'Disruption, Spring 1997,' a Poem by Steve Russell
Many ICTMN readers have been following the story of Chelsey Ramer, a Poarch Creek Band high school senior who was denied her diploma and fined $1,000 for wearing an eagle feather at her graduation. The news broke yesterday that she would receive her diploma, and would not need to pay the fine. (Meanwhile, concerned citizens easily raised the money through an Indiegogo campaign.)
For ICTMN contributor Steve Russell, the sense of deja vu was chilling. Years ago, a similar situation had compelled him to write a poem. He gave us a little background:
I am struck by the fact that no graduation season goes by without at least one story of an Indian kid denied public honors tribal people wished to confer. What sense does this make in light of Indians' status as the lowest performing ethnicity in education….are they trying to keep us that way by denying honor to our kids?
Anyway, I am moved to tell you the story behind this poem: I was attending a professional meeting in Albuquerque in 1997, graduation season. When I boarded my Southwest Airlines flight to leave, somebody had left an Albuquerque paper in the seat back in front of me. I picked it up and read the story that became the first lines of the poem. This rest of the story is made up by me, of course, but I was so pissed that the first draft was written on a Southwest Airlines napkin by the time we landed in El Paso. And the story continues in the pages of ICT….in 2013!
DISRUPTION, SPRING 1997
“An Albuquerque school board has refused to allow an Indian girl to graduate in a traditional shawl handmade by her grandmother, citing ‘disruption’ of the ceremonies. . .”
The speakers droned on in English
and her mind wandered.
She caressed the bundle absentmindedly
as if to stroke one last time
the cloth she had labored over for so many nights
after cleaning the rooms at the motel.
She smiled at her cleverness.
She had taken the silver concho belt
that had belonged to her man and his father before.
Having no male children or grandchildren
she let the trader
cut it to fit a woman’s waist,
leaving some room
for the fullness to come in the years beyond eighteen.
Her man had been large,
from a clan of large men,
and the excess silver from his belt
bought the fine cloth and bright threads
and her fingers did the rest.
It was not her tribal custom
to speak the names of the dead
but she saw in her mind’s eye
his smiling face
shining with pride in his granddaughter
and pride in his wife.
Jolted to attention
by the calling of her granddaughter’s English name,
she moved like a dark shadow
through the white throng
clutching the contraband to her chest with both hands
and as the dark-eyed Indian girl stepped from the stage
the grandmother, greatly daring,
opened the shawl with the bright colors
and the thousands of tiny stitches
and the perfect fringe
and threw it over the shoulders of the girl who stood,
first in her family,
holding her diploma.
The police were called
and order was quickly restored.