Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
Long before Walt Whitman heard America singing, the Native peoples raised their voice to the sunlight and spirits. Unfortunately, after three centuries of physical and cultural genocide, those early voices have become a whisper in a society bent on the destruction of its own land and resources. Kurt Schweigman and Lucille Lang Day have brought together the varied voices of the 720,000 Native Americans who call California their home in Red Indian Road West. Those voices range from Lucille Day’s Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts to Sharmagne Leland-St. John’s San Poil on the Banks of the Columbia River.
The geography might be different but the poems have a shared sense of belonging yet being separate. This may be a conundrum to white readers but it is a painful reality for each of these poets. Despite the passage of time, Native peoples have always been bound to the environment around them yet that land has been “tamed” by settlement and changed to the point of unrecognizability. It is not uncommon to hear Native peoples speak of “walking in two worlds”, as James Luna does in his introduction. Walking in two worlds requires the ability to navigate 21st Century culture as well as the traditional culture handed down to each succeeding generation.
Nanette Bradley Dietz’ poem “Night Eagle” elicits the feelings of someone faced with this cultural dichotomy:
“We all breathe the same ether of the other worlds.
Kurt Schweigman takes it a step further with the observation
“I thought about the original Thanksgiving
of not having to feel alone
Though the shared experience of these poets may touch upon the many transgressions they endured, there are poems where native people used their common lore to enhance the everyday modern world where they live. Sharmagne Lelend-St. John’s “Long Dusty Memories” speaks of a unique love with
“I was enamoured of the way the wind whistled
Marlon Sherman’s “She Wove Moonbeams Into Her Baskets” is a tribute to Dorothy Lopez, a woman from the Smith River in California, who lived a life true to her past in spite of the comments from her neighbors. She lived her days in seeming idleness yet she had the magic to weave moonbeams, symbol of a guardian of earth, into her baskets while they slept. There are few tributes more beautiful.
The painful memory of “Tribal Schools” set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs runs through these poems like a dark silk thread of a funeral shroud. These schools, only recently closed down, were the main source of destruction of indigenous cultures here in the United States. Children were forcibly taken from their parents to a boarding school where their hair was shorn to conform to “normal” children and they were punished for speaking their tribal language or “acting Indian”. The very existence of this anthology is a testament to the school’s failure.
The onus of being true to your roots in an openly hostile culture is something that most of us do not experience but it is a part of every hour, every day to Native Americans. Yet while we enjoy our comfort, shaking our head at the cruelty imparted, there are other voices raised in triumph. Linda Noel’s haunting “Winter Within” enumerates the many difficulties of past winters and ends with a raised head and clear voice to sing
“I look into winter and know that
Red Indian Road West is more than an anthology. It is the unspoken story of America, a hidden history that speaks to the true cost of Manifest Destiny. I urge every reader to purchase this book and read it in front of your computer. When you come to terms like “Powder River”, “Wounded Knee” or “Lake Cachuma” look them up and learn America’s other story.