Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Continuing Native American Heritage Month--"At the Stomp Dance"

"Contemporary Stomp Dance" by Marcine Quenzler
On the last day of Native American Heritage Month, I said I wanted to extend it at least to the end of the year, since it was the only time mainstream America paid any attention to or acknowledged that there were still Natives living in this contemporary world beside them, that we weren't just historical and extinct. That last may just be wishful thinking on some parts, since we are so inconvenient as reminders of the results of a history of genocide and ethnic cleansing that mainstream America chooses to forget.

Today's poem is about the stomp dance, which is the Cherokee equivalent of
church services--never forgetting that many Cherokee can be and are active in both traditional Cherokee ceremonies and Christian church services. I wrote this poem based on the stomp dances of my childhood down in Oklahoma. In it, the women all use shell shakers made of turtle shells. These were and are treasured heirlooms, handed down many generations through the line of female ancestors. Today, women are much more likely to use tin can shell shakers as more environmentally sustainable. The original
turtle shells were harvested when turtles were in great abundance and the turtles were eaten by the family before the shells were cleaned and used in ceremony and then handed down for generations. As the environment has changed and turtles become less abundant due to habitat loss and death by automobile, the Cherokee have adapted, not wanting to hunt them into endangered status.

Since I have lived away from the Cherokee Nation in adulthood, I have seldom had an opportunity to attend a stomp dance. When I do, they are not as elaborate as those of my childhood, usually no longer including the stickball games that used to accompany those of my childhood. However, the Cherokee stomp dance is still going strong in all the aspects of ceremony that make it so important. There is still the food, the focus on clans, the sacred fire, the men handing down the songs through the generations, the women with their shell shakers setting the rhythm of the dance, the spiral of prayer to the Creator. It is still as powerful as ever and as beautiful.


Cars, trucks, all day coming.
First the leaders and their helpers
set up the cook shed,
clean, rake the ball and dance grounds, 
refurbish the seven brush arbors
circling the dance ground—
helpers from each clan do this.

The women bring hot and cold dishes
from home, begin to cook and cover tables
while men build the sacred fire,
centered in the dance ground’s circle
to reflect the sun.

The crowd grows.
Flirting, catcalling between young men and women
turns into challenge. Head for the ball ground,
men grabbing ballsticks, women hands free—
all the better to rest on a hip while calling a sassy retort.
Game on, men against women,
each plays by their own set of rules
to much laughter and hooting.
The sad-eyed carved fish swimming through the air
on top of the pole in the center of the ball ground
watches benevolently
while the ball whizzes past
or—success!—strikes it.

Older women and others not playing call out
encouragement and laughing insults.
So do the older men, sitting in their lawn chairs.
All the while, final preparations continue
for the main event, the dance.
Women work on old cowboy boots,
making sure their turtleshell rattles
handed down the chain of daughters,
are securely fastened to the split-open tops of the boots.
They try them on and stamp their feet hard
to check the sound of the pebbles in the rattles,
to make sure they won’t come loose.

Children are everywhere underfoot,
watching ball game and sacred fire,
sniffing around the cook shed,
playing tag and hide-and-seek
outside the ring of clan shelters.
The elders of each clan—
Ani-Wahya (Wolf), Ani-Kawi (Deer), Ani-Tsisqua (Bird),
Ani-Gilahi (Long Hair), Ani-Sahani (Blue), Ani-Wadi (Paint),
and Ani-Gatagewi (Wild Potato)—
settle into each brush arbor
as the cooks call out that the food is ready.
Clan members bring food to the elders,
join them or eat with families, friends.

Now, the food is eaten and dishes cleaned.
Now, the turtledoves are calling as they nestle in to sleep.
Now, the fireflies are taking to the air with children chasing.
Now, the sun has set and the sacred fire brings back its light.
Now, the women put on their rattle-sewn boots.
Now, the old lead singer calls out the beginning,
Now, his brothers and nephews echo their response.
Now, his sisters and nieces step into the circle beside them.
Now, the women set the rhythm with their fast turtleshelled feet.
Now, the circle spirals out from the fire.
Now, the dance can begin.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Poems for Native American Heritage Month--"The Last Beloved Woman" and "Learning Cherokee"

I have been quite ill for months (in 3 months of being unable to swallow or eat much, I lost 50 pounds that the steroids had put on me ) and was coping with serious injury to my  right shoulder, as well as steroid myopathy stealing my ability to stand or walk much, before that. As a consequence, I have neglected this blog for too many months.

Here it is the end of Native American Heritage Month, and I have not posted one essay or poem for it--when I normally post one several times a week throughout the month. So, today, I'll post two poems for the last day of Native American Heritage Month as a bare minimum I can do for the one month a year the rest of the country remembers we are still here. And perhaps, on my own, I will extend Native American Heritage Month to the rest of the year on this blog.

She Speaks for Her Clan by Dorothy Sullivan
This painting is one of my favorites--"She Speaks for Her Clan" by Dorothy Sullivan--and it illustrates Cherokee clan mothers, and for Blue Clan in the center, it pictures Wilma Mankiller as a Beloved Woman. This first poem deals with Beloved Women and the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokee before Removal split the tribe into three different nations. The second poem is a history of Cherokee encounters with Europeans in the guise of a language lesson.


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)


O si yo. Hello.
To hi tsu? How are you?
Di qho ye ni u si wha. My hands are empty.
Ga do u s di hi a? What is this?
Gi ga ge i. Red.
U ne ga. White.
A ma. Water.
Wa do Thank you.
Yo ne ga. White man.
Nu la. Hurry.
Yv wi. The people.
Ga tli da. Arrow.
Ga yo tli gadO hi. Just a little land.
A ge ya. Woman.
A ni s ga ya. Men.
A sa no. Dress.
Qua na hl gv ni. Peach trees.
Ga yo tli gado hi. Just a little land.
A ha ni. Field.
Yv gi. Nail.
Ga yo tli gado hi. Just a little land.
Tsa ga se sde sdi! Be careful!
A de la. Money.
Tla hv. Absolutely not.
Ni gad a gado a! All your land!
Gi ga. Blood.
E hi sti yu. Pain.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Consumed by Politics

My husband told me last night, “It's hard not to be consumed by the disaster of this presidency. Every day there's some new outrageous thing, and it's become so clear that the stakes are higher than they've ever been.”

I had to agree, but I don't know if I want to go through the next years with some new outrage dominating the news every day. I wistfully long for the days when I could believe that the president, the Senate, and the courts had the best interest of the country at heart, even if the people in those seats came from the party I did not want to vote for.

Fortunately, I only face it all at night because I'm busy writing the ending to my book during the day with the internet off. Believe me, living in a world that's under attack by aliens that can even destroy Earth's gods to take their power, let alone puny mortals, is a much happier place to be than the real world I come back to in the evenings.

In my book, I've had to go back in time to 1812 to New Madrid, Missouri, a place and a time that was full of naturals horrors and wars. The New Madrid Earthquake that everyone talks about was actually three (or perhaps four, depending on which modern expert you choose) of the largest earthquakes ever recorded in the United States—and over 2,000 other earthquakes in a four-month period. The ground quite literally never stopped shaking, making even walking difficult. Huge rifts opened up and stayed for a century until dredging finally destroyed them. Eerie lights, explosions, and rumbling thunder came from the ground beneath. New lakes, swamps, and sunken lands were formed. Small volcanoes of salt, coal, tar and mud littered the landscape. The earth underneath the bed of the Mississippi River was shoved upward with such force that waterfalls formed in the middle of the river where there had been none before, and the river appeared to change direction and run upstream on two different occasions. The few towns that had been established were mostly or completely destroyed, and the biggest earthquakes were felt in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., where American leaders were dealing with the frightening lead-up to the War of 1812 against Britain.

Meanwhile, fifty miles from New Madrid, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the great warrior and strategist, Tecumseh, was meeting with his Shawnee and Delaware allies that might have helped him defeat the American colonists and stop the course of Manifest Destiny, confining the new country to the Eastern seaboard with an unprecedented alliance of independent Native nations defending the western two-thirds of the continent. While Tecumseh was there, American soldiers would attack his home settlement and burn it to the ground, leading to a series of events that would eventually destroy his burgeoning movement to hold back the destructive tidal wave of white settlement.

Dealing with this period in history reminds me that there have been troubled times before this, that there have been dangerous threats that were avoided or overcome and dangerous threats that were almost averted but occurred despite the best efforts—and people still managed to have lives and survive. I suppose we always think the times we're living in are the toughest and most dangerous.

I can't swear off the political news, so I suppose I'll continue to hear about each day's new disaster or outrage every evening. Fortunately, I'll still have the world of my book to exist within all day, and that should help me view it all with some little perspective. The sky is always falling, but somehow we manage to muddle through anyway.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

I GIVE YOU TO RIVER, a poem for National Poetry Month

Like my ancestors before me, I love rivers. The peace of running water always calms me, watching it ripple past slowly, hearing the murmur of the water over rocks and branches and the swish of it against the banks, spying the many lives that live along the river--fish, turtles, snakes, muskrats, beavers,   hawks, and eagles. For millennia, my people have always chosen to settle near rivers.

When I was growing up, I was taught to go to water when troubled or ill. Running water is strong medicine, good medicine. We pray next to it, and then use it to wash away whatever is troubling our hearts, minds, or bodies. Sometimes a creek or brook will work for me, but if I'm truly heartsick, I seek out a river.

This poem is another in a series of poems that I have posted to celebrate National Poetry Month. It is an exploration of this practice of going to water when troubled. In the worst kind of pain and grief, sometimes only a river can provide any release. For a healing ceremony, one needs to build a fire, say the right prayers, make an offering, but sometimes in the worst straits, it can be simply you and the river.


Turning to the water for release
from my troubles, from you,
I write your name in my palm with my finger,
then brush off the invisible letters
into the river currents passing at my feet.
I ask River to carry them out of my heart and mind,
carry them away from my life, remove all that darkness
that is you infesting my mind against my will,
replaying memories that were nothing
but playacting on your part,
though my heart tries to find excuses,
for all the deliberate pain.
I have to face it finally—there are none.
Hard to believe, but even harder to find
I still long for you.
This stubborn heart won’t give up.
So I barricade it, keep it safe from its stupid fidelity,
while I wait for River to carry out magic,
carry your name and games far from me,
set me free finally with the power of moving water,
my own inborn element,
which carves memories of trauma from the earth itself
and leaves wondrous scars.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

SPELL FOR BANNING A BOOK, a poem for National Poetry Month

We are living in dark times. We are living in times when lies are elevated above the truth and fantasies and “alternative facts” are elevated above fact and reality by our leaders and those in power over us. We are living in times when children kept in cages after being torn away from their parents are said to be in “summer camps.” We are living in times when the free press is called “the enemy of the people.” In fact, we are living in times that become more and more reminiscent of the rise of Nazi Germany than we would like to believe or experience.

We are living in times when the president of the United States tweets out his desire to censor newspapers, television news programs, entire sections of the press, and published books. So far, he has not succeeded in this, even though he daily tweets out his condemnation of “fake news” and his desire to change the libel laws to undercut the First Amendment, but the situation looks grimmer every month and week and day. It reminds me forcibly of the book burnings of the Nazi regime.

One of the earliest and most important steps a dictatorship must take is to seize control of the narrative. Thus, we see the multitude of lies and the constant accusations of fake news. The next step is censorship, which grants so much control over what the populace can know, and after censorship comes the destruction of books and magazines which contain the truth and not the regime’s propaganda. Along with this, we always find persecution of journalists and writers and poets who are not willing to spout the regime's line. Unfortunately, history gives us all too many examples of this through the ages. In the photograph at the top of this blog, Nazis are burning books in Germany.

This poem is about this process of banning books, which continues to be a threat down through history. Not too long ago, we had books by Latino and Native and Black authors banned in public school districts in the Southwest, which led to a band of activists gathering those forbidden books  and smuggling them across multiple states into those school districts to educate those children. This was called the Librotraficante movement and led to the courts reinstating those books in the school district. Vigilance is the price of freedom.


First, find a censor.
This will be hard—
not that censors are rare,
but they are adept mimics.
Do not be fooled. No matter
how benevolent its disguise,
a frightened censor is dangerous.
Approach with caution.
To safely capture it
for your spell, you must circle
the censor chanting soothing
nonsense syllables.
It is meaning that terrifies

Surround the stupefied censor
with charms made from advertising
photographs of a mythical golden age—
smiling mothers
in high heels and aprons, silent fathers
keeping sentinel on horseback, sexless
children never asking
questions. Sacred to the censor,
such charms have power
to blind it.

Select the book
you want banned.
Set it outside the circle
of charms, and carefully
remove the charm nearest
so the censor can detect
the presence of an attempt
at meaning.

Protect yourself.
Enraged censors have been known
not only to ban books
but to burn them
and then press on to people.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

COMING AROUND AGAIN--a poem for National Poetry Month

It has been almost 5 years since I began my battle with breast cancer. This poem for National Poetry Month looks back on that time and on other times before that when death was a possibility for me. One advantage of becoming an elder is that death is no longer the boogeyman, the monster in the closet.

This poem speaks to that love for life that keeps us clinging to the mortal realm, even as different aspects of our bodies weaken or begin to fail. It becomes possible to take the long look, and when that becomes possible, fear dissolves.


Three years ago—three years of poison and desperate
positive thinking—they cut off my breast,
carving out the lymph nodes
of the underarm as well.
They left me with an ugly, puckered scar
14 inches long and 3 inches wide,
raised one-half to one inch high
along its length, and another
incision 3 inches below that scar
where a length of tubing inserted
into the chest drained
blood and lymph into an attached bag
for 3 ½ pain-filled, sleepless weeks.

Death has come looking for me before this
several times. I have always tricked her
into leaving me to my life a little longer,
Scheherazade putting the random scenes
of daily living into dramatic narrative,
heightening conflict and tension,
generating suspense, embellishing
dull parts to create more spark and excitement,
adding touches of humor to lighten the mood,
a story playing out in front of her
to which she needs to know the ending
before she brings down the final curtain.
I’ve grown familiar with Death’s face,
can read it to tell if I need to spice up the story
because she’s losing interest. Old friend
and familiar, she bears no horror for me any longer.

I have seen the long view through her eyes,
the sacred labyrinth of galaxies
spinning out of control throughout the universe
pulling apart in spiral motion, eternal
dissipation of energy rippling outward
with magic like the violent change brought
by tropical storm clouds seen from the air,
galactic snake coiling around stars and planets
and black holes whirling like water
down a drain, sucking all matter and energy
within reach, voracious maws, widdershins,
sunwise, ears of creation cocked
for the song, symphony, story, vining
through the nebulae, gathering tension
and force, the vast’s giant spring pulled taut,
ready to snap back into the kaleidoscope,
force of tornadoes, whirlwinds,
passing into the still eye surrounded
by the stomp dance of the stars,
Creator’s medicine wheel, coming,
going, bringing, leaving, giving, taking,
moving up and down around the spiral
of time, infinity’s tilt-a-whirl.

Remaining attached to this life, these loved people,
I have no wish to join the stardust spiral dance
of destruction and creation before I must.
I’ll stay here in this incarnation as long as I can,
loving this insane world’s dark and light moments
and the people, trees, birds around me, clinging
until the last to its chiaroscuro, yin and yang.
Still, I won’t fall screaming into the void
when my time is up. I’ve seen the wheel of fortune
that is the cosmos. Life is circular, grinding all of us
into crumbs of creation, raw material for new wonders.
I’ve promised myself and lovely bony Ms. Death
I will embrace my ride on the celestial merry-go-round.
But the story’s not over yet—there’s at least one more chapter
before the spectacular, mystifying, completely satisfying climax.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

WHAT CROW SAYS--a poem for National Poetry Month

I have a strong propensity for crows. They're birds that don't get the love and respect that other birds do because they're not as flashy in appearance and their voices are harsher, even though they are classified as songbirds.

Crows are intelligent, can make tools and remember the faces of those humans who have been a threat to them or their community, even have rituals to mourn their dead. They often bring us messages of wisdom from the Creator and show us the way when we need guidance.

This poem is the first in a sequence of mine called "First Cousins Speak." In these poems, some of our relatives in the larger world discuss humans, those troubled, puzzling late-come additions to Creation.


This is how gods are made.
The land is wild and free,
soil just beginning to cover the warm rock.
One day, the stone lights up
with the dreams of animals.
Out of the shining,
something other awakens.
These things happen so easily.
Nature is crowded,
everything intent on being warm.
Who knew what damage dreams could wreak?

This furless, clawless thing created
from whatever’s wasted or not wanted in us,
we watched it arise
walking on two feet like Bear
but so weak and slow.
Bear can outrun a horse,
kill a deer with one blow.
It should have died but didn’t.
Some tenacity kept it alive
and breeding and changing
the very world around it

We all spoke the same language
until that changed, too.
Now we’re left with consequences.
Now we are the other,
everything other to this being.
We are the constant target in the crosshairs.
Now we live with the burden of being seen,
living into our observed death.
Great plans never work out.
Chaos is forever seeping in.
All it takes is a crack in creation
like this to ruin everything.

Here is a wound no spell can heal.
We’ve tried them all.
Not even Spider can weave us whole again.
Spoilage creeps over the whole land.
Cherish your wildness.
It’s all we have left.
Live close to the edge.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publishing, 2018)