Saturday, November 10, 2018

Whitewashing History--A Native American Heritage Month Essay

Our current president has a habit of insulting Native America, not only by calling Senator Warren “Pocahontas,” but by installing a portrait of Andrew Jackson, architect of Indian Removal and of genocide, in the Oval Office in the place of honor before bringing in Native Code Talkers to honor them for their contribution to the war effort in World War II. The worst, however, is when he says, our ancestors tamed a continent,” and “we are not going to apologize for America,” referring to the destruction of millions of Native lives.

Our ancestors tamed a continent,” of course, refers to the idea  of the North American continent as an empty wilderness, devoid of human life, a place ripe for the taking. Of course, our current president is not famous for his intelligence or his knowledge, but this concept of the “Virgin Soil” has had plenty of play among academics, as well.

This kind of misguided and, in some cases, deliberately dishonest, information is why I always caution my students in workshops and classes I teach on writing about other cultures to regard the works of outside academics as questionable and to give greater weight to first-person narratives from people within that culture or diaries, letters, writings, such as poetry or fiction, from people within that culture. The paragraph below is in every talk I give on this subject and every lesson in any online class that I teach and speaks directly to that issue.

As a part of this second danger, one thing you must remember about doing research on other cultures in books, libraries, on the internet, is that much of it is wrong, accidentally or willfully. Accidentally, because journalists, anthropologists, other scholars, and explorers may have misinterpreted what they saw or heard or because—and this was common—their informants deliberately misinformed them to protect their people or to protect their own source of whatever the white man was providing them. Consequently, even primary sources from past times can be contaminated if they are “as told to” or are translated. Willfully, because a lot of that research was done by people, usually white men, who had an agenda that placed wealthy white male Europeans at the pinnacle of creation and everyone and everything else downhill from that, which led to eugenics and a lot of other horrid, stupid things. So there's your second caveat: You can do your research and still get it wrong in some way.”

This idea that there was no Native genocide because disease alone killed all the Indigenous peoples on the continent, leaving it conveniently vacant for Europeans is a race-based “intuitive” theory from the 1970s that has been refuted since the end of the 20thcentury by scholars actually working with primary documents and other evidence. The “virgin soil thesis,” based on the belief that Natives’ lack of immunities and their inept healers were responsible for their downfall, was propounded by Alfred Crosby in 1976. This theory was quite popular for a time early in the last half of the 20th century because it placed all the responsibility for the massive death counts among Indigenous peoples after European arrival on the Indigenous people themselves because they were genetically weak, lacking in acquired immunity, and lacking in competent medical care, rather than on the violence waged against them by Europeans from the very beginning of contact and continuing into the early 20th century.

As David S. Jones points out in “Virgin Soils Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly(October 2003), “Perhaps the idea that Indian depopulation can be explained by the Indians' lack of immunity took hold because it served an ideological purpose. White physicians in South Africa, for instance, used virgin soil theory to explain the prevalence of tuberculosis among African mine workers. … theories of immunological determinism can still assuage Euroamerican guilt over American Indian depopulation, whether in the conscious motives of historians or in the semiconscious desires of their readers. … the epidemics among American Indians, despite their unusual severity, were caused by the same forces of poverty, social stress, and environmental vulnerability that cause epidemics in all other times and places.”

David Stannard argued in American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York, 1992) 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."

Paul Kelton, author of Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight Against Smallpox, 1518-1824 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015) and "Avoiding the Smallpox Spirits: Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival," Ethnohistory, 50 (Fall 2003), is yet another of the many scholars who have gone to actual primary documents and other evidence to examine this thesis as it pertained to the Cherokee Nation and found that many epidemics were not as severe as had been claimed or assumed and that the Cherokee healers and spiritual beliefs were as effective as the primitive medicines of the Europeans in dealing with smallpox. He also discusses the part that the overwhelming violence—the bitter wars that decimated population, the actions of the white settler armies in destroying towns, homes, farms, and stored harvests in an attempt to starve the Cherokee, the forced surrender of huge swathes of territory necessary for a hunting-gathering existence—played in rendering the surviving remnant of Cherokees susceptible to smallpox and other illnesses.

As far as the idea that the Europeans thought the continents were empty, there is such abundance of evidence of the contrary that the idea that academics would put that forth as fact in university classrooms and scholarly publications is ludicrous. The history of the United States is filled with statesmen lamenting the fact that American Indians own the land they want and with their plans and chicanery to force them to sell or give it or to just force them off the land. That relentless push westward that came to be called Manifest Destiny in the 1840s continued from the first landings of Europeans on the Atlantic Seaboard through the war with Tecumseh, the Indian Removal Act and many Trails of Tears (killing tens of thousands—one would think that alone would qualify for designation as ethnic cleansing or genocide), to the Indian Wars of the 19th century, while in California, the Spanish mission system devastated the Native population, and when the Americans took over, they offered official government bounties on Indian heads. Not exactly the acts of people who thought the continent was vacant.

As far as various academics’ statements that the destruction of the native population could not be genocide because it was not “deliberate or on purpose,” I offer a tiny sampling of the quotations from speeches, letters, newspaper articles, and other documents to be easily found in a search through American history. The researcher will easily find many, many more quotations from Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, and many other Founding Fathers and presidents, as well as governors and other civic leaders, all speaking of the need to wipe out the Indigenous population of the continent.

The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” – General Phil Sheridan

Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under god’s heaven to kill Indians! Scalps are what we are after… I long to be wading in gore!” – Rev. John M. Chivington, co-founder of the University of Denver and leader of the Sand Creek Massacre

"Civilization or death to all American savages." – Major James Norris

Discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest.” – Chief Justice John Marshall

The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.” – General George Washington, orders to troops, 1779 [Those captured prisoners of every age and sex were then sold as slaves to the West Indies.]

This erasure of the destruction of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is a pervasive problem in this country. Witness the proponents of the virgin soil thesis of the past century, who were the modern versions of the Puritans rejoicing, after one massacre, that they hadn’t had to commit another due to disease and starvation, thanks to the mighty hand of God. The history of this country is a history of broken treaties with Indian nations, a history of massacres and forced removals that killed many thousands, a history of continuous greed for the land and other possessions of the Indigenous people and violence and wars to obtain what was so desired. The history of this country is a history of theft and slavery, a history of prisoner of war camps called reservations (that Hitler studied and used as models for his concentration camps—he admired the efficiency of the U.S. genocide of its Native population and emulated it in his own Final Solution), a history of official bounties on Indian heads, skins, and scalps. The history of this country is a history of kidnapping children and imprisoning them in boarding “schools,” rife with physical and emotional abuse—“Kill the Indian to save the man!”—a history of forced sterilization and medical experimentation without consent. If you look at it openly, it adds up to something that can hardly be called anything but ethnic cleansing and genocide.

So, of course, as a country, we don’t look at it openly—and when someone forces us to face it, we cry, “Not true! Get over it! Victim studies! PC,” anything we can to make the awful truth go away and be buried once again. Still, it happened, and the results of it remain with us, especially embedded in Native communities and lives. American popular culture is still in the grip of Manifest Destiny and “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” with the enshrinement of the Hollywood Western as one of our great art forms. I would hope for better from academia, however, where the truth is supposed to have value above belief in American exceptionalism, but I am often disappointed.

This situation is a perfect example of why we need ethnic studies classes—and why they should be part of the required core of classes and not electives that only a few students will take. Our citizens need to know our history, to know what we’ve done as a country, to know how we got here today, to know the truth and not the photoshopped Hollywood version of who we really are. Without that knowledge, we will continue to make the same mistakes, doomed to repeat the past we choose not to know.

Monday, October 8, 2018

My Columbus Day Poem

Officially in the United States, today is Columbus Day, celebrating the rapist, enslaver, torturer, and murderer who accidentally landed in the Caribbean while trying to find India. Apparently, not the brightest bulb on the planet, either. (This day used to be known as Lost Italian Day in my family.) 

In many cities and states, however, enlightened people have chosen to celebrate Indigenous People's Day, in honor of all those who were robbed of lands, killed, and enslaved by Columbus and those European invaders who followed his lead and of their resilience and that of their descendants.

As this holiday comes around again in our ever more divided nation--with many people who now say publicly that they would willingly emulate those people like Columbus who killed and enslaved Native people--here is my Columbus Day poem.

My Columbus Day Poem

Sometimes in the fall of the year,
men hit landfall
accidentally, men
who might as well be
ravening beasts
for they do more ravening
than any natural animals
who would be ashamed
to make welcoming people into slaves,
rape women and girls before killing,
set war dogs on naked unarmed
prisoners just for fun,
for the vicious excitement,
the sense of power.

Power, it’s always all about
power—and gold and sex and land
and power. Slavery
in the name of Catholic Christ
and empire. Land, millions of miles,
because no one else discovered
it, not even the millions living on it.
With a wave of a papal pen,
negate lives of nations,
make them resources like beaver,
buffalo, bear.
Solve inconvenient death
rates by ravaging
a different continent.
Looting Africa means no more
use for rebellious Natives.
Wipe them out.
Clear the continent
from sea to shining
and years later
with sales and parades.

Sometimes in the fall of the year,
I grow so tired
of anger and tears,
the bitter stink of history.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The War Against Women That No One Wants to Admit--and a Poem

Trigger Warnings for child molestation and abuse and for sexual assault and domestic violence.

Whenever I read this poem in public, I preface it with a statement that there is a war against women taking place, followed by the current statistics on sexual assault, rape, physical assault, and murder, statistics that have risen every time I check them again and which are always worse for women of color and Native women. I don't read this poem in public much, however, because it makes men uncomfortable--they shift in their seats visibly--and it brings so many women up to me afterward in tears to say that this poem was about their own lives. I have begun to feel that I should provide a therapist to the audience before I read it.

As we live through this Kavanaugh hearings/investigation nightmare, however, this poem feels appropriate. This is, ultimately, what patriarchy comes down to--women and girls at the mercy of men hurting them, simply because they can. We can always hope that they won't--and not all of them do--but ultimately, they can. And they can get away with it over and over again, while women who try to keep them from getting away with it suffer and pay a huge price. Nothing there has really changed since I was a girl, except that women are generally less and less inclined to go quietly along. Our rage has grown too great. Though things were supposed to have changed, this Kavanaugh situation has shown us that they haven't. But they will. They must.


Before I fall into the past,
I drive to the library,
thumb open a book
about the death of a child
in Greenwich Village and
to trash-filled rooms smelling
of milk, urine, beer and blood,
doors locked and curtains drawn
against the world,
dirty baby brother caged in a playpen,
mother nursing broken nose,
split lip, overflowing ashtray,
and father filling the room to the ceiling,
shouting drunken songs and threats
before whom I tremble and dance,
wobbly diversion, to keep away
the sound of fist against face,
bone against wall.

The book never shows
the other little brothers and sister hiding
around corners and under covers,
but I know they are there
and dance faster,
sing the songs that give him pleasure,
pay the price for their sleep
later, his hand pinching flat nipples,
thrusting between schoolgirl thighs,
as dangerous to please as to anger
the giant who holds the keys
to our family prison. Mother
has no way to keep him from me,
but I can do it for her and them.

Locked by these pages
behind enemy lines again
where I plan futile sabotage
and murder every night,
nine-year-old underground,
I read the end.
Suddenly defiant, attacked,
slammed into a wall,
sliding into coma, death
after the allies arrive,
too late, in clean uniforms so like his own
to shake their heads at the smell and mess—
the end I almost believe,
the end that chance keeps at bay
long enough for me to grow and flee,
my nightmare alive on the page.

Freed too late,
I close the book,
two hours vanished,
stand and try to walk
to the front door on uncertain legs
as if nothing were wrong.
No one must know.
I look at those around me
without seeming to,
an old skill,
making sure no one can tell.
Panic pushes me to the car
where the back window reflects
a woman, the unbruised kind.

In the space of three quick breaths
I recognize myself,
slam back into adult body and life,
drive home repeating a mantra,
“Ben will never hurt me--
All men are not violent,”
reminding myself to believe the first,
to hope for the last.


Years later, my little sister will sleep,
pregnant, knife under her pillow,
two stepdaughters huddled
at the foot of her bed,
in case her husband
breaks through the door
again. Finally,
she escapes
with just the baby.

My daughter calls collect
from a pay phone on a New Hampshire street.
She’ll stay in a shelter for battered women,
be thrown against the wall
returning to pack
for the trip back to Missouri,
a week before her second anniversary.
With her father and brother,
the trip home will take three days,
and she will call for me again.

Ana and Kay, who sat in my classes,
Vicky, who exchanged toddlers with me once a week,
Pat and Karen, who shared my work,
and two Nancys I have known,
among others too many to count,
hide marks on their bodies and memories,
while at the campus women’s center
where I plan programs for women students
on professional advancement
and how to have it all,
the phone rings every week with calls we forward
to safe houses and shelters.

In my adult life, I’ve suffered no man
to touch me in anger,
but I sleep light.

Published in Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)

Friday, September 21, 2018

A poem for Kavanaugh and the other men like him

Sources have told reporters that the GOP leadership is concerned about all the open anger from women circulating about the Kavanaugh nomination and the way they are dismissing, minimizing, and flat out blowing off the allegations against him of sexual assault. They're fearful that the Republican party will pay a steep price at the ballot box for their open acceptance of rape and sexual assault--and downright stunned at the fierce reaction of women. Who knew this was such a sensitive issue?

Twitter and Facebook are full of women telling of their own stories of assault at a young age that are much like Dr. Blasey Ford's and of the pain, fear, shame, and lasting damage they've endured. Other women are trying to comfort and support them. And yes, we're filled with rage.

Here's a poem of my own to explain to these men what they're dealing with and what they've unleashed.


is good for the soul, they tell us,
but what of the body, pressed
into service against its will but lacking
ability to say no, being female
and young and poor and only
“some little half-breed girl,
you know what they're like,
born fucking,” implicit permission
of the white man's imagination?
Backed into corners, pulled into alleys,
too small, body still growing,
to put up a good fight against grown-man muscle,
coming away with bruises, black eyes, broken
jaw one time, but fighting hard and blind spitting crazy
enough to make it not worth their while
to consummate. The refuse-to-remember first time
taught that fear-backed rage, that cunning
need to find anything at hand to inflict pain,
make them stop, lamp, end table, chair, boom box,
teeth to arm, stomp on instep, kick to groin.

Grown now, safe, heavy, elder,
if my surroundings smell wrong,
they suddenly flick me back—old, bad,
dangerous times. I forget I'm not small
and powerless. Fury fills my veins, and eyes
search for something to transform into weapon,
whole body throbbing with desire
to punish, inflict pain, drive off, destroy.
I walk through the world, a quiet lie.
Such dark lives within me
like a hidden serpent, rage-dragon,
while I politely order tea.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Hand Therapy--A Writer's Poem for the Labor Day Weekend

After two months of immobilization of the right arm and shoulder to try to begin the healing for my badly shattered right shoulder joint that needed but couldn't have complete surgical replacement, my right hand was not working well. I couldn't sign my name, and my signature with my left hand was totally illegible.

As I've been able to slowly begin physical therapy for the shoulder and arm, I've also been doing PT exercises for the hand, as well. Two weeks ago tonight, I gave a poetry reading at The Writers Place in Kansas City, and I was able to sign copies of my new book of poetry, Dark Sister, that folks so kindly bought. This was a big step forward for me.

I have always been a handwritten journal person. I collect beautiful notebooks and journals and fountain pens, and people give them to me as gifts. I wrote in one most days of each week. I haven't been able to since April 4th, when I fell and shattered this shoulder. But tonight I have handwritten a short paragraph in my current journal. My therapist told me to do it every day now until it hurts, along with spinning and knitting, because it will help exercise and strengthen the muscles and tendons.

Something about this whole idea reminded me of what we writers do, so here's a poem about that.


Bring your palms together in prayer
against your chest. Feel the pull

in the once-broken right wrist.
Release, relax, and repeat ten times.

Squeeze the putty to make a fist.
Pinch it between your thumb and each finger,

one after another down the length
of the squeezed-out roll, creating a wavy snake.

Hook the tips of all four fingers, trying
to touch tips to bases, but inches of air

keep them apart. Pull those fingertips
to the center of the palm to make a fist

without the putty’s help. Stretch them
down toward the base of the hand.

Struggle to hold a pen and write a line.
Stop when the fingers tingle and go numb.

For what are we humans without the hand, clever, useful
appendage, connected so closely to our big brains,

that cuts, creases, carries, and caresses
our way through daily obstacles and opportunities.

Write another line and a second before the pain
sets in—the way every writer has to work.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Last Beloved Woman of the Cherokee--Poem

"She speaks for her clan" by Dorothy Sullivan
The Cherokee, like so many Native nations, were matrilineal. The fields, homes, and children all remained with the mother and her family if the couple separated. 

Women had political influence in the councils, could negotiate with other nations, and were clan leaders. When European men first encountered the Cherokee, they were appalled at the influence Cherokee women had at a time when they kept their own women as chattel. In turn, the Cherokee men were appalled that the Europeans had no women in their councils.

The highest role a Cherokee woman could achieve was "ghi gua," Beloved Woman or War Woman. Nanye-hi, the subject of this poem, had served an apprenticeship in diplomacy with her powerful uncle, Attakullakulla, so she was well-prepared for the role she held for most of her adult life. She also saved the life of a white captive and learned from her how to weave cloth on a European loom, bringing that knowledge back to her people. It was said that, upon her death, a white light left her body and entered the most sacred mound in the Mother Town, Chota, at a time when Removal (which she had fought against for so long) was almost upon the Cherokee.

Nanye-hi was the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokee until the 1980s. 


Mother-clanned, the Cherokee towns,
farms, and orchards, before all were stolen
by those who forced the People on the long dread march west,
belonged to the women, as did the children.

Nanye-hi, in 1738 born
a daughter of the Wolf Clan,
married Kingfisher, bore two children.
During the Battle of Taliwa,
she took her dead husband’s place,
avenged his death, rallied warriors to victory,
became a ghi gua.

Ghi gua, or Beloved Woman,
title given by the seven clans
to women who had served the People
as warriors and mothers both.
Given a swan’s wing and special place in council,
the ghi gua even held a voting seat
on the Council of Chiefs. With their swan wings,
they had the final say
over whether the town went to war.

Today I watch women go to a war foolish as many,
often leaving babies behind.
Something’s out of synch, though.
It’s still old men, who’ve never set foot on battlefield
nor suckled a babe, making decisions of war and peace.

Nanye-hi married again, a white man named Ward.
Nancy Ward, the ghi gua, respected
among Cherokees and settlers,
warned settlements of impending attacks,
to prevent complete war,
negotiated treaties, all later broken.

At the end of life, settlers forced
Nanye-hi from her home to die before the Trail of Tears.
Trying to fit the white man’s mold,
the Cherokee shed their councils.
No place for Beloved Women.
Nanye-hi Nancy Ward was the last ghi gua.

We need women with swan wings.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Drunk Screenwriters Write My Family History

My husband is an internationally recognized scholar in his field and a research maven, so naturally he was drawn to the project of tracing my family history with a grandmother who had married and divorced thirteen times to ten different men. Most experts like a challenge, and my convoluted family history seemed a challenge he would take on and defeat easily with his ninja research skills. This weekend at lunch, he moaned to me about the latest bizarre twist he'd uncovered. “The more information I collect, the more confusing it gets, and the less I know,” he complained.

We laughed at the strange tale he's just uncovered about my great-grandparents and the way that means he once again has much more work to do and it will be more difficult. He said, “No one would believe any novel you wrote with all the unbelievable but true stories about your family. They'd say it's too contrived and incredible.”

This left me picturing a group of drunk screenwriters sitting around, desperate to pitch a story that will excite the studio execs and get funding and become a huge hit.

Amy says, “We'll begin with a guy who marries a woman while he's using an assumed name—and he doesn't tell her about it for years, but when he does, she has kids and goes on with him under his real name.”

Dave adds, “But they keep divorcing each other, marrying different people, then divorcing those people, and remarrying each other again and again.”

“Yeah, I like it,” says Martin. “They're each the great love of the other's life, but they just can't seem to make it work. That's give us lots of dramatic conflict.”

“And then,” Amy continues, on a real roll now, “their oldest daughter, who's grown up with all this passionate craziness, gets married young and leaves husband and baby a year later to marry another guy, whom she leaves in less than two years with another baby, to go marry a guy with the Texas Rangers, who gets killed in a gunfight, causing her to lose another baby, and then she goes on a real tear, marrying and divorcing guys all over the place.”

Martin laughs as he's taking a swig of vodka and spits it all over. “And one of them is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who loves her so much that he keeps hanging around even after she dumps him and remarries her whenever she's in some kind of trouble, but keeps hanging around even after she jilts him again and again.”

Dave nods with a grin. “Loyal Dobbin. Every story needs a loyal Dobbin.”

“We've got to make it weirder,” says Amy. “More complications. Maybe the Texas Ranger isn't really dead and starts trying to find her, but she's marrying all these guys and taking their names. Oh. And she starts out as Bessie, but she decides Agnes is a name with more class—she's trying to marry her way up the social ladder, a real Becky Sharp right out of Thackeray on the American frontier.”

“Nah! Make it Indian Territory before it became Oklahoma and make her an Indian and some of these guys she marries early on Indians, too, but then she's going for richer white guys.” Dave grins again. “And of course, we've got Martin's crazy Czech hanging around, poor at first but he could be making himself richer and richer for the sake of her.”

“I like it!” Martin says. “And she also masquerades as someone named Dolly, too, when she wants to get out of a tight situation. Then, as she gets older and more settled, we've got those abandoned kids to come looking for her and make her life difficult in revenge.”

“I've got it!” shouts Dave, jumping around and half-falling over in drunken excitement. “She was the oldest of a big family and born while that father was still using a false name. Her birth name isn't even what she thinks it is. Maybe her dad was a crook or a wanted man of some kind. Maybe someone finds out and blackmails her.”

“Yes!” screams Amy. “When she's older and thinks it's all behind her, her son can come back and rape her baby sister she's always been closest to, and on her deathbed, her daughter will find her and accuse her of ruining her life and tell her she's glad she's dying.”

Martin shakes his head. “Dammit! I hate that Bette Davis is dead. Would she make a great Bessie/Agnes or what? It would be Oscars all the way. I can see it now.”

The three are now so drunk and stoned on the weed they've been smoking along the way that they just lay back in a beatific stupor, sure that they've come up with the greatest movie concept ever and their fortunes are surely made.

I am married to a man of fortitude, however, and he has only begun to fight. He's currently trying to track down the marriage certificate for that initial marriage between my great-grandparents under the false name—and who knows what new dramatic material he will uncover when he does?