Photo by Richard Steinberger and Matt Normann
A ghostly gas station scene by Richard Steinberger and Matt Normann for their upcoming photography book documenting the Cheyenne River Reservation

'The Rez,' a Poem by Dennis Tom for National Poetry Month

Dennis Tom

The following poem comes to us from Dennis Tom, Navajo, and for those unfamiliar with types of poetry we'll point out that it's a sestina -- an originally-Italian poetic form that hs challened many a poet over the years. The sestina is structured around six words -- the six lines in each of the first six stanzas end with the same words, in a different order each time. The seventh stanza is three lines long, with each line containing two of the poem's central words. Writing a sestina that makes any sense isn't easy; writing one that is actually good is harder still.


It is calm and quiet here on the rez
The wind is cold
Yet there is plenty of clean air
The grass is fresh and green
The morning summer skies are turquoise blue
The sky is clear and open

The door to my hogan is open
The sun is rising on the horizon of the rez
The water near the corral is blue
And cold
Colored with a hint of green
A sense of peace is in the air

The pappus dances in the early morning air
Wild, free and open
Sage green
There’s nothing like being on the rez
The air that rushes into your lungs is crisp and cold
A 1975 Chevy truck is parked outside painted blue

The paint use to be Navy blue
The tires are no longer filled with air
It sits there alone in the cold
The doors are unlocked and the driver’s side remains open
For the past 34 years it has been parked and silent here on the rez
The crack that runs across the windshield is a thin line of green

A rough blanket covers the seat completely in Army green
On the floorboard is an enamel coffee cup still vibrant white and blue
Reminders that my father lived here on the rez
He breathed this same air
His heart pure and wide and open
He never complained about the cold

Perhaps that is why I like walking in the cold
The wisdom he shared is planted in my mind ever growing tall and green
My mind remains clear and open
My father gave me a bracelet made of silver and stones of blue
I inhale long and deep this ancient clean Navajo air
This is my home on the rez

This land is wide and open and has seen its share of winter cold
I grew up here on the rez and climbed in hundreds of tree tall and green
I now drink from the enamel blue coffee cup and breathe that same air

To learn more about the photo featured at the top of this page, see the ICTMN feature "Upcoming Photography Book Offers New View of Cheyenne River Reservation" and visit Below, poet Denis Tom's hands hold an enamel cup of the type referred to in his poem; in the background is a portrait of his father.

Photo courtesy Dennis Tom

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toto handala's picture
toto handala
Submitted by toto handala on
(1) woksape wokita When you first came to this land It was full of life, energy, Spirit and all that you needed From ocean to ocean, from the arctic to gulf it was paradise After tens of thousands of years that you were here, it looked like it was the first day you arrived Then the whites came and they were hungry insatiable like a swarm of locust they swarmed and consumed till they burglarized it all Look at them now as they go overseas to steal the rest of the world and they will never stop till they consume it all and then in finality; themselves They are addicted to their greed, to their hunger and in 400 years look what they’ve done here They burned down most of the forests and replaced them with sterile fields of corn and wheat, dirty cities of toxic reek, stripped the mountains, hills and laid everywhere their ugly roads, wires and pipes Sprayed their crops with pesticides and herbicides until the poison was in every river, every stream, every gulp They polluted the air with their foul spewing factories and disgorging black smoke plants They wiped out all the game and made it a desert and then smiled as they sold the lots for parking and scenic routes What of you and yours What did your culture do here in the thousands of years of occupation? don’t ever forget Yours is the superior society What did they do at Sand Creek? What happened at Wounded Knee? What did they do to Crazy Horse? And why did Black Kettle dive out a hospital window? (2) What happens to your children now? Where are your young men? Who takes care of the Elders anymore? Why are your women beaten and abused? So many have joined their armed forces And this is the worst cut of all As plastic Indians tell me like little big man and standing bear We fight for America now and it makes us proud while our children are beaten down They tried to make you white and be like them outside and in But do you hate the air, earth and sky like they do? Do you only think of toys and your belly? Is that what you want to be always angry, narcissistic and addicted to what you never sate? Their violence and hate is the core of their purpose Can anyone walk the streets of their cities at night without fear? Look at their hungry and needy forgotten and destitute while their rich drive right on by oblivious Mansions iron fenced and guarded and gated next to parks full of tents of the homeless and jobless and its against the law to feed them Yet in the success of their raping of the land, air and water The whites has signed their own death sentences What gave them their power is also their poison For they now turn on themselves The violence of their soul is eating them alive Look at their religion It speaks of love and compassion It talks of justice and ahimsa Do they practice what they preach, have they done what they said they would? They throw their kids, mentally ill and needy into horrible prisons They feed their young poison processed ‘food’ just for profit (3) They pass forward their bills to their kids future and then say; “ kids come first” They send their warriors to die for $, lies and markets and make all pledge allegiance to a stained bloody flag that rises atop dead upon the millions They are psychotic suicidal maniacs hell bent on their own negative self-destructive demise They are ravenous locusts heading like lemmings to the sea of their own annihilation and will take the world with them They only defeated you because they had the numbers, unity in their racism, lies, guns and violence Not by their faith, not by their culture, not by their moral or spiritual superiority You have the far more advanced culture You care about the land, air and water You care about the earth and all life upon her You care for the great spirit who gave us all everything They foul their own nests They are self-indulgent selfish materialistic temper throwing spoiled children They consume beyond the need while the fat and rich steal from the lean and deprived The rich rob the poor and they call this the american way False charities and agencies throw you spoiled bones and second hand throw away’s Tourists drive by and say; ‘my my isn’t that sad that they live like that’ They buy a few trinkets and then go home to their pools and mortgages and they then forget But these days are coming to an end ghost dancers are coming home again You are Human Beings and the Great Spirit has heard your suffering Endure and stay true to your faith for a day is nigh The day when redemption is at hand The first shall be last the last first and what is wrong will be turned right for once and for all

Sarah Yazzie Winters's picture
Sarah Yazzie Winters
Submitted by Sarah Yazzie Winters on
Brought tears to my eyes. Beautiful poetry that I can relate to.

Roger L. Carefoot
Roger L. Carefoot
Submitted by Roger L. Carefoot on
Love this.

Paul Castillo's picture
Paul Castillo
Submitted by Paul Castillo on
The above Plains photo of civilization killing off the Buffalo and to defeat or Tame the Already first Civilized Native Americans so that the Land could be fenced and parceled for market. And then manufacturing autos to drive onto roadways that furthered they purposes.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Thank yu