'Disruption, Spring 1997,' a Poem by Steve Russell

Steve Russell
June 21, 2013

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!


            “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.



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