Of Rhyme and Meter: Dozens of Indian Poets, Rescued From Obscurity

Mark Fogarty
12/30/11

Poetry is often an acquired taste, and many of the works in the weighty Changing Is Not Vanishing: A Collection of American Indian Poetry to 1930 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) are not destined to become standards.

But in Changing Is Not Vanishing, editor Robert Dale Parker has done a service to dozens of American Indian poets writing before 1930, rescuing them from obscurity with a hefty anthology of their pieces. The book also features an exciting find—the first Indian poet to write in a Native language.

It is important to note what this book is and is not. It is not a collection of American Indian songs, many of which are extremely poetic. And it is not an assemblage of bits from Indian oral histories rearranged to look like poetry (often done so, as Parker points out, by non-Indians, of which he is one). With two important exceptions, the book is not poetry written in Native languages. Here’s what the book is: poetry written in English, using the poetic forms of the day—rhymed and metrical European forms that these poets were taught in school, some of them in the infamous Indian boarding schools. This Eurocentric verse may explain why many of these poets are little known, as it does not represent the mainstream of Indian creativity found in the Native forms mentioned above. Still, this is an important volume, though more so historically than poetically. Indeed, much of it is a chore to read, with its clanging rhymes, too-regular metrics, and imitative, often conventional sentiments. The gems are few and far between.

The book reproduces the work of 82 Indian poets. The majority of their poems were written in the 1800s, though the first one dates back to 1678. It is an impressive work composed in Latin and Greek by an Indian named Eleazar while he was attending Harvard University. Nearly all the rest of the entries are written in English. Two of them, by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, were written in her native Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) and represent an impressive Indian poet pioneering the use of her Native language in verse.

Schoolcraft (whose Indian name, Bamewawagezhikaquay, translates to Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky) wrote in both English and Ojibwe, mirroring her heritage as the daughter of a white man and an Indian woman. Parker, a professor at the University of Illinois, credits her with being “the first known poet to write poems in an American Indian language.” Schoolcraft was a conventional poet in English, writing in rhyme and meter as was the style of her time. (She was born in 1800 in Sault Ste Marie in what would become Michigan.)

The two poems in her native language reproduced in the collection, however, escape the conventional by being the only two in the book that are not in English. The first, called “To the Pine Tree on First Seeing It on Returning From Europe,” conveys Schoolcraft’s deep love for her motherland. The second, “On Leaving My Children Jane and John at School, in the Atlantic States, and Preparing to Return to the Interior,” is even more unusual. For one thing, unlike her poems in English and unlike the work of most of her contemporary poets, the poem itself contains no punctuation at all.

This unusual example contrasts Schoolcraft’s feelings about being separated from her children with her sustaining love of the homeland to which she is returning (the short poem refers to her land or her home seven times). The poem comes to a thoroughly modern self-realization: In Ojibwe it is “Ishe ez hau jau yaun” and in the English translation by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark and James Vukelich, “That is the way I am, my being.”

The poem ends with another breathtaking line that anticipates much of modern poetry, Native or otherwise, in its expression of the song of the self. In Ojibwe it is “Nyau ne gush kain dum” and in English “Ahh but I am sad.”

One affecting and repetitive theme in the book is the removal so many Indians endured during the 1800s. Examples include “Though Far From Thee Georgia in Exile I Roam” by the Cherokee poet Te-con-ees-kee, and “The Indian’s Farewell” by a Cherokee (possibly Jesse Bushyhead), which contains this warning to those who now inhabit Cherokee homelands: “Tread lightly on the sleeping dead / Proud millions that intrude / Lest, on your ashes be the tread / Of millions still more rude.”

On the other hand, Francis L. Verigan, Tlingit, misses the current of history when, in “Be a Carlisle Student,” he sings the praises of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, notorious for its military-style education: “Be a Carlisle Student, not a reservation bum.” Another poet, William Walker Jr., Wyandot, edges closer to modern attitudes toward Indian boarding schools in a poem titled “Oh, Give Me Back My Bended Bow”: “I hate these antiquated halls / I hate the Grecian poet’s song.”

Some of these offerings are enjoyable for their own sake, rather than as historic markers of Indian thought or events. Take John Rollin Ridge/Yellow Bird, Cherokee, a Romantic in the style of William Wordsworth or Percy Bysshe Shelley. His “Mount Shasta” is an excellent lyric poem, an effusion on the beauty of nature as seen at Mount Shasta, similar to what a Wordsworth or a Shelley would have written in England. And a sonnet called “Spring Morning-Santa Fe” by another Cherokee, Lynn Riggs, could stand up to many of the thousands written over the centuries in that overdone form.

______________________

“On Leaving My Children Jane and John At School, in the Atlantic States, and Preparing to Return to the Interior”

Nyau nin de nain dum
May kow e yaun in
Ain dah nuk ki yaun
Waus sa wa kom eg
Ain dah nuk ki yaun

Ne dau nis ainse e
Ne gwis is ainse e
Ishe nau gun ug wau
Waus sa wa kom eg

She gwau go sha ween
Ba sho waud e we
Nin zhe ka we yea
Ishe ez hau jau yuan
Ain dah nuk ke yaun

Ain dah nuk ke yaun
Nin zhe ke we yea
Ishe ke way aun e
Nyau ne gush kain dum

By Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawagezhikaquay, or Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky); written 1838 or 1839, published 1851

As I am thinking
When I find you
My land Far in the west
My land

My little daughter
My little son
I leave them behind
Far away land
[emphatically] But soon It is close however
To my home I shall return
That is the way I am, my being
My land

My land
To my home I shall return
I begin to make my way home
Ahh but I am sad

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