I can't remember when I first encountered this poem. I know I stumbled on it accidently, I think
while doing some on-line research during my days as an employee of the
Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. We had launched a poetry feature called
"Pulling Down the Clouds" for
our membership magazine, and I was always on the lookout for interesting Native
work to run as the focus of the feature.
I knew immediately I wanted this poem in the magazine. I loved its directness, its snarly, unapologetic, in-your-face attitude. Its completely sophisticated, contemporary use of language. This was not work that catered to white assumptions and stereotypes: just the opposite, in fact. Hers is a complex voice in which humor, bitterness, and hipness all coexist in service to the poem. This was a voice like that of many of my Indian friends and colleagues, but one rarely heard by the non-Native world (at least beyond the pages of a Sherman Alexie book).
investigation revealed that the poem was written in 1989 and that Diane Burns,
a Lac Courte Oreilles/Chemeheuvi, was
born in 1957 and had passed away in 2006. She "first emerged," we
told our readers, "as a powerful literary voice in the 1970s working as a
poet and model in New York City. Burns’s first and only book of poetry, Riding the One-Eyed Ford (Contact II
Publications, 1981), further established her reputation as a unique talent by
challenging Native American stereotypes through sharp wit and honesty. In the
1980s, Burns joined a circle of poets and writers in Manhattan’s Lower East
Side, reading her work at the renowned Bowery Poetry Club and Poetry Project at
St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery."
You Can Ask Me A Personal Question
How do you do?
No, I am not Chinese.
No, not Spanish.
No, I am American Indian, Native American.
No, not from India.
No, not Apache
No, not Navajo.
No, not Sioux.
No, we are not extinct.
So that's where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great grandmother, huh?
An Indian Princess, huh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess. Cherokee?
Oh, so you've had an Indian friend?
Oh, so you've had an Indian lover?
Oh, so you've had an Indian servant?
Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It's real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don't know where you can get peyote.
No, I don't know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn't make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.
Thank you. I like your hair too.
I don't know if anyone knows whether or not Cher
is really Indian.
No, I didn't make it rain tonight.
Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
Uh-huh. Yeah. Spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
Earth. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
No, I didn't major in archery.
Yeah, a lot of us drink too much.
Some of us can't drink enough.
This ain't no stoic look.
This is my face.