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Thinking of Thought Woman, Leslie Marmon Silko - Poem of the Day Native American Heritage Month

Spiderwoman/Thought Woman. Art by Jade Red Moon.
Leslie Marmon Silko is one of those writers who have contributed to my understanding of the world as a Native American woman.  Some of the passages in her novels read like poetry to me and remind me of the voice of my own Navajo mother.  In fact, writers like Silko and Paula Gunn Allen, Native women of the same generation as my mother have perspectives very similar to those she passed on to me.  

Raised in a still very traditional Navajo culture (my grandparents did not speak English and were completely traditional in both dress and worldview) she and other young Native women of her generation left their respective reservations in the 1960's and 1970's to be greeted by an America that had only recently undergone the Civil Rights Movement and in the midsts of the Women's Rights Movement.  My mother saw in this movement a great deal of her own matrilineal Navajo traditions and threw herself enthusiastically into working for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.  It is hard to imagine what it is like to be a young woman, to leave all you know, traditions that are clear and in your favor to enter a world where such surety does not exist.  Not as a brown woman in color conscious society, not as a woman in a society that favors men, not as a traditional Navajo in a Judeo Christian society that knows nothing about your cosmological underpinnings.  So, when she raised me in Suburbia, she took great pains to help me bridge those worlds.  

She was proud that Navajo traditions valued women and that these ideas were now being embraced by Euro-American culture.  She emphasized to me the importance of women and their role in the Navajo concept of the world and told me the stories of Changing Woman and her sister White Shell woman.  She made sure I knew my clans and the stories of my clan - a matrilineal line that stretches back to Changing Woman, herself in Navajo culture.  She told me that my clan the Kinyaani (Towering House People) were the first clan of the Navajo people and the first Kinyaani woman (my many-greats grandmother) was made my Changing Woman herself.  In the songs of my cheii (my grandfather), the chants he constantly sang I could hear the rhythms of a continuity that to this day puts me at ease.  I know things are right, even as he would start singing a chant as my masani (grandmother) lectured him about not doing the dishes the night before.  He would smooth over small mishaps and my mother explained to me that he had turned one of his songs, a riding song (songs sung for riding on horseback) into a powerful prayer.  Navajos do not pray the way European Christians do, "I want this, give me that" but it is instead an imagining of the world as they want it to be: "When I ride I will meet friendly people who will give me water and good food when I stop to talk to them, when I ride home I will have a safe and quick journey back." This is how those songs and prayers went with a tempo of confident, soothing optimism of life which is often translated as Hozho, harmony.  It is in this way that I read Silko's writing and how it speaks to me, even though, she is from another Southwestern people, the Laguna Pueblo, there is a cultural similarity that her words feed and nourish and help me navigate this strange between world we modern Native people live in.

I will tell you something about stories,"
[he said] 
They aren't just entertainment. 
Don't be fooled. 
They're all we have, you see. 
All we have to fight off illness and death. 
You don't have anything 
if you don't have the stories. 
Their evil is mighty, 
but it can't stand up to our stories. 
So they try to destroy the stories, 
but the stories cannot be confused or forgotten. 
They would like that. 
They would be happy 
because we would be defenseless then.
 [He rubs his belly]
 I keep it in here,
[he said] 
Here, put your hand on it. 
It is moving. 

Ts' its' tsi' nako, Thought-Woman,
is sitting in her room
and what ever she thinks about
She thought of her sisters,
Nau' ts' ity' i and I' tcs' i,
and together they created the Universe
this world
and the four worlds below.
Thought-Woman, the spider,
named things and
as she named them
they appeared.
She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I'm telling you the story
she is thinking.
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Jacklight by Louise Erdrich - Poem a Day for Native American Heritage Month

Ojiway poet, Louise Erdrich
I've been thinking about poetry and Native Americans.  I have some favorites and I thought that for the rest of Native American Heritage Month, I'd post a few.  If anyone has any they'd like to suggest please feel free to tell me about your favorite poems in the comments!

My daughter was recently reading my copy of Louise Erdrich's book of poetry Jacklight and so, this poem has been on my mind today.  

The same Chippewa word is used both for flirting and hunting game, while another Chippewa word connotes both using force in intercourse and also killing a bear with one’s hands.             
-R.W. Dunning (1959) Social and Economic Change Among the Northern Ojibwa

We have come to the edge of the words,
out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
out of knotted twigs, out of leaves creaked shut,
out of hiding.

At first the light wavered, glancing over us.
Then it clenched to a fist of light that pointed,
searched out, divided us.
Each took the beams like direct blows the heart answers.
Each of us moved forward alone.

We have come to the edge of the woods,
drawn out of ourselves by this night sun,
this battery of polarized acids,
that outshines the moon.

We smell them behind it
but they are faceless, invisible.
We smell the raw steel of their gun barrels,
mink oil on leather, their tongues of sour barley.
We smell their mothers buried chin-deep in wet dirt.
We smell their fathers with scoured knuckles,
teeth cracked from hot marrow.
We smell their sisters of crushed dogwood, bruised apples,
of fractured cups and concussions of burnt hooks.

We smell their breath steaming lightly behind the jacklight.
We smell the itch underneath the caked guts on their clothes.
We smell their minds like silver hammers
cocked back, held in readiness
for the first of us to step into the open.

We have come to the edge of the woods,
out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
out of leaves creaked shut, out of our hiding.
We have come here too long.

It is their turn now,
their turn to follow us. Listen,
they put down their equipment.
It is useless in the tall brush.
And now they take the first steps, not knowing
how deep the woods are and lightless.
How deep the woods are.

-Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)

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Veteran's Day Part Two: Navajo Perspective on being a Warrior

Chief Manuelito
After I posted my previous post about Yankton Chief White Swan and the difference between a Soldier and a Warrior, I remembered a story recounted by my Navajo grandmother's aunt, Tiana Bighorse in her book Bighorse the Warrior.  So, here is a second entry on Veteran's Day, this time from my Navajo side of the family.

When Mr. Bighorse is a boy, he goes with his father.  His father teaches him everything that a boy should do to become a man.  And what he shouldn't do.  And his father tells him, 'You will be a brave and be a warrior some day.'  
In Navajo, a warrior means someone who can get through the snowstorm when no one else can.  
In Navajo, a warrior is the one that doesn't get the flu when everyone else does--the only one walking around, making a fire for the sick, giving them medicine, feeding them food, making them strong to fight the flu. 
In Navajo, a warrior is the one who can use words so everyone knows they are part of the same family.  In Navajo, a warrior says what is in the people's hearts.  Talks about what the land means to them.  Brings them together to fight for it. 

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On Veteran's Day: Chief White Swan on Warrior vs. Soldier

Chief White Swan (Maga Ska), Yankton Dakota
I often think about the fundamental differences between the culture of my own people and that of the culture that found its way across the ocean from the Old Feudal World.  When I was Sundancing, the old men used to talk to us Sundancers a lot about the Lakota concept of being Ikce Wicasa; that is free, simple people.  It was a concept that took pride of place in our culture and stands in contrast to the Feudal system with the Lords on top of the pyramid and the multitude of Serfs on the bottom.  Their description of Ikce Wicasa reminded me a story my grandmother's Uncle Vine Deloria, Sr. used to tell about what Yankton Chief White Swan: it concerned the difference between being a Soldier and being a Dakota Warrior.  Soldiers follow orders in contrast to our Warriors who were truly Ikce Wicasa.  We didn't build great monuments or enthrone a few in gold, but we lived authentic lives as people and I believe that is the secret of our success as human beings as Dakota and Lakota.

Here is the story of "Soldiers versus Warriors" as told by Vine Deloria, Sr. from Remember Your Relatives: Yankton Sioux Images, 1851 to 1904 by Renee Sampson Flood and Shirley A. Bernie:

"You know . . . after the Minnesota Sioux War  [in 1862] . . . a lot of refugees [the Santee] came to live among the Yanktons [my dad's tribe].  The government had issued orders to General Sully to visit the Yanktons and remind them of their Treaty obligations.  He was to tell them that since the [United States] government was an ally of the Yanktons, the refugees should be treated as enemies.  General Sully held a council with the Yanktons and told them, 'I'm going to be gone about four months.  When I return I want you to tell me that they're gone.'  The Yanktons told themselves that these refugees were their relatives.  Why should we drive our own people out, they thought.  Later, Sully came back and said, 'Well, did you drive them out?'  The Yanktons told him they did not.  Then General Sully told them, 'Well, I'll tell you what I'll do.  I think that the President (Lincoln) is asking too much.  I'm going to be gone again, so during that time if you shoot one of these refugees, I'll report that theYanktons are allies.  They have killed the Isanti.'  Struck by the Ree came to my (great) grandfather (Francois des Lauriers) and asked him if he would do this.  My grandfather said, 'Yes, I suppose.  I've killed two Sioux and this will make a third.  I had that in a dream.  I saw four purification lodges in my vision.  At the end was a great big, black hawk.  And on the side was a big, white owl.  And they stood there.  They told me that by passing those purification lodges, I was going to kill four of our own people.  I've killed two and here is the third.  I'll kill him.'  So, he did.  When Sully returned, he came with two mule teams and a driver.  He sat up there on the back.  He said, 'Well, did you shoot one?'  Struck told him at had been done.  Then, Sully asked 'Who shot him?' Struck told him Deloria had shot the man.  Sully told him, 'Oh, I meant for one of you full bloods to do it.  Deloria is half French.  I'm going to go back and bring my soldiers to attack you.'  White Swan walked up to him.  He said, 'Tell this monster to get down.'  So Sully got down.  'Sully,' said White Swan, 'You're a fighting man and I'm a fighting man.  When your boys go into battle, you're on top of a big butte back there with your field glasses on, riding the fastest horse.  When there are enemies coming, I go without asking anybody to join me.  And my warriors look at each other and say, 'Get on your horses.  That darn fool will get himself killed.'  So they come thundering from behind.  When your soldiers are getting beat, and they try to run, you have them shot.  When some of my warriors get scared, and run, that's alright.  Maybe they'll be braver some other time.  So you select any gun, any weapon that you want and give me fifteen paces, and with these two knives, I'll dodge you all the way, and chop you Allll up.'  Then Sully told him that he didn't mean anything by what he had said and White Swan said, 'I don't know how you meant it!'  White Swan bluffed Sully down.  THAT was White Swan."

The authors add the following description of Chief White Swan

"After the war ended White Swan expressed his concern about what would be done with the captured Minnesota tribes.  When visitors came to his lodge, he kept them up half the night talking about current national events such as the Civil War.  Many of these people, both Indian and white, came away from their visits with him impressed by his keen intelligence and wit."

So, for Veteran's Day I had my children read this story passed down in our family for 150 yeas.  My dad served in the Army but had no love for it, reserving his true dedication and love for us, his family.  He was a lot like White Swan, who was the head man of the village our family was from.   A village that was later put under water by the dam at Fort Randall.  This summer, I took my children there and with their cousins they played in the water by the shore of the dam.  Life goes on, our people persist.

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