a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
It be May in Ireland, you
and your lover seeking
Queen Maeve’s cairn atop
Knocknarea – that poet warrior
whose hair sparked down
her eight feet length til it
touched quartz white feet,
until there, there, you spot
Maeve’s cairn like a bold nipple
even in fog, as if King Ailill
had just kissed it. Your mate
drives you through gorse yellow
as joy, coconut scents adrift
in strands of mist evoking
ancient spirits and fairies silvery.
Then trail head sign –
“Great stone mound was probably
erected circa 2500 B.C.” Ambling
up pebbly path you feed grass
to auburn mares, recall
how the flame-haired queen
outran stallions and caused
enemy soldiers to lie down
in awe when they beheld
her thighs and lyrical mouth,
Medhbh meaning intoxicating.
It be May in County Sligo,
rain gleaming like swords
of a mythic time. Tis
a bit of a hike, and near
breathless you feel when you
pass the rise that lets old eyes
behold Queen Maeve’s cairn
close up. Be it true she stands
inside that hive of rocks,
upright with her warrior’s shield?
O you can only kneel
where it brings good fortune
to leave a stone, bad luck
to steal one off the cairn –
give vala airy as gull bone,
volcanic stone from an epic
Icelandic friend, honor Medhbh’s
fire waiting inside the ash
of centuries. And who passes
as your king kneels by you
who once had fiery hair. Two
violets glisten near the mound,
Ailill and Maeve, he and I,
and rhyming down – the rain.
“When a dark moon comes to live inside your soul,
get in touch with your Creator – you are not alone.”
Mohawk musician & songwriter, Robbie Robertson
Ask about home, and my tongue might stay still. For I am a woman who drifts inside mute riptides of homesickness more than she inhabits what home signifies for those who possess at least the illusion of security. I am a “mixed-blood” writer of Blackfoot, Mohawk and some Seneca lineage, only I hate definition by blood quantum. Such fragmentation was forced on us by non-Native racists, one of many ways to exterminate us. Sadly, there now exist Government-tamed Indians who identify their brothers and sisters in terms of red corpuscles rather than their Red spirits. But my unique Catskill Indian tradition identifies people by heart. Is your heart of passion, integrity, and bravery enough to express tenderness, kindness, and love’s mountain rose openness? Are you of good mind? Do you live in a way that considers the next seven generations to come? If so, we can begin to speak of real identity and of real home.
I am an indigenous woman born sixty-four years ago to a life of wandering. Even when sitting motionless in one place that projects an appearance of home, I am not at home. Other Americans became acquainted with this brand, if not branding, of homelessness through the emotion-explosion that shook them to deepest bone after planes smashed into Manhattan’s Twin Towers on a blue September morning in 2001. They felt shocked, invaded. When the flying body parts, blood and debris settled into a mass grave and smoldering stench, this country collectively imploded into fear, anger and depression. In a profound sense bereft of home, its dreamers now woke in summer’s end nights to images of razor blades pressed against wrists or guns inside mouths.
I and other First People already were “at home” with suicidal feelings in a land that had been stolen from us, declared by invaders centuries ago to be no longer our home. The continent that my Iroquois ancestors named Turtle Island, after our Creation story, was re-named America after an Italian pickle dealer, Amerigo Vesupucci. How humiliating to have our land labeled by an adventurer who misrepresented my Haudenosaunee ancestors as savages. We, the Ongwe Howeh and Wahkonnyh Howeh, the Real Men and Real Women, the Shining People, felt shocked, invaded, by being treated as if we possessed “no shine.” Vespucci and other men “with snakes in their hair” twisted our realness into an un-realness for which we felt no relationship.
When the colonists rebelled against England, they further stole from us, patterning their new government after our Iroquois Confederacy. Unfortunately, they omitted essential aspects, including equality of women with men and our sensitive regard for children. The pale-eyed invaders appreciated that for a people to be strong they must be as five bound arrows, unbreakable, as the Peacemaker who envisioned our Confederacy showed us. But for the so-called founding fathers, “the people” meant moneyed white men, not the indigenous people they ravaged, not the African people they forced into body/spirit-breaking slavery, not poor whites, most certainly not women.
Yes, after 9/11 Indian people marveled among themselves, “Now non-Indians know how we feel. Do they truly think this the first time ‘their America’ has been invaded?”
Ask about home and, after my tongue holds back in the traditional way that doesn’t move to clock time with quick answers, I may tell you about the Ides of March following that fateful September. I may tell about riding a Greyhound Bus from Binghamton, New York, where I then lived, to Manhattan, for one of those weekend sojourns in a rapturous medley of Washington Square Hotel, museums, parks, Big Apple avenues, neighborhoods and restaurants. My Korean lover, another poet, accompanied me. Sunday night we braved the long elevator ride to Empire State Building pinnacle so we could view the city lights. On that evening early spring winds whirled fierce at a hundred and two stories up, shoving us against walls where we hugged each other’s shivering bodies, laughing among the runaway appaloosas of clouds but also shaking as the building swayed and shook. The urban winds shrilled like ghosts as we edged to the observatory’s perimeter, seeking where the World Trade Center once bragged to the sky of its height. We forgot the ghosts as electric-lit streets, neon signs and floating car beams shimmered up at us from a bejeweled grid of miles-vast metropolis.
My lover raised one elegant hand.
“Look,” he pointed.
I looked, found where his gesture originated. Two long beams of ethereal blue light tunneled up through air from where the Towers formerly barged towards sky.
Already nearly breathless from crashing winds and shimmying skyscraper, we could scarcely speak for all the loveliness of coupled lights stemmed out of the place of the dead. What eloquence in that simplicity of blueness. What tongue-less grief.
Oh, beautiful Turtle Island. Oh, wondrous America. Since first I beheld those lights an artist dreamed into being, I might say they conveyed the history of Indians since “first contact,” its unleashing of physical, cultural and spiritual genocide against this land’s First People. For how often have I and other Native people created some soft blue beauty out of centuries of colonization, outer and inner, out of all the stealings, silencings, dividings-and-conquerings?
Recently we passed the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. For over a decade we of Indian identity have listened to the paranoid talk of protecting the homeland, fear talk tied in with “homeland security,” hyper-vigilant babble poised to scapegoat others as non-patriots. We shuddered when George Bush, Jr. sent troops to “shock and awe” Iraq, another people’s homeland.
“Will all this paranoia rob us of more freedoms?” We ask each other with worried eyes, realizing we are being hit with a different version of terrorist attack from the United States Government. Who is reading our emails, tweets, text messages and Facebook posts, listening to our cell phone conversations or following our every move?
Some days the talk transports me back to when I was a small child making my acquaintance with being Indian. I invite anyone who cares about home and preserving home to imagine what it feels like to grow up Native, whether as “full blood” or “part blood” (again keeping in mind that traditional Indians do not define people by “blood”). Imagine what most people think childhood is supposed to be like, with its claim to joy, freedom, innocence. Aren’t children supposed to be sheltered as much as possible from the adult world’s brutalities? Ideally, shouldn’t they be able to trust their elders, expect “grown ups” to tell them the truth, accord them kindness?
But this ideal entitlement of childhood is not one that I was given. Nor have Native children for post-Contact centuries known such privilege, right up to the present day. As Indian people we grow up in myriad circumstances, some on reservations, some in rural areas apart from reservations, many in towns and cities. But what Native person hasn’t experienced early on an undermining of “at home-ness” because of what American textbooks, other books, or TV shows and films contain? What Indian child hasn’t been bombarded with words and images presenting Turtle Island’s indigenous people as noble savages, savage savages, “End of the Trail” savages?
What homeland can any Turtle Island child claim when anti-Indian words and images have existed since Columbus, remain embedded in America’s underlying racist structure? Even liberal, educated, supposedly enlightened people can reveal themselves to be enmeshed in either not really seeing Indian people or in perpetuating the racism. For instance, the University where I earned two of my degrees boasts brick buildings named after Indian nations. One building displays cereal box caricatures of Native people across its second story glass windows. For me, a woman of Indian heritage, this is a sickening insult. These buildings rise above the Susquehanna River Valley of New York State, where Iroquois men, women and children were massacred by Generals Clinton’s and Sullivan’s armies. Are the Indian names on those dull buildings replacing trees and flowers supposed to make up for the suffering of the ghosts? Should not our ancestors be accorded respect as much as anyone else’s ancestors?
From the time First Nations children first dance into consciousness they also stumble into awareness that they are the invisible children. They are the “two leggeds” who do not quite exist in the consciousness of most non-Indians. Early in childhood, I and others discovered ourselves hung with non-Natives’ stereotypes of us, including that we are all bedecked with the beads and feathers of an earlier century. If we fail to look like an Edward Curtis photograph or Italian-American actor playing the Injun in an old cowboy-and-Indian movie, we are not recognized as Native. If we speak eloquently, brilliantly, and wisely, non-Indians do not hear us as speaking in what is supposed to be the Indian way. If we crack jokes, laugh, they are surprised. Don’t Indians speak unsmilingly in monosyllables, “How” being their favorite word?
How different our realities, if not surrealities, from those stereotypes attached to us. I am one example of this difference, of why it can be so difficult for Indian people to feel “at home,” why we can feel perpetually homesick.
Born in Catskill Mountains, in a Borscht Belt town called Livingston Manor in 1950, I am of Native heritage on my mother’s side of the family. My roots burrow deep in this country. As with many Indians, there exist parts to my history long ago torn from remembrance. The earliest forbear that I know of is a Mohawk/Blackfoot woman who lived in the Mongaup River Valley in the early nineteenth century. She was a medicine woman who drowned while running herbs to a sick boy during a flood, the rising river knocking her off a small bridge into fast waters. My family does not have this woman’s name because she married a non-Indian who insisted that a Christian name, Cornelia, be chiseled into the gravestone instead of her real name, her shining name, her indigenous name. Some nights I cry from the ache and emptiness of the lost name. Will it someday surprise us in some attic, tucked away inside an old trunk, a falling apart book? Still dreamer people, we corral our wistfulness, dream with all our yearnings for that nominative entryway into a pre-medicine woman past barred to us.
When I grew up, people were generally secretive, quiet, about their Indian identities. White people shamed my mother’s generation for being of Indian blood, and to further complicate matters my mother carried some of the blood of the shamers. She made me perch in a red high chair each night, twisted metal curlers through my straight hair. If I slept with miniature torture instruments hurting my skull, come daylight I would look less of what I was. Curly hair would enable me to “pass” as a full-blood white girl, survive as a pretty green-eyed secret “on her way to ladyhood.”
As for my Indian grandfather, I vaguely perceived that he was regarded as a “wild Indian.” I adored my grandfather’s wildness or whatever it was, but only after I became a grown woman did I learn to what extent many people in the Catskills liked and respected my grandfather. I trailed after him everywhere he walked, until the end of that trail in 1956 when he died of a heart attack. To me, my grandfather was only kind, a silver-haired man in work pants and flannel shirts who spoke patiently, offered up marvels such as his pet raccoon or those bedazzling white pigeons he got to nest and coo under his porch eaves. He was a stone mason who built the house I grew up in as well as his and my grandmother’s house next door, an Indian man trying to shelter his family.
What a disjuncture between knowing the Indians encircling me and the alien Indians I read about in books or watched on the big movie screen during Saturday matinees. Impressed early on by my Indian grandfather, I grew up in an extended family of “breeds,” to use a now fairly passé word for those of mixed riverings of blood. One harsh realization for me and my elders, siblings and cousins, was that no matter how smart or handsome, pretty or polite we were, we remained suspect in some indefinable way. Before I ever started kindergarten I understood that I was different than non-Indian children, born into the identity of “other.” Well, their “other.” In my family we “part Indians” were all “a part of it,” a part of each other, a part of woods, meadows, sky, a part of mountains, rivers, lakes, fish, birds, and animals.
In that way perhaps I did possess home, despite my homeland having been murderously stolen. No child can quite comprehend this loss. The gap between what I experienced with Indian people in my family and what movies, TV, books and teachers presented us as being confused my budding spirit. I knew no family member who thwacked people with tomahawks, never smiled and greeted people by grunting. No relatives wore buckskin or painted forked black streaks across their sharp cheekbones. Nor did I know Indians who planned on vanishing anytime soon.
The people I knew were, well, people. Real human beings who loved their children, enjoyed gatherings, lived to talk, laugh, joke, tease. Occasionally they squabbled. Our ways could be viewed as being distinctly Indian, but not necessarily so. The boys and men fished and hunted; we ate venison, grouse, rabbit, and trout nearly every day. We went berry picking, gathered beechnuts and walnuts off trees and ground, collected apples from orchards in early fall. We hiked in the forests, far back into the mountains. And, yes, we believed in what some refer to as the Great Spirit or Great Mystery. Our dreams carried power and guided us, we knew that. Never did we share our ways with outsiders. My mother warned that they would consider us crazy if we did.
We even believed in being kind, truthful, and respectful to other people and all of life. How crazy is that in the “white man’s” world at its worst?
Then I started school. I was a smart little girl, brilliant in my studies if I so desired. But school and I entered into a love/hate relationship early on. I enjoyed learning, but a part of what I learned was that my teachers were either ignorant or so stupid that they did not have the intelligence to seek out the truth. Possibly they were unconscionable liars. I clashed with them as I grew older, braver, but they could silence even the bravest of children. If I disagreed that Manifest Destiny was a good thing, or that George Washington, Generals Clinton and Sullivan, Andrew Jackson, George Armstrong Custer were heroes, the marms and the masters would grade me down on my tests or class participation. My daily lesson became: Shut up. Be a nice little stereotype, a passive squaw.
My ultimate response? I began writing. My tongue was paralyzed but my fingers began flying like little medicine birds. The silencing which saddened me deeply soared into my greatest joy. Before kindergarten I made up stories and sang them. After attending school and being drilled in how to write, I began secretly writing down my stories and eventually my poetry, my deepest heart. My truth. Our truth. These were not any grand political statements, rather weavings of a shimmer-life in the Catskills, the life of a mountain family, of people who used the term “part Indian” to describe themselves, of human beings who were fiercely proud, gentle and passionate. My writing was of ceremony praying to bring that hurting of me, that insulting of my family, my people, back to a world of beauty and balance. Every letter on the page shape-shifted into a shield against the big lies that left me crying when no one could see.
So many people come to America, this Turtle Island, as immigrants. So many people leave their original homelands for this land, as if this land is no one’s original home. For me – for many Indian writers, most of whom are “mixed bloods” – the writing is rooted in my yearning to get back to home, the words untamed horses carrying me there. If I could have expressed this when a child, I might have whirled sunburnt in a Catskill meadow, tossed my hard-earned curls back, howled “What’s an Indian girl to do?” Indeed, what is an Indian girl to do? Or a woman? Or an Indian boy or man?
Every indigenous person in this country has had home stolen from him or from her. Ours is a land of ghosts. Our very bodies are that land. Is it true as I once read that close to ninety eight percent of Native people were wiped out during centuries following First Contact? Consider the immensity of that deliberate genocide and the collateral deaths from disease, starvation and suicide. But it wasn’t only those deaths. It was the deaths of cultures, of ancient knowledge, language, the keepings. Many Indian children were dragged off to boarding schools in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, punished severely if they spoke their languages, practiced their ceremonies. One reason that I wear and shall always wear my hair long is in memory of our children who had their hair cut, sometimes tongues cut, in the schools. My grandfather was dragged away to an orphanage after his mother died. At nine, his experience proved similar to that of boarding school children, one of imprisonment, forced labor, unremitting loneliness. No wonder my grandfather always helped other people, brought train-hopping tramps home with him during the Great Depression, fed them even when he and my grandmother scarcely had food for their children. No wonder, too, that he became a gambler, a man of late night streets, the “wild Indian” that I heard whispered stories about. Could a toss of red dice in an alleyway game of craps change our luck, make it all better, fill that hunger which lay quiet in all our eyes? No small wonder my grandfather’s great heart gave out in his mid-fifties. So many in my Indian family die too soon. How can I, a Woodlands Indian whose heart has broken more times than she can say, not regard such deaths as a metaphor for people whose hearts simply cannot bear such a life, such a history, anymore?
I could write many books about what I have witnessed in my span of walking, dancing, sometimes nearly crawling, for sixty-four years on Turtle Island, Mother Earth. I know why we Native people suffer the highest suicide rate of anyone in this country, including that this country is more our home than anyone else’s yet tragically less our home. We love this land but hate what has been done to it. Indians such as myself do not know what it is like not to be homesick. Where is our home? The forests continue to be slashed down, we are warned not to eat the fish, the air makes us sick. If we have children, they are forced by U.S. law to enter a system constructed to mold them into cynical test-trained automatons. Some fit themselves into it, some resist semi-successfully, some kill themselves. I, personally, never had children at all. That in itself is a form of suicide, but I never found a “walking in Beauty Way” man of sufficient sweet mountain heart to have sons and daughters with. So many of our men have been ravaged by colonization and now abuse women as certainly no traditional Iroquois man would, for women are the center and givers of life. Rape, hitting, verbal battering, disrespect of the woman was never our tradition and Confederacy warriors of the past would not even bother to torture a male who mistreated a woman; they would not regard him as “man enough” to be tortured. They just killed him outright.
Now there exists this America overtaken by a pervasive underlying fear never experienced before by its “white” citizens. America the invaded. America whose greedy rulers long ago filled me and other Native people with terror. I can only think of that March evening shivering in the winds and clouds at Empire State Building apex, that penultimate phallic symbol so of the men who stole and violated this land, invaders and killers cocky enough to assume that they and their arrogant descendants would not be held accountable. How beautiful the lights of Manhattan. I have been in love with those lights since as a teenage country girl I first saw them. But swaying high up with my beloved, I understood that those ethereal blue lights did not only rise from the ghosts of Twin Towers’ dead. They blossomed out of Indian people and land long buried by the city’s hard concrete, its even harder capitalism and greed. That evening we spoke of the two lovers who jumped off one of the towers, hand in hand. And I thought of the untold Native people who have plunged to their deaths, the ways in which they jumped out of desperate, collapsing lives.
I no longer dream that I shall ever get back the home my heart grieves and aches for. Gone forever, I know – not only in the sense of outside homeland but inside myself. For can land and spirit be separated? I was born to wander, so any journey towards home won’t ever arrive at a destination, a fire-lit and warming shelter. Home for me is only writing down the wings of bearing witness, of affirmation, perhaps transformation. No one allotted me a shard of land on this Mother Earth who has been raped many times over. No one bequeathed to me my worth and my beauty risen out of the land. My home can only be of recognizing to what extent my existence here is no more than the “flash of a firefly,” how its meaning resides in the magnificence of the flashing. Home glimmers in my green ceremonies of words, in whatever love and ephemeral loveliness I may give to my family, friends, and community.
Ask about home and I’ll remember a March evening when I swayed with an eagle-eyed man closer to Sky World, dancing with ghosts. I’ll remember our Creation story’s Sky Woman who plummeted to Turtle’s back, pluckily stood up and round danced shell into a verdant island after she lost all her former world. I’ll recall the white man’s invasion of this land and her Shining People, how so many of us have cried until we can shine no more. I carry an ancient story behind my defiant smile that others assure me is still of shining despite my tears. It is the story that ends like this: You do not begin to know the meaning of homeland until you lose home within you and without you. Forever.
Returned from April’s Cornell powwow
to Binghamton, Rod Serling’s hometown.
Changed into boots and warmer winter coat.
Walked down Vine Street, not knowing where,
or why, I wished to go. Stepped inside
Whole In The Wall, “Cappuccino to go,”
wandered past Art Theatre, “Powwow Highway”
in topsy-turvy letters across 1950s marquee.
Felt myself pulled up South Washington Street
past ramshackle houses, junk-strewn lawns.
Figured my destination to be Ross Park Zoo.
Ambled and dawdled, sun descending –
maybe I was lost. Spotted Zoo sign,
searched until I found Ross Park’s lower
entrance by foaming stream and waterfall.
Second sign on Park gate: NO TRESPASSING.
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
Slid across ice not yet melted in that place
shaded beneath hemlocks. Heard howling –
can’t be hearing this – more howls, invisible
powwow of haunting pain in paralyzed air.
Oh, Zoo’s red and gray wolves howling beyond
hemlocks hugging the mountainside! And I
of Wolf Clan now believed that twilight music,
burned to trot up the mountain on all fours,
lift snout and flat fathomless eyes to sky –
with those others moan moon, stars, dreams
into being. Stared at chain link fence
stopping me – vicious barbed wire top.
Made me think of concentration camps.
Made me remember Hitler patterned
his death camps after Indian reservations.
They lock us in. Fence us out. Keep us
apart from each other and loping free
over Mother Earth. Listened until
the howling ceased. Scurried back
among barking dogs to the grief
of Southside rooms.
After we get off the phone
your voice lingers, almost
like some soft night bird
in somber lamplight.
Past bedroom window
a quarter moon, beneath it
a star or planet.
If I could remember
how to read late winter sky,
maybe I’d know where
I’ll be moving to,
that move I told you about
when our voices braided together
through three thousand miles
of witching hour air. You tired
and I weary, trying not to feel fear
when my life balances on a high wire
of not owning an oversized house, too big car,
pipedream that possessing things will keep me safe.
Friend, your voice seems more beautiful
to me than anything I could ever buy,
moon out there makes me shine,
wide awake dream breaks open my heart.
Only it terrifies, this moving on again,
this being reminded we are all shape-shifting
stardust, and I just another Indian
with nowhere to die.
Susan Deer Cloud, a mixed lineage Catskill Indian, returned two Aprils ago to what she calls her mountain “heart country.” An alumna of Binghamton University (B.A. & M.A.) and Goddard College (MFA), she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowships, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and a Chenango County Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant. Published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, her most recent books are Hunger Moon, Fox Mountain, Braiding Starlight, Car Stealer and The Last Ceremony. As part of her dedication to getting First Nations voices heard, Deer Cloud serves as editor of ongoing Native anthology I Was Indian (Before Being Indian Was Cool) and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry (FootHills Publishing). Currently she is writing a mixed genre book centered around her and her ancestresses’ roving. http://sites.google.com/site/susandeercloud/.