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    Our Songs Came Through

    A review of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo and others

    Diane Glancy

    February 15, 2021
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    “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.”
    —Joy Harjo, Mvskoke (Creek) Nation

    In the most ambitious anthology of its kind, US poet laureate and editor Joy Harjo celebrates Native talent in stirring poems that span centuries, regions, languages, styles, and tribal nations. The book, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, comprises five sections, organized by geographic region. Poets are introduced in a short biographical note to give their work historical context. In the words of Linda Hogan, Chickasaw, “air is between these words, / fanning the flame.”

    “The light of the world” in the title refers to Native life before the European intrusion into Native land and ways of thought and being. To look at Native history is to see the near-annihilation of a people. Those who survived first contact with the Europeans were put into box-like houses on remote reservations to languish without the means to make a living, while their children were taken away. There, they suffered one of two fates: assimilation, in which some of one’s culture is maintained while living in the “new” world; or acculturation, a complete transformation into the European culture, which usually took several generations of intermixing and dilution to be complete. There was trauma, loss, dependence.

    Yet Native voice and culture have survived, as these poems attest. “Survivance,” a term invented by Gerald Vizenor (1934–), Anishinaabe - White Earth Nation, is a word combining “survival” and “resistance,” and refers to the survival of Native spirituality, a survival based in resistance.

    Boarding Schools

    Jake Skeets (1991–), Diné, depicts reservation life in his poem “Drunktown”:

    A bar called Eddie’s sits at the end of the world. By the tracks,
    drunk men get some sleep. My father’s uncle tries to get some
    under a long-bed truck. The truck instead backs up to go home.

    I arrange my father’s boarding school soap bones on white space
    and call it a poem. With my father, I come up on death
    staggering into the house with beer on the breath.

    Boarding school existence for Native children was diabolical. Imagine sitting in a row of schoolroom desks, the stern master coming down the aisle behind you, wielding a long stick that could beat you across your back or strike your knuckles, depriving you of any sense of self-worth. The humiliation would be worse than the physical pain.

    Children were also forced into crowded sleeping quarters, permitting the spread of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and trachoma. Those who became ill were sometimes denied medical care. They were made to pray. They were deprived of food. Some bore unspeakable abuse.

    It makes me mad to read about this appalling treatment. There are boarding-school graveyards with unnamed graves. There are parents whose children never returned from school. The schools severed Natives from what they held sacred – their way of life in tune with the elements and seasons of the earth. When you rip culture out of a child and open him to such treatment, he is liable to pass it on to his own children, continuing the generational trauma. Often, alcohol or drugs fill the void.

    How could religious instruction be so brutal? Not surprisingly, many who experienced this abuse turned against Christianity and developed a warped understanding of the Gospel, the life of faith, and prayer. They perceived Christianity as something to be avoided. The life-transforming experience of fellowship with Christ was muddied. If you remove a child from his family and place him into a sterile, frightful, punitive setting, how can the message of grace get through? The experience builds up walls against it.

    Several poems in the anthology address the deplorable treatment of these Native children. Here’s Linda LeGarde Grover (1950–), Anishinaabe, in “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn in Boarding School”:

    . . . A bed not properly made will be
    torn apart. Start over. Remember and be grateful
    that the boarding school feeds and clothes you. Say
    grace before meals. In English. Don’t cry. Crying
    never solved anything. Write home once every
    month. In English. Tell your parents that you are
    doing very well. You’ll never amount to anything.
    . . . If your family insists on
    and can provide transport for you to visit home
    in the summer, report to the matron’s office immediately
    upon your return. You will be allowed into the
    dormitory after you have been sanitized and de-loused. . . .

    James Welch (1940 – 2003), Gros Ventre and Blackfeet, echoes the disenfranchisement and alienation from self in “Riding the Earthboy 40”:

    . . .Scattered in the wind
    Earthboy calls me from my dream:
    Dirt is where the dreams must end.

    In another poem written in 1913, an anonymous Carlisle Indian Industrial School student bemoans the militaristic lifestyle in “My Industrial Work”:

    Then out in front the troops all stand,
    Saluting the flag with our hats in our hand.

    Peter Blue Cloud (1935–2011), Mohawk, shows how the humiliation continues today in “The Old Man’s Lazy”:

    The old split cedar
    fence stands at many
    angles, and much of it
    lies on the ground like
    a curving sentence of
    stick writing.

    Even today, the Native is made to feel inferior: our history is a dilapidated fence, our writing like sticks, not even in a straight line. Into this melting pot I will not melt.

    The experience of education as violence continued, as Orlando White (1976– ) Diné, puts it in “To See Letters”:

    I showed him homework from my first grade class. It was a list of words
    assigned for me to spell. He looked at me as he was sharpening a pencil
    with his knife. I remember the way he forced my hand to write. How the
    pencil stabbed each letter, the lead smearing. I imagined each word bruising
    as I stared at them.

    While there is much cause for grievance, not all children experienced boarding school as punitive. One of the earliest writers, Catharine Brown (1800-1823), Cherokee, (not included in the anthology) wrote letters and diary entries from Brainerd Mission School, later published in Cherokee Sister, The Collected Writings of Catharine Brown 1818-23, edited by Theresa Strouth Gaul: “Sometimes I feel the love of God shed abroad in my heart, and feel as if I would be willing to give up everything in this world to Christ. Oh how good it is to enjoy the presence of God.”

    “Eleazar’s Elegy for Thomas Thacher,” by Eleazar (?–1678), tribal affiliation unknown, was written by Eleazar in memory of his Latin teacher:

    Your mind now returns to the sky; victory has been shared:
    now Christ is yours, and what he has earned yours.

    Eleazar was a student at Harvard Indian College. He died of smallpox before he graduated.

    Indigenous Holocaust

    There were anywhere from two to eighteen million Indigenous on the North American continent before European contact. Within a few years, according to one estimate, as many as twelve million had died of European diseases against which the Native had no immunity. In his research paper Counting the Dead: Estimating the Loss of Life in the Indigenous Holocaust, 1492-Present, David Michael Smith calls it “the worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed. . . . The barrage of disease unleashed by the Europeans among the so-called ‘virgin soil’ populations of the Americas caused more deaths than any other single force of destruction.” Smith also contends that

    by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent – a sad, but both inevitable and “unintended consequence” of human migration and progress. . . . In fact, however, the near-total destruction of the Western Hemisphere’s native people was neither inadvertent nor inevitable.

    It’s always been a battle for life, for survivance. These poems express acknowledgment of the wrong done by the US government and its Manifest Destiny policy. But they also make known the lasting impact of Native history, and of Native peoples’ demands to be recognized as sovereign nations. Resistance and activism are recurrent themes. These poems themselves are acts of record-keeping and preservation. They talk back. They take back. They are a sacred memory of beautiful language. Take “Prayer Bowl” by Al Hunter (1958–), Anishinaabe, for instance:

    When the moon is turned upwards like bowl waiting to be filled
    We must fill it. We must fill it by honoring the spirits of creation
    With songs of our joy and thanks, with foods created with our own hands,
    Water for the thirsty, prayers for the people, prayers for the spirits,
    Prayers for the Creator, prayers for ourselves, and the sacred instruments
    That join us to the glory of this world, that join us to the glory of this world
    And to the world beyond our sleep.

    Titles like “The Milky Way Escapes My Mouth,” by Tanaya Winder (1985–), Duckwater Shoshone Southern Ute and Pyramid Lake Paiute, show oneness with the natural world, and the heartache of a lost loved one:

    whenever two lips begin to form your name
    I cough stars lodged deep within my lungs. They rush
    from tongue weighted in dust, words
    I didn’t ask

    where are you going? or notice the blank spaces
    in your breathing as you slept. They say
    the more massive the star, the shorter
    the lifespan. . . .

    A rising tide of longing fills my body, bones, the ribs
    sheltering the cave within me echoing. Each night,
    I open mouth sky-wide to swallow stars
    and sing

    to the moon a story about the light of two people
    who continue to cross and uncross in their falling
    no matter how unstable
    in orbit.

    Biblical Parallels

    As a Christian, I can’t help noticing biblical parallels. For example Leslie Marmon Silko (1948–), Laguna, contributes a poem titled “Where Mountain Lion Lay Down with Deer” that reminds me of the “wolf shall dwell with the lamb” in Isaiah 11:6. Her poem is also about ancestral memory, and how past and present coexist, affecting one another. The poem continues:

    The old ones who remember me are gone
    the old songs are all forgotten
    and the story of my birth.
    How I danced in snow-frost moonlight
    distant stars to the end of the Earth . . .

    A few poems clearly echo biblical language and imagery, such as “To Miss Vic” by John Gunter Lipe (1844–1862), Cherokee, who fought in the Civil War and was killed in battle in 1862:

    I stand at the portal and knock,
    And tearfully, prayerfully wait.
    O! who will unfasten the lock,
    And open the beautiful gate.

    Forever and ever and ever,
    Must I linger and suffer alone?
    Are there none that are able to sever,
    The fetters that keep me from home?

    My spirit is lonely and weary,
    I long for the beautiful streets.
    The world is so chilly and dreary,
    And bleeding and torn are my feet.

    In the Book of Job, I find passages illustrative of Native thought: “You will be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field will be at peace with you” (Job 5:23). You will be in tune with nature. You will be one with creation. “But ask now the beasts, and they will teach you, and the fowls of the air, and they will teach you. Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you: and the fishes of the sea will declare unto you” (Job 12:7–8). “Even they know the hand of the Lord (the Creator) has wrought this. In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:9–10).

    When they introduced their beliefs, Christian missionaries failed to use topics that Native Americans could recognize. For instance, they could have used a passage such as “I saw by night, and behold a man riding a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees that were in the bottom; and behind him were red horses, speckled and white” (Zech. 1:8). I think of the visions of Black Elk, the Lakota holy man, recorded in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, and the “horses in the colors of the four directions.” And even where differences were undeniable, there could have been more understanding. For the European, for instance, man is the head of creation; whereas for the Native, man is one with creation.

    Anglicized Translations

    Even those who were sympathetic to the Native and sought to preserve the songs of Native culture put their own stamp upon the work – and did injustice to the Native voice. This can at least be acknowledged and understood. For example, Frances Densmore (1867–1957), an American ethnologist who worked with the Ojibwe in the early twentieth century, recorded thousands of Native songs, including “The Water Birds Will Alight,” sung by Gegwejiwebinan:

    Surely
    Upon the whole length of my form
    The water birds will alight.

    (First translation by Mary Warren English, Ojibwe translator for Densmore)

    Compare that with:

    It is certain they land on me the thunderbirds across my existence

    (Literal translation by Margaret Noodin (1965–) Ojibwe)

    Looking at these two translations, Noodin says, “This literal translation shows you that Mary Warren English was creating a new English version with different syntax and either she or Densmore erased a line break or inserted all the other line breaks. I would view the entire song as one sentence. You would have to listen for breath spaces or find rhyme patterns to catch the actual breaks in a line.”

    The rules of grammar supplanted Native expression. So much was taken, so much lost. Without the breath and natural movement of the world and the beings in it, one becomes an observer instead of being one with the natural world.

    America would have benefited if it had not so thoroughly attempted to erase Native thought patterns and inflections. If only the Trinity had been presented as the thunderbirds across my existence in the Ojibwe song. “He shall cover thee with his feathers and under his wings shalt thou trust” (Ps. 91:4). But America was intent on establishing itself through independence from the British as well as the Indian – and anything else that stood in the way of claiming the land.

    Prison

    Incarceration is another ongoing theme in Native history, from prison in forts on the frontier, to prison in boarding schools, to prison on reservations, to contemporary experiences with police. John Trudell (1946–2015), Santee Dakota, writes in “Diablo Canyon”:

    The soldiers of the state
    Placed me in captivity
    Or so they thought
    They bound my wrists in their
    Plastic handcuffs
    Surrounding me with their
    Plastic minds and faces
    They ridiculed me. . . .
    Little did they understand
    Squatting down in the earth
    They placed me with my power
    My power to laugh
    Laugh at their righteous wrong
    Their sneers and their taunts
    Gave me clarity
    To see their powerlessness. . . .

    Laura Tohe (1952–), Diné, in “No Parole Today,” also describes resistance within prison: “I swore then I would never / scrub no more walls / and porches at midnight.”

    Lament and Longing

    At one time between thirty and sixty million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. The US Army encouraged professional buffalo hunters to hunt them to near-extinction as a way of defeating the Plains Indians, who depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, weapons, and shelter. Buffalo also had spiritual significance and were a central part of Plains Indian culture. The following selections exemplify songs of nostalgia for a lost world, a longing for empathy.

    William Walker Jr. (1800–1874), Wyandot, in “Oh, Give Me Back My Bended Bow,” points to the finality of the decimation of Native peoples and grieves the loss of their culture:

    Oh, give me back my bended bow,
    My cap and feather, give them back,
    To chase o’er hill the mountain roe,
    Or follow in the otter’s track.

    You took me from my native wild,
    Where all was bright, and free and blest;
    You said the Indian hunter’s child
    In classic halls and bowers should rest.

    Long have I dwelt within these walls
    And pored o’er ancient pages long.
    I hate these antiquated halls;
    I hate the Grecian poet’s song.

    To be clear, there were also horrific wars and tortures among Indian tribes before the European. The Indigenous should not be idealized or romanticized. But I must say, “Give Me Back” would have been my song too.

    Abigail Chabitnoy (1987–) Koniag and Tangirnaq, sums it up in “Anatomy of a Wave”: “When the tide went out, they had nowhere to run.”

    Kim Blaeser (1955–) Anishinaabe, writes in “Apprenticed to Justice”:

    This is the woodpecker sound
    of an old retreat.
    It becomes an echo,
    an accounting
    to be reconciled.
    This is the sound
    of trees falling in the woods
    when they are heard,
    or red nations falling
    when they are remembered.
    This is the sound
    we hear
    when fist meets flesh
    when bullets pop against chests
    when memories rattle hollow in stomachs.

    And we turn this sound
    over and over again
    until it becomes
    fertile ground
    from which we will build
    new nations
    upon the ashes of our ancestors.

    Poet dg nanouk okpik (1968–), Inupiaq, in “The Fate of Inupiaq-like Kingfisher”:

    But no one can
    stop
    a bird spear set
    in motion,

    made of notched bone,

    feathered arrows pinnate

    around the shaft,

    with hair fringe
    as it strikes

    piercing depilated skin.

    There are glimpses of rebirth. No’u Revilla (1987–), Kanaka Maoli and Tahitian, writes “Smoke Screen” for her father, who labored for the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company. The poem ends with this:

    For my father, the night was best alone.
    When only he could see through
    the world and forgive it.

    Richard Little Bear (1941–), Northern Cheyenne, writes about repatriation in “We Are the Spirits of These Bones”:

    We have been with these bones for a long time.
    And we are beginning to feel a whole lot better
    now that these bones are back here
    among the Northern Cheyenne people on their reservation.

    Ishmael Hope (1981–), Tlingit and Inupiaq, in “Canoe Launching Into the Gaslit Sea”:

                          . . . We need
    to knit wool sweaters for our brother
    sleeping under the freeway,
    hand him our wallets and bathe
    his feet in holy water. We need
    to find our lost sister, last seen
    hitchhiking Highway 16

    There are mythic passages. Peter Blue Cloud, again, gives us “Rattle”:

    It is
    told by some that the stars are
    small holes piercing the great
    intestine
    of a sleeping creature.

    The “Deer Song,” by Don Jesus Yoilo’I (1904–1982), Yaqui, is rendered in the Yaqui language – translation as follows:

    Never again I,
    will I on this world,
    I, around will I be walking.
    Just I, never again I,
    will I on this world,
    I, around will I be walking

    What’s Missing?

    Maybe having Joy Harjo as the current US poet laureate is some reparation – as is Norton publishing this lovely, comprehensive, expansive anthology. Yet I miss what is not in this collection. After all, the major religion of the American Indian today is, despite all, Christianity, a reality that is not reflected in the poems selected.

    The cataclysmic events that subdued Native autonomy on the continent and caused defeat, loss, sorrow, bitterness in Native life-songs were a pivotal time in Native history, the closing of one door and the opening of another. For many of us, the weight of this harrowing history would be unbearable without the transformation and redemption that Christ makes possible. For reasons discussed above, many Natives in this anthology have rejected that possibility.

    To be sure, we hear reflected in many of these poems King David’s cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring” (Ps. 22:1) – the very words Christ would echo on the cross. Yet where is the ameliorating faith? The healing and comfort of Christ’s words: “I am with you always even to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20)?

    On the cover of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is an abstract collage by Emmi Whitehorse (1956–), Diné, titled Kin Nah Zin #223, 1982 (mixed media on paper). I see a bent cross, some tepees, a ship with square sails. It could be an abstract stained-glass window in a church – “stained” being the operative word – a window through which the morning sun could shed its sacred light.

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    Contributed By

    Diane Glancy, a writer and poet of Cherokee descent, is professor emerita at Macalester College and author of seventy novels, plays, and books of poetry, including, most recently, Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job (Turtle Point Press, 2020).

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