss him.

I want to remember him
in some poem, in this particular poem
because I am a poet now, though
I wasn't a poet back then. Of course

Tom wasn't a poet and he wasn't
an Indian either, which means his brother
wasn't Indian, and Steve was only
a little bit Indian himself, but he grew up

on the reservation, and therefore
was a full Indian pretty much
by osmosis. So, now, to reiterate, the Toyota
was filled with all of the Indian boys

in the world (meaning there was one
white boy who was only there
metaphorically, one mostly-white boy
made Indian by association, and one

true and actual Indian boy) as the auto sped
through the reservation night, as
it insulted the cold air with the heat
of its arrival and passage, as we Indian boys

laughed at the impossibility
of the Northern Lights, as the Great Barn Owl
swooped down over the ditch, its epic wings
stretching from ditch to ditch, its epic wings

striking flames as it roared directly
toward all of the Indian boys
in the world, as Steve slammed
on the brakes, or more likely, it was Tom

who slammed on the brakes (meaning
that his brother Dan slammed
on the brakes) as that Great Barn Owl flew
just a few feet above the pavement

as it grew so large and impossible
in the headlights, as all of the Indian boys
in the world, in the Toyota Celica, decided
they were going to die, die, die

as that Great Barn Owl suddenly lifted
into the air, just barely avoiding
a terrible head-on collision, as the three of us
ducked our heads in reflex, as we turned

to look behind us, turned to look
at our past, at our future, as we turned to see
that Great Barn Owl disappear
somewhere behind the poker-faced moon.

from One Stick Song, 2000

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from The Unauthorized Biography of Me         --Sherman Alexie  

[. . . .]

Every time I venture into the bookstore, I find another book about Indians. There are hundreds of books about Indians published every year, yet so few are written by Indians. I gather all the books written about Indians. I discover:

A book written by a person who identifies as mixed-blood will sell more copies than a book written by a person who identifies as strictly Indian.

A book written by a non-Indian will sell more copies than a book written by either a mixed-blood or an Indian writer.

[. . . .]

A book about Indian life in the past, whether written by a non-Indian, mixed-blood, or Indian, will sell more copies than a book about Indian life in the twentieth century.

If you are a non-Indian writing about Indians, it is almost guaranteed that something positive will be written about you by Tony Hillerman.

[. . . .]

Books about the Sioux sell more copies than all of the books written about other tribes combined.

Mixed-blood writers often write about any tribe which interests them, whether or not they are related to that tribe.

Writers who use obvious Indian names, such as Eagle Woman and Pretty Shield, are usually non-Indian.

Non-Indian writers usually say "Great Spirit," "Mother Earth," "Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged." Mixed-blood writers usually say "Creator," "Mother Earth," "Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged." Indian writers usually say, "God," "Mother Earth," "Human Being, Dog, and Bird."

If a book about Indians contains no dogs, then it was written by a non-Indian or mixed-blood writer.

If on the cover of a book there are winged animals who aren't supposed to have wings, then it was written by a non-Indian.

[. . . .]

from One Stick Song, 2000

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humans aren't the only makers of poetry         --Joy Harjo  

The young banana tree is making poetry; I see how it translates the wind. The need to make songs is inherent in all life.

I've watched plants hungrily drink rainwater. They are grateful and are more likely to sing if it is rainwater they are receiving. If it's water from a hose, they will drink it with gratitude but as they drink they keep looking toward the sky. And will eventually sing to bring the rain if they suffer from drought.

It's just not humans who sing for rain, make poetry as commentary on the meaning of life.

We aren't the only creatures, or the most likely to survive.

from A Map to the Next World, 2000

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from "Returning from the Enemy"         --Joy Harjo  

The elegant white heron on Kualoa Beach enjoyed the light winds and the smell of fish as we all watched the falling sun with reverence. I did not see guilt in his posture, nor did I hear him admonish himself for some failure of the deep or near past, rather he absolutely enjoyed his heron-ness, the wind, the sun and made note of the approach of the longest night of the year. He had no doubt as to his right to be a heron, or his right to enjoy the catch and taste of fish. But what do I know of herons? I do not know their language or their culture. We have human observations. Though for any small creature or god in this universe it comes down to attitude. You can walk through hell with your head up, still sparring with the fire, or you can be defeated by any small thing.

from A Map to the Next World, 2000
(prose-poem "appendix" to section 11 of the poem)

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wild turkey in massena, n.y.         --Maurice Kenny  

    (heard poem on WSLU-FM afternoon news
    reported by Martha Foley 11/14/96)

Found staggering
the streets of this
fair but chilly city,
apparently consumed
too much beverage
in the form of wild cranberries
freshly plucked
in the bog, or some
other tempting fruit
        The turkey was jailed.
Presently is drying out.
Will be released later.

from In the Time of the Present, 2000

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Jehovah Calls In Sick Again         --Adrian C. Louis

The mad babble
from down below
is a pain in His holy ass.
Most days He shuts His windows
to the manic rain of prayers.
In the silver-clouded wilderness
of my imagined privacy, He
contemplates His options.
He could decide to dispatch
flame-throwing angels
to incinerate every American
male who has had the slightest
involvement with gangs.
He could torment them again with
a phalanx of angels disguised
as little, bug-eyed aliens.
He could grow hair on the breasts
of every woman who has a tattoo.
He could arrange for Jerry Falwell
to be caught kissing a young boy.
He could send blood floods, gut blizzards,
terrible tornadoes to Indian reservations
or schoolyard killers to Catholic schools,
but today He thinks . . .

He'll just doze for a while, maybe
later traipse down to the dungeon
He built for the shackled
and starving Great Spirit.

from Bone & Juice, 2001

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Avian Nights         --Sherman Alexie

Starlings have invaded our home and filled
Our eaves with their shit-soaked nests. Rats with wings,
They are scavengers we pay to have killed
By the quick exterminator who sings

In Spanish as he pulls three baby birds,
Blind and mewling, from the crawlspace above
Our son's bedroom. Without a word,
the exterminator uses a thumb

And finger to snap the birds' necks–crack, crack,
–then drops their bodies to the driveway
Below. For these deaths, I write him a check.
This is his job. He neither loves nor hates

The starlings. They just need to be removed.
Without guilt, the exterminator loads
His truck with dead birds and the tattered ruins
Of nests: twigs, string, newspapers. It is cold

When he drives away and leaves us, mother
And father of a sick son, to witness
The return of the father and mother
Starlings to their shared children, to their nest,

All of it gone, missing, absent, destroyed.
The starlings don't understand synonyms
As they flutter and make this terrible noise:
The screech-screech-screech of parental instinct,

Of panic and loss. We had to do this,
We rationalize. They woke up our son
With their strange songs and the beating of wings
Through the long, avian nights. Then, at dawn

The babies screamed to greet the morning light.
What could they've been so excited about?
What is starling joy? When a starling finds
A shiny button, does it dance and shout?

Do starlings celebrate their day of birth?
Do they lust and take each other to bed?
Are they birds of infinite jest, of mirth
And merry? How do they bury their dead?

We will never know how this winged mother
And father would have buried their children.
Our son almost died at birth. His mother
And I would have buried him in silence

And blankets that smelled like us. These birds
Don't believe in silence. They scream and wail.
They attack the walls. We have never heard
Such pain from any human. Without fail,

The starlings mourn for three nights and three days.
They fly away, only to carry back
Insects like talismans, as if to say
They could bring back the dead with bird magic,

As if their hungry children could cheat death
And suddenly appear with open mouths.
At birth, our son suffocated, his breath
Stolen as he swallowed his own shit. Faith

In God at such a time seems like a huge joke.
To save our son, the doctors piped the blood
Out of his heart and lungs, then through his throat,
Via sterile tube, via smooth cut

Of his carotid, then sent his blood though
The oxygen machine, before they pushed
The red glow back into him. This was new
Technology and he lived, though he crashed

Twice that first night, and spent the next five weeks
Flat on his back. His mother and I sat
At his bedside eighteen hours a day. Screech-
. We cawed and cawed to bring him back.

We attacked the walls of the ICU
With human wings. Screech-screech-screech. Grief can take
The form of starlings, of birds who refuse
To leave the dead. How much love, hope, and faith

Do these birds possess? They lift their faces
And scream to the Bird-God while we grow numb.
The starlings are odd, filthy, and graceless,
But if God gave them opposable thumbs,

I'm positive they would open the doors
Of our house and come for us as we sleep.
We killed their children. We started this war.
Tell me: What is the difference between

Birds and us, between their pain and our pain?
We build monuments; they rebuild their nests.
They lay other eggs; we conceive again.
Dumb birds, dumb women, dumb starlings, dumb men.

from the journal New Letters (2003)

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