Sunday, November 28, 2010

November Column

First published in The Evening Sun on November 27, 2010:

"Being thankful both acknowledges and maintains the physical and spiritual relationship between ourselves and the rest of Creation." With these words, poet Joseph Bruchac connects Native American culture and thanksgiving.

Bruchac, a prolific writer, has been able to trace his Native American roots back to the early 17th century. He explains that his "grandfather, Jesse Bowman, was Abenaki, but tried to hide his identity--despite his appearance and the way he lived--because of the prejudice against Indians."

As we reflect on our Thanksgiving celebrations and traditions, I'd like to honor the spirit of Native Americans and their words. Bruchac writes, "It is a very complicated holiday for American Indians-- sometimes referred to as the American Indian day of Mourning, for those Pilgrims, whose survival was aided by American Indians, then turned around a few years later and made war on the surrounding tribal nations, decimating them."

Yet, despite this history, Native American poetry reflects a sense of peace and unity, a testament to their resilience. Upon reading Bruchac's poems, I felt an instant connection to his words, especially in his poem "Prayer." The images in this poem create their own vibrant world, while also invoking a sense of comfort, derived from both reality and imagination.

Of his poem "Prayer," Bruchac writes, "It's a result of feeling, at a moment of waking, that we are related to everything, that we are not separate from the rest of life or above it all in dominion, that we are a humble part of it all and need to try to do our best, to work with our hands and with our hearts in a good way."


Let my words
be bright with animals,
images the flash of a gull's wing.
If we pretend
that we are at the center,
that moles and kingfishers,
eels and coyotes
are at the edge of grace,
then we circle, dead moons
about a cold sun.
This morning I ask only
the blessing of the crayfish,
the beatitude of the birds;
to wear the skin of the bear
in my songs;
to work like a man with my hands.

Among Native American cultural traditions, the idea of giving thanks abounds, especially in the written word. Below, Bruchac mentions one such Iroquois tradition, called the "Thanksgiving Address":

"The Thanksgiving Address is most often spoken by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) elders like my dear late friend Chief Jake Swamp at the start of a gathering. It gives greetings and thanks to every aspect of the natural world, from our mother the Earth, to the waters, the plants, animals, birds, winds, sun, moon, stars, the Creator, and all people. It reminds us of the way we are all connected and of the importance of giving thanks, being truly thankful and behaving in a thankful way."

Another of Bruchac's poems, "Tsaile Dawn" touches on many of the same themes: the interconnectedness of nature, the constancy of its support, and thankfulness for its gifts.

Tsaile Dawn

Coming down
the northwestern slope
just after dawn
from Canyon de Chelly
toward Tsaile
the Chuska Range wears a mantle
of gray rain clouds
like an ancient woman
still beautiful in her turkey feather robe.

The road edges are carpeted
yellow with rabbitbush and snakeweed
as many-headed sunflowers
to drink
the silvered morning light.

We are here, we are here,
all the old ones sing
in the dawn that never leaves us.

As I reflect on the many things I'm grateful for, I realize the power of poetry in my life. Poetry has connected me to you, and to many writers all over the world. Bruchac echoes this gratitude: "I'm thankful that I have a voice, that there are so many unique voices in poetry, as varied as the songs of the wind. It's really cool that there is always space for a new poet, a new poem, a new song--just as each human being is unique, but also part of the circle."