The poet John Lavitt asked me to share this epic poem of his written about Indian Country. Enjoy.
The Dead Are Not Powerless: The Reckoning Of The Forest Nation
The Dead Are Not Powerless: The Reckoning Of The Forest Nation
Behold an unearthing, the restless remains unspoken still.
In stillness, a history long buried, the American Genocide:
By rifles, by pox-scarred blankets, by conversions, by deed.
Witness how far that heavy crimson stain now spreads.
From the North to the South, from the East to the West,
From the plains to the deserts, from the mountains to the valleys,
A country built on a white monument of broken treaties, bones.
Yes, the harmonious natives of a green virgin land called home
Paid the ultimate price for thirteen colonies established,
Their children reduced to skeletal reservations starving,
Legacy and tradition burnt to unify fifty-one states white.
One day eternal in the death of the Forest Nation.
As the sun reflects off waves of the ocean wild,
A boy sees something strange suddenly arise.
Across the blue waters on the horizon far beyond,
A spirit shadow risen from the dark depths distant,
An unimagined leviathan with wings billowing white,
Not sinking down, but slicing over waves, closing closer.
Heart now racing, blood now pumping, legs now running,
Faster than the wind, the boy blazes back to his village.
Panting for a breath, then bursting forth the fable fantastic,
Greeted with laughter, heads shaken and scalps scratched.
Insistent still and this youth known for true respect,
The great father sighs and follows his bubbling son back
To the sacred cliff overlooking a beach, the land’s beginning.
The smiling boy points at the monstrous vision blown bigger.
Spinning back triumphant, a son turns to see his father fallen,
Knees newly scraped, body shaking, hands balled tight.
As generations watch, without warning, transformation sudden;
The beast, now a canoe, enormous peering with flesh of pale-faces.
The great chief rises before his elder council gathered round:
With a voice soft and insistent, the spirit of visitations summoned
For the strangers to be greeted with hearts and hands open wide.
This, the lesson of ancestors. This, the respect of remembrance.
And the tribe’s future now darkened, forever in a lightning flash,
As the great father offered the hand of friendship to strangers.
Later, the chief, reduced to a father filled with sorrow, recalls,
How after arrival the boy succumbed to the coughing strange.
A sunrise fresh with new hopes sudden and fruitful became
The night endless of the White Man, more than possibility,
Unimaginable size, unbelievable power, unquenchable desire.
The open hand of friendship closed, severed with a smile.
Can we learn a lesson in the shadows of a superpower,
From the voices of the vanquished, from the eyes exiled,
By turning back the tide of time and embracing an excavation,
The restless remains of reservations looming by our side?
The storm wind is a messenger of the Great Mystery of the Great Spirit.
Indeed, the Great Mystery of the Great Spirit soon extinguished by
Anti-great reason as mythos besieged by logos gives way to pathos.
How swiftly a man can fall from the heights, how fast a nation can follow.
Commissioned by royalty, a vain attempt at the discovery of a short-cut,
Easy trade access from Europe to the profitable spices of the East Indies,
Columbus and his worn crew complete a crossing exhaustive, harrowing,
Across the great Atlantic Ocean, utterly lost and on the verge of mutiny,
Stricken with dysentery, almost starving, the sailors spot a landing.
Awesome in arrogance, Columbus orders a beacon lit, a signal seen
By the natives who advance with greetings, helping the sailors ashore.
Columbus describes his helpers as “neither black nor white…fairly tall,
Good looking (but never the soul seen) and well-proportioned in frame.”
Grandly deluded, astrologically assured of his goal achieved, Columbus
Beheld the fabled East Indies and proudly named the people “Indians,”
A mistake of ignorance that would stick like super glue for centuries,
To a thousand and one tribes, different languages and cultures varied.
Yes, the differences between tribes apparent, easily seen by an open eye;
Some nomadic hunters, others caretakers of natural crops of the soil,
Some born in teepees, others raised in sandstone caves of deserts live:
Each a tree growing strong, the verdant landscape of the Forest Nation.
After Columbus, an invasion constant and never-ending,
Reducing the countryside to attractive, but savage in essence,
Taming the Motherland with slave chains and fielded plots,
We stand tall and proud on the front line of pollution’s brigade,
Can I offer you the very best seats to our private apocalypse?
Do you hear a voice articulated by spirits, rising on the wind?
We are called to journey beyond space and time,
We head into the thick, woven threads of history,
The fabric coming apart, stitches of souls revealed.
We are asked to witness past what happened real.
The Year is 1600 and King Wahunsonacook, Chief of the Powhatan,
Named King for the leadership of a confederacy of thirty-two tribes.
One of his daughters still celebrated by her given name of Pocahontas.
The English need support for the struggling settlement at Jamestown.
After his braves attacked by the new settlers, the King wonders,
“Why would you take by force that which you can obtain by love?
Why should you destroy us who have provided you with food?
What can you get by war but more suffering of your people?”
To placate the tribe, the English place a gold crown on his head,
Proclaiming him “King Powhatan.” The King laughs and avows,
“There is no Indian anywhere who does not see himself truly as
Infinitely more happy and more powerful than the White Man.”
In the middle of the 18th century, war erupts in the New World
Between the British and the French. Indians must take sides.
Canassatego chosen by the war-hardened Iroquois to represent them
In negotiations with the British. He turns down the bribe of his sons
Attending Cambridge. Canassatego laughs, “Several of our young people
Were brought up in your so-called colleges. They were instructed
In all your sciences, but when they returned, they were bad runners,
Ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either
Cold or hunger. They did not know how to build a cabin or take a deer
Or kill an enemy. They spoke our language imperfectly. They were unfit
To be warriors or to be counselors, they were all now good for nothing.”
After long hours, the patient warrior signed a treaty, good for Iroquois,
Bad for the French. Upon his return to the tribe, Canassatego murdered,
Pro-French Iroquois plied; a never-ending bribe of firewater and fire rods.
In 1755, we observe the Mohawk warrior Tiyanoga on public display.
Bumping into Queen Anne in England, the press laughs at the Indian
As he respectfully bows, dubbing him “King Hendrick.” Back in the
Colonies, he’s forced to fight against the French. A careless strategy
Reduces his warriors to cannon fodder. When asked if he’s ready for
Another day of death, Tiyanoga expresses the pain inside, “If my warriors
Are to fight, they are too few; and if they are to die, they are too many.”
After the American Revolution won and with the colonies long past,
Diseases introduced raging wild; no immunity, no natural medicine
With tribes decimated, native bodies piling higher, a Pawnee Chief
Succumbs to cholera in 1822. Fading, Sharitarish cries, “I know the truth;
These robes, leggings, moccasins and bear claws are nothing, with no
Value to you, but we wish you to have them still, to preserve them in your
Lodge, so when we are gone, if our children should come by, they may
Suddenly see, recognizing with pleasure the things of their fathers.”
On March 11, 1824, we witness the establishment of a rationalization,
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a stepchild vile of the War Department.
Instituted by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun as a division of authority
Without authorization from Congress, the institutionalization of power.
In the late 19th to early 20th century, the legacy expressed in a decision:
Educate native children in separate boarding schools, emphasize only
Assimilation; prohibited indigenous languages, practices, and cultures.
Children beaten day and night for wanting to worship the Great Spirit.
In 1853, Chief Seattle addresses the White Man come to govern his land,
The good homeland of his people, the territory now named Washington:
“Every grain of this soil is sacred to my people. Every hill, every valley,
Every plain and grove, has been hallowed in the past by the triumphs
And sorrows of our lives… When the last red man shall have perished,
And the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White
Men, still these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe.
When your children’s children think themselves alone… in the silence of
The pathless woods, they will not be alone… At night, when the streets of
Your cities are silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with
The returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.
The White Man will never be alone.” And the dead are not powerless.
This is the day nobody seems to recall. Buried so deep in our denial.
Together, we unearth infamy: It is December 26, 1862, never forgotten,
During the Civil War raging bloody but this crime ignored by America.
One day after Christmas, Abraham Lincoln ruling in the White House,
The day of the greatest mass execution in the history of the United States.
On Pine Ridge Reservation, the Oglala Sioux are systematically starved.
In the deep snows of the Eastern Dakotas, the Santee Sioux go hungry.
As starving children cry out, desperation boils over into an uprising fated.
Cornered, the Santee Sioux revolt and another failed rebellion is crushed.
One thousand men, women and children are taken away in iron chains,
Thrown into the cold of prison in Mankato, Minnesota as winter falls.
A symbol of the government’s severity, 38 souls randomly picked to die.
The military guards hustle the chosen ones into a winter’s clearing where
A mass gallows, the biggest in American history, has been built overnight.
Imagine 38 bodies swinging in the cold wind of winter in Minnesota.
Spared by chance, Many Lightnings, makes a choice and takes his son
Aside when he returns from jail and changes his name, the lesson learned.
No more Ohiyesa, now Charles Alexander Eastman, and the boy sent to
White schools with his Father’s admonition, “This is the same as if I now
Send you, my son, on your first warpath. I shall expect you to conquer.”
We ride into 1867 and are joined by the breeder of stallions, Many Horses,
Born of the renowned tribe, the Sioux: Yankton, Teton, and Santee.
The Chief is wealthy even by standards White, with many horses majestic.
Yes, most of the herd obtained during raids, but he knew a deadly truth,
“There are but two ways for us. One leads to hunger and death, the other
Leads to where the poor White Man lives. Beyond is the happy hunting
Grounds where the White Man cannot go, where we are sure to be alone.”
And he went. Murdered by white ranchers sick of any dang rich Injun.
Rubbing our eyes in 1874, we watch Cochise passing on from this world.
An Apache Chief, Geronimo’s mentor, his name means “Like Ironweed.”
At first, accepting the advancement of the Whites, the endless invasion
Painful, land taken, but acceptable still. He told his braves what he saw,
“You must not speak like the White Man. You must always speak straight
So that our words may go as the sun into our hearts and reflect the light.”
But when his braves are falsely accused of kidnapping a poor white boy,
Cochise chooses to bend no more. Once the Chief and his braves begin to
Fight, they simply cannot be stopped. Their power legendary at the time.
Yes, Cochise the exception to the rule. Never captured and never killed.
But why did Cochise choose to fight? Why did Crazy Horse do the same?
In 1874, General Custer announces the discovery of gold in the Black Hills:
Imagine a massive influx of white miners and such hunger to the land.
Every treaty broken, every promise ignored, every handshake taken back,
Every sacred space of the Black Hills overrun, this greed never-ending.
On July 26, 1876, Custer’s Seventh Cavalry is crushed at Little Big Horn,
But nothing changes. Crazy Horse surrenders in 1877 at Fort Robinson.
The Sell or Starve Policy of 1877; Sign away your land or die of hunger.
And the majority of the Lakota Sioux refused to sell, and they starved.
At century’s end, Sitting Bull became a Sioux War Chief with regret.
Natives bow and Sitting Bull would laugh, asking them to share his pipe:
“When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on
Their land, their medicine men knew the healing secrets, they even sent
Ten thousand men into a single battle. Where are all the warriors today?
Where have they gone? Who slew all of them? Where are our ancestral
Lands today? Who owns each acre of sacred soil? Tell me now if you can,
What White Man can say I ever stole his homeland or just one penny of
His money? Yet they say I am a thief. What White Woman, however
Lonely at heart, was ever kidnapped by my hand or insulted by my
Tongue? Yet they say I am a bad Indian. What White Man has ever seen
Me drunk? Who has ever come to me hungry and left unfed? Who has
Ever seen me beat my wives or abuse my children? What laws have I
Broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own or to love my land? Am I
Wicked because my skin is red? Because I am Sioux? Because I was born
On the land where my father lived and wish to live there still? Because
I Would choose to die for my people and for my nation and for my land?”
In 1890, we stand with Chief Luther Standing Bear at Wounded Knee
And we watch American troops slaughtering men, women and children.
The troops open fire on the dancing natives exposed in winter’s breath,
These children of America, born in a formed country already constituted,
Slaughtered because they are dancing in memory of their ancestors lost,
They prayed for their Great Spirit’s aid. Was the White Man so scared?
This is the end of the Indian Wars. This is the day when we finally won.
The Wounded Knee mass grave is a grave for every historical indigenous
Population conquered and destroyed in the name of the enlightenment.
Black Elk was haunted by that day for the rest of his life: “I did not know
Then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of
My old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped
And scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them
With eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the
Bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard; a people’s dream died there
And it was a beautiful dream.” This casualty of our Great War Machine.
Everything Native changed on that day. It is the day when the war ended.
That day we celebrated, spitting out 20 Congressional Medals of Honor,
The most ever awarded by Congress in any conflict in American history:
Native history can be explained as being before Wounded Knee and after.
Wounded Knee was the end. The new rapid fire Hotchkiss machine guns,
The federal government explained with bullets squarely aimed our final
Position on Native rights. No more treaties, no more talk of Sacred Hills,
No more ghost dances, no more so-called Chiefs, no more negotiations.
Our soldiers brought out the big guns and celebrated one more massacre:
Claim the freedom of a Ghost Dancer and we will turn you into a ghost.
Ridden with wounds, old Chief Joseph can barely stand before Congress:
“When I think of our condition my heart is heavy. I see men of my race
Treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like
Animals. I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with
The White Men as we are. We only ask a chance to live as other men
Live. We ask to be recognized as men… When the White Man treats an
Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall
All then be like brothers of one father and one mother with one sky above
Us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules
Above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody
Spots from the face of the earth. For this time, we wait and we pray.”
But the Congress does nothing, and Chief Joseph leaves so exhausted.
In 1904, he dies. When asked why, Dr. E. H. Latham says, “Chief Joseph
Died of a broken heart.” A depth of sorrow complete. Buffalo Bill Cody
Knew the man well, recalling Chief Joseph often as “The greatest Indian
America ever produced.” Is being a great tragic figure a desired destiny?
Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow willed his many acres of land to the
Citizens of America as a Memorial Park to his tribe’s dying tradition.
Ignored, the memory of the Crow Nation reduced to four barren walls.
Amid the Great Depression, Chief Plenty Coups saw in a dream a
Prophecy of his Nation dark; “A few more passing suns will see us here
No more, gone, and our dust and our bones will mingle with the prairies,
I see as in a vision of the dying spark of our council fires, the ashes cold
And white. I see no longer the curling smoke rising from our lodge poles.
When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,
And they could never lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.
There was little singing anywhere. We are like birds with a broken wing.”
In 1900, the United States Indian population reached its lowest point ever.
Less than 250,000 Native Americans compared to about 8 million in 1492.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala, Prisoner of War Camp #344
Where the once conquered are exiled, we are and always will be Waší?u.
Waší?u, the Lakota word for those of non-indigenous descent: the Whites.
Another meaning risen: “The One Who Takes All The Bacon For Himself”
I am Waší?u because I damn well believe I deserve better than the rest.
A last ride into prophecy. Welcome to the Hopi Nation in the heart of
The Arizona desert. Hopitu means “the peaceable ones,” each of us
Responsible for the world; through meditation, prayers and ceremony,
Take care of Mother Earth and the Great Spirit will then take care of you.
When a Hopi feels lost, he just asks: “ Who am I?” “Where do I belong?”
The answer found in the Great Spirit. War has never been the Hopi Way.
Hopi prophecy reveals that our world will indeed soon come to an end.
Fear and suffering described in the Hopi language with a resonant word.
This is the meaning of Koyianasquatsi; The modern world out of balance.
Exemplified in the modern age; the destruction of our given environment,
Extermination of countless species, the genocide of the natives of the land,
The great wars of the last century, the Holocaust, the horror of Rwanda,
And nuclear bombs invented, exploding at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Each detonation foretold past in Hopi Prophecy as “the gourd of ashes.”
Hopi Prophecy predicts the sudden rising in power of the Elder White
Brother leading to a final purification, a last judgment without salvation.
A Hopi Elder reveals a tradition of responsibility, a tribal legacy now,
“Our first leaders told us never to stop carrying this message, that we
Must never destroy this Mother Earth in any manner. We must never cut
Her up, we must never fence her in, we must never sell her to anyone.”
The Great Spirit of the Hopi instructs; “It is up to you, if you are willing to
Live my poor, humble and simple life. It is hard. If you are willing to live
According to my teachings and will never lose faith in this life I shall give
You, you may come and live with me always. But if you lose faith and
Turn away, you will be lost and you will bring trouble upon yourselves.”
Behold the final fury at the end of Hopi Prophecy; this is the sacred curse:
“You have ignored all my instructions and my guidelines. Now I shall
Take back my Earth from the destroyers. I was the First and now I shall
Be the Last.” Where lies your faith in the darkest of days? According to
Prophecy’s end, a flood of ashes in our twilight’s last gleaming failure.
Only a few spared, left in a wasteland to start over once again. Left alone.
Are you quaking in your boots, my friend? If not, I suggest you find
A new pair of shoes for your soul. Or can we walk barefoot as before?
There is no riding off into the sunset and no ascension to the heavens.
There is no deconstruction of our metaphysics of the native presence.
This is what lies behind legend and a mask of mythology, the grim reality.
Witness a drunken birth, Reservations, America’s concentration camps.
Across the absolute age of man dominating, the ongoing rape of the earth,
A great empire risen in cataclysm, stained foundation of bone and blood.
These are the mechanics of humanity; ashes piled, the tragedy of America.
Once again, their mythos besieged by our logos becomes such pathos.
The pathos of the native sons and daughters of the Great Spirit, born in
The Forest Nation of the Motherland, who believed in the given ways.
The traditions of their ancestors, in a culture and a society that worked
Only to be crushed violently by progressive Europeans, so-called settlers
(What was peacefully settled?) intent irrevocably upon transforming not
Only a lovely landscape given but the natives as well, defined as savages,
Inherently inferior, subjugated by conversion (a Christian Injun good) or
Violence (a dead Injun better) to satisfy the White Man’s undying need.
There is no apology even beyond the sacrifice of coins in slot machines.
Behold a different truth, the patience to listen to the wind and the land
Where the Great Spirit chants and the souls of the natives sing forth.
Their echoes mock our superhighway speed show, constant progress,
Leading to the environment’s devastation, our curse is our children’s fate,
Belched in black smoke, mutual and assured self-destruction of capital.
The warning vision of Black Elk, “Death will come, always out of season.”
The destruction of a Motherland necessarily implies our own Apocalypse,
Now embraced. The Natives wished not only to save just themselves.
They dreamed of saving their beloved Earth as well. Our dark legacy.
Sculpting the myth of the White Man’s triumph, Fredric Remington noted,
“There is a dignity about the social intercourse of old Indians which
Reminds me of a stroll through a winter’s forest.” Yes, the comment nice,
So pleasant, but there is sorrow invading from reality of the razor’s edge.
Why are the Indians chosen old? Why is the forest stroll taken in winter?
The images elected to mull over reveal a final intermingling with death.
A dark intimacy thrust upon the native soul, reflecting certain finality.
At the end of his talk, Chief Seattle warned America, “Let the White Man
Be just and deal kindly with my people. For the dead are not powerless.”
For the earth experiences everything, each rape felt, every mine recalled.
In the end and without compromise, we stand alone, each of us human,
Before the Elder Chief of the Council Tribe. Behind him, gathered whole,
The Forest Nation of the Motherland, the sacred shamans singing hymns
Before the blaze of the Council Fire, warriors from each tribe now armed.
Will we deny our responsibility and point to the shadows of ancestors?
In the end of a battle long, it is not for us to decide our own sentence.
Photographing traditions unspoken, Aaron Huey speaks as a Waší?u:
“The last chapter of any successful genocide is when the oppressors can
Remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to
Themselves? They are killing each other. They are killing themselves
While we watch them die.’ This is how we came to own these United States.
This is the legacy of Manifest Destiny. Prisoners are still born in
Prisoner of war camps long after the guards are gone. These are the bones
Left after the best meat has been taken. How much of this history do you
Have to own? Is any of this your responsibility today? Honor the Treaties.
Give back the Black Hills. It is not your business what they do with them.”
In 1980, the longest running court case in American history, ruled upon
By a so-called Supreme Court. The Sioux Nation versus The United States.
The Court stated the Black Hills were illegally taken from the Sioux.
The Fort Laramie treaties were violated and the Sioux land was stolen.
The Court offered the Sioux Nation $106 million dollars (the original price
Plus interest) for the Black Hills. The Sioux Nation refused the money,
Responding with the rallying cry, “The Black Hills Are Not For Sale!”
One day will the Black Hills be returned, a redemption on the horizon?
It is hard for any story touched by reality to imagine such an outcome.
Perhaps a path to be taken together for the future can now be found
Present in the words past of Sitting Bull. The Great Elder Chief advised,
“Let us put our minds together and see what kind of life we can make for
Our children.” Together, can we find a way to our country’s atonement?
Still, we witness the life expectancy for Sioux men on the Pine Ridge
Reservation in 2010; Between 46 and 48 years old. The final gift of Waší?u.
Russell Means expressed the meaning of this moment when he declared,
“Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this
Cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth
Will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will
Be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started.
That’s revolution.” An American revolution.