When I was a very small writer, I lived in a big house on a small street in Washington, DC. My grandmother came to that house one of the last times I saw her alive, as did my father as he was dying, so that house became a house of ancestor visits. To that house also came the poet Chrystos (Menominee), to my incredible delight, thanks to my housemate who had befriended her at a conference. For me, it was like being in the presence of light, someone whose poems I loved, whose voice I so respected, whose song I rang through my bones. Someone who restored me to myself when I felt very afraid of writing from my body. And SHE WAS ON MY COUCH.
In the poem, “Tenderly Your” from In Her I Am, she writes:
We’re in the grass of prairies our grandmothers rode
Sweet smell of distant cookpots edges the blue
Your kisses are a hundred years old & newly born.
Chrystos is fierce and outspoken and sometimes people get mad at her for it, and she laughs at that, though she admits to all the times she was truly afraid for her life. At our house, long ago now, she sat on the couch and while she beaded, talked about butches, sobriety, gathering wild rice, being Indian, and the struggles of the Menominee Nation. Mostly, I remember talking about love and laughing. She was so funny, and kind. And serious. And unstoppable. It is a gift when a warrior artist sits with you and reminds you to live.
In February 2011, she became the first Native American to give a plenary at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in Minneapolis, MN. She spoke for about half an hour, but I have excerpted some here:
"I don’t fight for any of my identities, which are merely the bag of skin I was born in. I am a warrior for justice, for an end to famine, war and exploitation. I seek to be a good person who is kind and intelligent and literate…Our minds are the most important part of our existence. This is the place where our spirits reside. Where we grow and change and make mistakes. Cherish your mind, read real books…The mind has no gender, indeed the mind can take us to our ancestors as well as our futures. Don’t chain yourself up inside any label. Your spirit knows exactly where to go. Our difficulty is that we are assaulted constantly by trivia and noise. Silence, away from machines, is the sacred place. The earth, without cement, is the holy place. Everything you need to learn can be found for free -- in close observation of your relationships with the earth, with each other and with yourselves."
Qwo-Li Driskill (Cherokee) writes in an amazing article in Studies in American Indian Literature entitled “Stolen from Our Bodies: First Nations Two Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic” that:
"[w]e were stolen from our bodies, but now we are taking ourselves back. First Nations Two-Spirits are blooming like dandelions in the landscape of a racist, homophobic, and transphobic culture’s ordered garden. Through over 500 years of colonization's efforts to kill our startling beauty, our roots have proven too deep and complicated to pull out of the soil of our origin, the soil where we are nurtured by the sacrifices that were made our ancestors' commitment to love us."
(Driskill is also one of the editors of a forthcoming book from University of Arizon Press called Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Sprit Literature.)
Driskill’s poem “Tal’-s-go Gal’-quo-gi Di-del’-qua-s-do-di Tsa-la-gi Di-go-whe-li/ Beginning Cherokee” has four sections of a regenerative cycle of linguistic reclamation: “Mourning,” “Ghosts,” “Memory” and “Birth.” In “Mourning” Driskill writes:
My tear ducts fill with milk
because what I most love
was lost at birth.
And, finally, in “Birth”:
I nudge each syllable into movement
Memorize their smells
Listen to their strange sleepy sounds
They shriek with hunger and loss
I hold them to my chest and weep milk
My breasts are filled with tears
I wrap my hair around their small bodies
a river of owl feathers
See they whisper We found you
We made a promise
This promise reminds me of Chrystos insistence of visibility for indigenous peoples. Chrystos' insistence reminds me that among other issues, nearly 80 percent of Indian nations face environmental threats, from nuclear waste dumping to strip mining. I showed this film to my high school documentary film class, most of whom, unless they were of indigenous descent themselves, had no idea that there were any indigenous nations left within the U.S. at all.
Give thanks. I am looking forward to spending this week with all of you.