Those constant readers of my work will notice a theme running through much of my poetry: degradation or loss of cultural identity.
In 2005 I attended the Intertribal Powwow in Melbourne, Florida. I went at the request of my parents who are fans of such things.
What I found was how much was not there. People will tell me one finds what one already sees. In part, true. But if I find loss in the cultural heritage of native peoples, I am neither alone nor the first. Indigenous peoples all over the US are starting to question sending their children to state-run schools, have begun to teach their native languages, held on the tongues of only the eldest members of the tribe and often in danger of being lost, have started re-co-opting celebrations brought to them by the missionaries with their own, replacing the new myths with their old. Everything old is new again.
Some have handled this by bridging the worlds Native and Christian. They see syncretism and commonality in worship, celebration. They hold on to their heritage but practice, in many ways, an amalgamation. They flow back and forth and fit in.
And some hold on to their chains.
This is true of Native American groups.
This is true of African groups.
This is true of European groups.
It is true of me.
In his essay, “Jesus Is Lord on The Crow Reservation,” (Notes from the Dreamtime) Craig R. Smith discusses his own suprise as an outsider experiencing this degradation during his travels across the West.
So, here is an essay wrapped in a poem. Or a poem in essayic clothing. Either way, it’s a shame.
An Intertribal Unity Powwow
Is being held at the field at
The local community college.
Come early and stay late
We are told
Bring a chair and enjoy the festivities.
It advertises $10,000 in prizes for dancers
Education in tribal heritage
And a spectacular Grand Entrance.
We pay $5.00 each to get in
At a booth run by
The Boy Scouts of America.
We enter along into the Indian World
Row of vendors, frybread, hides, giant belt buckles
Plastic spears, buy and sell jewelry and kiddie bow and arrow kits.
And everywhere there are pictures of Jesus as an Indian.
Only 1% of Native Americans are recorded as following an aboriginal spiritual path.
Jesus Leads The Grand Entrance
It is Grand Entrance
And the participants enter
In silver and feathers.
Headdresses and hides flow
Over iridescent polyester dresses
And buckskin pants and flashing flag buckles.
Traditions succumb to Wal-Mart
As the sequined parade
Shines its way to the arena.
A snake through the fairgrounds
Dancers follow in a line
Behind the headman and headwoman.
In beaded regalia they lead
The troops of nostalgia
And Indian style.
Women march with children
All dressed in blue print covered
With small white crosses.
And I can’t tell
If they are offering themselves up
Or laying themselves low.
I cannot tell
If it is a symbol of sacrifice
Or ownership and surrender.
But I wonder
Who has nailed you to these
And sells you to the willing crucifixion?
In old Hollywood westerns the cavalry
Would come over hill
Just in time to save the Christians.
By killing the Indians
And leaving the skulls to bleach,
Each a small Golgotha.
Now, without bidding
You march your nations
And you bring your own nails.
Identification with the aggressor is a well-documented defense mechanism.
Opening the Powwow
In the arena
The microphone passes to the MC
And he begins the Veterans’ Dance.
Joined by Vets from the crowd
In a circle they move, stomp, walk
Following the Flag of the United States.
Next to me stands a man
Wearing a T-shirt showing
Four Comanche warriors.
The picture is pulled crisp by fat
As he stands to attention
I read the caption.
As the dance closes the MC
Leads the prayer
To open the Powwow.
The Veterans are blessed,
The dancers are blessed and
The venders are blessed.
But the grounds are never blessed
And the sky is never addressed
But they are thankful in the name of Jesus.
Or they are walking proof
Of the Stockholm Syndrome
And where is the great father now?
And what has Jesus done with your buffalo?
By 1885, the government estimated only 200 buffalo were alive in the wild.
Sawhorse Buffalo Guards Coyote
Spotted Pony Traders has a sawhorse out front
Higher than your head
Longer than your father’s body.
It takes the place of the bone and integrity
Of a buffalo whose skin
Rides the horse.
Draped down the sides
Massive and empty
Smooth and soft and I swear.
I pretend I can feel some
Remnant of the life that was once
So much a part of the beast.
One could hardly picture it
Herding across the plains.
As creature of beating heart and pounding hoof
One could scarcely imagine it
A sawhorse hide.
Inside the booth, faces
Fox faces, Raccoon faces
Five dollars each and two for eight.
I never pick one up
But lay my eyes, my hand on the table.
Atop the tipping piles of faces,
Feel the fox nose,
Another kind of skin.
Feeling the ears and finding an opening
My finger slips inside
This is where the brain was,
The seat of the living,
Once breathing fox.
I never touch the coyote.
Native Americans are 2.8 times more likely to have diabetes than whites.
Fast food Native American Style
I don’t know if the old Sioux
Knew he was stuck,
Blind, he was in his wheelchair.
Pushed by his old wife and his daughter
He ended three inches deep in the mud.
The women linger over him.
He cannot get out of his chair,
Stares ahead from his seat.
But he doesn’t see anything.
The old woman pulls at the handles.
These are part of the old man now
And she cannot move him.
Her daughter pushes it this way and that
Wiggles the chair but the only thing that shakes
Are the old handles.
She slips in the mud.
Her moccasins are covered with mud
Her mother’s moccasins are covered with mud.
I’m wearing crapstompers and dungarees
And don’t care about mud
As I wade in.
I pull hard at the wheelchair
To free the old Sioux
Of the mud.
It is nothing to do.
He is old and pale,
He is ancient, waifish,
Head to toe in buckskin,
Clothed in heritage.
The old lady thanks me
And I tell her it’s nothing,
It was nothing to do.
And it is a blessing
To be of use and
She tells me how hard it is
To take care of him, blind,
Lame, and diabetic, as is she.
And so many of her relatives
Her tribe, Other tribes.
It’s a long line for frybread and lemonade,
Elephant ears and curly fires and coke
At the booth marked Indian Food.
Frybread is the symbol for Intertribal Unity.
We are admonished to come early
For the Grand Entrance
And stay ‘till dark for the exit.
For all the great dancing between,
The vendors and
Fun to be had.
Stay for the Closing Dance
We were told.
A one of a kind event.
And the closing ceremony
Prayers and the
Magnificent Grand Exit.
At the Melbourne Native American Indian Intertribal Unity Powwow
We spent a little under three hours
And $44.28 including admission.
That is my willing sacrifice.