Category Archives: Native American

Impressions of Erda and Enterprise

I visited recently with my good friends Harvey and Mary Russell at their home in Enterprise, Utah.  I had not seen them for years.  Harvey, my humble hero, is a leading figure in my nonfiction book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  Named “Many Feathers” by American Indians, Harv helped me build my chicken coop and lead me through an Indian sweat ceremony in Erda, Utah.  My impressions during the visit were poignant and bitter-sweet, demanding expression in this impressionistic poem.

IMPRESSIONS OF ERDA AND ENTERPRISE

Car window down:
“Is this Harvey’s place?”
A wave to drive in, and smiles:
three mechanics, brown
where I should have seen white:
lost their teeth to the chew.

Engine block rocks
from its rolling crane.
“You’re the one that wrote the book?”
“And you write poems, too?”
“Yea,” I said, “but
I don’t know a spark plug
from a distributor cap,
like you!”

That storm broke branches off
Harv’s old elm. “Shall I cut them
small for the stove, or long
for the truck bed to the dump?”
“Oh, it’s not your mess—
long for the dump.” I cut them
short for next winter’s warming.

Neighbors burning winter’s detritus,
wind-lopped limbs, old stumps.
Pleasant smell of woody smoke.
The whole family shovels
manure over the garden plot;
rich, dry, composted;
like I used to do, before.

Perfect pens for homers,
robust cocks chortling in one,
slighter hens in the other.
At 79, he still races.

“When he finally left,
he took everything, even
the lightbulbs and toilet seat.”

Worn brown leather boots
on the workbench
by the big rusty drill press,
under dust.

“Will you keep an eye on my place Harv?”
“pow pow pow!”
Ducks falling from the sky,
poached from his neighbor’s pond.

“pow pow pow!”
Geese poached from the sky.
“But I called this time;
they think they own all the birds
in the whole country.”

Old Ekins took
their guns, their geese.
One protested: “Too late:
the goose is in the oven.
Sunday dinner!”
Said Old Jim: “Not too late:
take the Sunday goose out!”

Eight hens scratch in the grass,
keep him in eggs.
Two roosters corral and crow.
Ducks waddle where they will.

The garden tool shed:
a secret privy, with shovel and hoe.
“Toss in a cup of wood stove ash.”
(The neighbors, they don’t know.)

Lilac bushes, just leafing,
a long arcing row
next the dirt drive;
promising purple perfume.

Flapjacks browned on cast iron;
butter; blueberries; pure maple syrup;
my first goat milk, creamy and sweet.

Crazy Cliff dragged a trailer house
up a Skull Valley mountain
with a rickety track hoe; by some miracle
the belcher didn’t topple over backwards.

A lightning bolt split:
two fires funneling down
to that trailer. A bomber dropped
red retardant dust,
panicked mustangs plunging through.

Mother made Mary
give away her baby;
only 15. She married
the man at 16, and met
her first-born son 49 years late.

Brussels and yams
roasted soft
in olive oil and herbs;
fresh bread and pot roast.

Third and fourth marriages
for both: married twice
to each other: “We just drifted
apart, until God brought us
back together.”

“Living with someone is just
hard, rubbing and bumping
against each other.”

“He kissed me
tenderly
on the cheek.”

Harvey, Mary, and Roger

Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.

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Consecration

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Wandering and sand and rock trails of southern Utah’s desert gems, I have often wondered about the ancient peoples who made the inhospitable terrain their home, and have admired the dedicated labor that were required to survive.  Snow Canyon state park, near St. George Utah, and Valley of Fire state park in northern Nevada, are two of my favorite places. The beauty of each place–carved by wind, rain, sand, and flood–causes me to marvel at indigenous ingenuity, persistence, and stamina.  This poem imagines the efforts of one young American Indian woman preparing a meager meal for her family.  The meal is much more than food.  The meal is her life’s sacrifice.

CONSECRATION

Kernels of corn
on the metate:
yellow and red,
shriveled and dry,
hard, nearly,
as the grinding stones.
Fingers grasp the mano:
cracked skin and cracked nails
press and roll
to crack and crush
the corn, grind it
to meal, to be
mixed with water,
salt, and sage,
baked in small cakes
on searing rocks.

New corn kernels
on the metate
under the weighty stone.
Mix the meal again, with drops
of sweat, tears dripped
from her chin.
Stoke the coals.
Cook and consume
your consecration.

(Previously published in Panorama and Utah Sings, publications of the Utah State Poetry Society.)

This photograph shows my daughter Hannah, with her mother, in her pretend “Indian kitchen” in Valley of Fire state park.

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The Dance

Rabbit Lane-Laura

My family’s favorite event of the year is Tooele’s Festival of the Old West, combining a gem and mineral show, a mountain man rendezvous, and an Indian pow-wow.  I give the children a small allowance, and they bring some money of their own, to buy polished rocks or beads, a bag of marbles or a medicine pouch, a rubber-band gun or second-hand knife, and always a homemade cream soda and fry bread.  “Fire in the hole!” precedes the boom of the real cannon that blasts arm-loads of candy for children to scamper at.  Men and women walk around in period clothing–my kids always chuckle at the man with the deer-skin breaches not quite concealing his butt-cheeks.  And then the drum beats begin, and the chanting.  The Native Americans have begun their dance competition.  Exiting the back door of the gem and mineral show one year, we saw a young American Indian man dressing in his fancy regalia in preparation for the competition.  His father helped him with the clasps and ties that held in place the flowing regalia, which abounded with feathers and shells and bells.  I wrote this poem to express my overwhelming impressions of this boy connecting powerfully with his peoples’ at once glorious and painful past, with his attenuated but clinging culture, and with the spiritual reality of his ancestors.  (This poem relates to Chapter 7: Turtle Lodge on the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, and also to the poem House of Offering on the Rabbit Lane: Poems page of this blog.)

THE DANCE

Shell open.  Tailgate down.
A boy,
in bright-beaded leathers,
in spirit feathers,
preparing,
for the dance.
Father inspected, breathing deep:
satisfied and proud;
unspeaking:
You are ready.

The drum beats the hour,
the moment,
of the dance;
a summons:
compelling
the movement of feet
pressing the ground in
a rhythmic communion
of flesh and earth,
of spirits;
compelling
the movement of arms and wings,
like the offering
ascending
in red birch smoke.
Earth and sky recede.
Light and darkness combine.
There is only him,
with the drum,
with the song,
with the dance—
his dance.

They come to him, then,
and lift him up
in flight
through the heavens:
Shadow-faces
with warm wrinkled eyes;
their hair flowing in long gray strands,
like wispy rain clouds
above the parched plains.
Shadow-faces
singing the ancestral song,
turning above and beneath,
swirling around and through,
joining him, becoming one,
bringing him tenderly
down to earth and sky as
his feet press the ground
to the last drum beat.

He walks, then,
slowly,
back to the tailgate,
the world
before him,
Shadow-faces
within.
He waits, then,
to dance again
the dance.

House of Offering

Ancient peoples walked and farmed and hunted on this land that we now call Erda.  They fled to the desert wastes ages ago, making way for my ancestors to farm the fertile fields.  But Harvey’s property possessed a connection to the ancient traditions.  And he invited me to a part of that connection for a moment.  Inside the turtle lodge, we left the world behind, left our carnality outside, and sought the Divine Presence through prayer, heat, song, privation, and the smoke offering of the peace pipe.  (See Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, Chapter 7: Turtle Lodge post, for a full discussion of the turtle lodge sweat ceremony.)

HOUSE OF OFFERING

The rocks glow,
like a cluster of orange suns,
shimmering in ferrous shadows
with pulsing heat
in the mid-day darkness
of the stick-framed, skin-clad lodge,
the turtle:
House of sweat,
House of cleansing,
House of song.
Sing of the weathered ancients!
Sing of the laughing children!
Sing of the beasts and the rivers, the woods and the wind!
In this dark other-world:
House of hope,
House of healing,
House of dreams.
Dream of the grisly bear and the bison!
Dream of feathers flying and eyes!
Dream of circles and fire and roads to choose!
Sprinkle now the water,
fill the house with steam,
and breathe,
and sweat,
and renew the chanted song.
Ascend now the burning bark,
fill the house with smoke
pulled from this pipe
and offered up from this
House of prayer,
House of offering, to the
House of God.

 

Chapter 7: Turtle Lodge

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How can we get closer to God?
In airplanes . . . and helicopters! Vvrroooom!
(Caleb-3 to Dad)

Harvey’s property was special to the Indians.  They needed a place to perform their ceremonies, where it was quiet, where animals and nature were close, and where Indians were welcome.  Harvey’s place fit the requirements.  The Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians had established Harvey’s land as an official Indian worship site.  Local Indians of several tribes set up a turtle lodge and held their sacred sweat ceremonies there.  Harvey invited me repeatedly to attend a ceremony.  Resisting what I didn’t understand, I politely put him off.  One Saturday, though, I reluctantly agreed, admittedly nervous to attend.   When I came home several hours later, the children found me exhausted, my hair sweaty and matted.  I took a big drink and a shower, then flopped down on the couch.  They begged me to tell them all about the Indians and their turtle lodge.  I sighed wearily, then told them of my experience with the sweat ceremony. Continue reading