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Poetically Fighting for Sacred Sites and National Monuments



I was happy when my copy of National Monuments by Ojibway poet Heid E. Erdrich came in the mail! The book is perhaps best known for her awesomely comic poems about Kennewick Man dating online, but I was interested in how she handled the issue of sacred cultural sites and how little power Native people have to protect these sites--and how little understood the issue is by the powers that be.

The fight for public lands has been in the news all year since the Bundy's took over Malheur in January and taken a greater urgency on Monday as the GOP voted to include language in it's 2016 Platform to demand Congress "return" federal lands to states immediately.

In contrast, President Obama has been using his executive powers under the Antiquities Act to preserve more and more public land as National Monuments. On Saturday, July 16th, Secretary Jewell will be holding a public meeting in Bluff, Utah on the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Please attend if you can and share any information coming out of the meeting to your networks via social media. The area of Bears Ears in southeastern Utah, containing more than 100,000 cultural sites, is the most significant unprotected cultural and archaeological area in the US, and sacred ground to the tribes proposing and supporting this national monument.

Also contribute if you can and/or share the Bears Ears anthology "Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears" Kickstarter to help bring greater awareness of Native voices on the issue of preservation of cultural sites.

With that in mind, the two poems that caught my eye--and will be included in the Edge of Morning (thank you Heid!)--are “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects” and "The Theft Outright" (shared below).



The Theft Outright


By Heid E. Erdrich

            after Frost


We were the land's before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.
Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

We were the land before we were people,
loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,
or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—

What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?

Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands
swimming being from women's hands, we originate,
originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.

Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,
possessed by what we now no more possess.

We were the land before we were people,
dreamy sunbeams where sun don't shine, so the stories go,
or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—

Dineh in documentaries scoff DNA evidence off.
They landed late, but canyons spoke them home.
Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don't know.

What's America, but the legend of Stop 'n' Go?

Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,
contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.
In any case we'd claim them, give them some place to stay.

Such as we were we gave most things outright
(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes
and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)

We were the land before we were a people,
earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,
or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—

The land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,
still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.
Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

Source: National Monuments (Michigan State University Press, 2008)
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Jacqueline Keeler
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