After•Word Ghost Dance: The Poetics of Loss (Debra Earling)

Adapted from “Ghost Dance: The Poetics of Loss,” first published in The American Poetry Review, March/April 2015

“And so it was all over,” the great visionary Black Elk says in his account of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. “I did not know then how much was ended.“1Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, p. 276. Wounded Knee, where the United States Seventh Cavalry killed 150 noncombatant Sioux men, women and children, was, of course, not the only massacre in the four hundred year history of the white-Indian wars. It was only one of the last in the legacy of violent conquest and attempted genocide, both physical and cultural, that haunts any real understanding of what it means to be an American. As historian Patricia Nelson Limerick writes, in an essay entitled “Haunted America,” it is the foundation that “our presence on this continent rests on.“2Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “Haunted America,” in Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties. Drex Brooks. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995 [no page].

Every inch of earth, after forty thousand years of occupation, is probably a site haunted by human violence. “Maybe there are no fields other than battlefields,” writes Wislawa Szymborska in her poem “Reality Demands,” “those still remembered, / and those long forgotten, / birch woods and cedar woods, / snow and sands, iridescent swamps, / and ravines of dark defeat.“3Szymborska, Wislawa. View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems. New York: Mariner Books, 1995, p.184. In a profound book, Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties, one which could serve as a metaphor for Americans’ perhaps willfull blindness to this haunting, contemporary photographer Drex Brooks presents black and white photographs of abandoned fields, ditches, and shopping malls where major events in the years of the conflicts occurred. Some sites have been paved over for mini malls; the burnt out stump of the famous council tree at Horse Creek in Nebraska lies at the roadless edge of a cornfield; a worn footpath winds through debris next to a highway. A bus driver smokes a cigarette in the parking lot at Sand Creek. The effect is devastating. The lack of monuments, plaques, or any sign of public recognition in some of these places bears witness to a total disregard for what happened, as well as to the people involved.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book Storming the Gates of Paradise, writes, “Such erasure is the foundation of the amnesiac landscape that is the United States. Because the United States is in many ways a country without a past, it seems, at first imagining, to be a country without ruins. But it is rich in ruins, though not always as imagined, for it is without a past only in the sense that it does not own its past, or own up to it. It does not remember officially and in its media and mainstream, though many subsets of Americans remember passionately.”4Solnit, Rebecca. Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, p. 355. One of the paradoxes of living in the West is that the palimpsest is more visible. Many white people grew up on farms bought when Indian country was carved into allotments, an ingenious method of forcing poverty-stricken Indians to sell their lands. Many people live in reservation border towns, and there is much inter-marriage. But more importantly, I think, is that one actually knows people who have been directly involved, whose grandparents or great grandparents survived or didn’t survive Sand Creek, whose ancestors starved waiting for food at Fort Robinson, whose mother or father was kidnapped while camping and sent far from his family to boarding schools. To lose one’s language, loved ones, culture, land, and religion is, according to Richard E. Littlebear, to “dislodge[d] us from the ‘very ground of coherence.” He says, “It forced us out of our minds.“5We, the Northern Cheyenne People: Our Land, Our History, Our Culture. Lame Deer: Chief Dull Knife College, 2008. p. 41.

Those who have so recently lost languages, landscapes, ancestors, even the remains of their ancestors, often in the most horrendous ways possible, have, in effect, lost a world. Those who have survived with great strength and intelligence to inhabit a nation given over to values and rapaciousness contrary to their closest spiritual beliefs—these are people who have something to say to all of us. How to write the enormity of such loss? And just importantly, how to move forward afterwards? We are now confronting an equally drastic apocalypse: the disappearance of coasts and icecaps, the extinction of other species at a rate of at least 10,000 a year, the warming of the planet, the frequency of destructive storms. War, and its atrocities, seems to be the matter of the day. Scientists speak now of a sixth extinction. Our world is going to change, is changing, might disappear, and we might disappear with it, as we seem unable to stop the relentless and destructive direction we are heading.

American Indian writing, particularly poetry, seems increasingly crucial to me, as an expression of our deeply troubled history, and as one which has much to say about grief and cultural survival. And there is something else. In the photographs in Sweet Medicine of the massacre sites, though they may be obscured, there is, in each of them, an uncanny sense of human presence. As if they were ghosted: as if something remained to stare back at us. The ability to see past what most of us are taught to see is one definition of the visionary. The visionary poems in the most recent book of American Indian author Debra Magpie Earling, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, provides answers to the questions I have proposed: how to meet the challenge of writing the enormity of loss, whether cultural, environmental, or personal, and how writing can provide us with visionary paths to go forward.

Proposed as a counter response to Montana’s bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea is a collaboration between fine printmaker Peter Rudledge Koch and Salish poet and novelist Debra Earling.6Earling, Debra. the Lost Journals of Sacajewea. Photo-interventions by Peter Rutledge Koch. Berkeley: Editions Koch, 2009. Originally published in a limited edition, bound with buffalo hide and trimmed with trade beads, the “photo adaptations” and Earling’s book- length poem are a revelatory—one is tempted to say clairvoyant—channeling of the voice not only of a woman but a people, not only a people but a distant, almost inaccessible vision. The expedition, charged by President Thomas Jefferson with finding a water route from the Mississippi west to the Pacific Ocean, notably “for purposes of commerce,” is one of the most romanticized myths of the American West and its “discovery.” The flood of white settlers, railroad men, buffalo hunters, fur traders, and the military campaigns it ushered in accelerated the end of a way of life for millions of indigenous people. In fact, as Cheyenne visual artist Bentley Spang notes, Native Americans are still struggling with their “Recovery from Discovery.”

Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph: most Americans know only the most famous leaders of the tribes. Very few could name any women. Muskogee Creek poet Joy Harjo writes, “Historically, there are no female voices, and especially no female Native voices. The only two who appear are Pocahontas, and she has no direct voice but remains as an image, as a colonized figure in her English clothes. And there’s Sacajawea, who has a voice because of her link to two white explorers, Lewis and Clark. We don’t hear her voice.”7 Sacajewea has been an enigmatic figure from the start: no one really knows how old she was when she joined the expedition, when or where she died, or how much or little real power she had during the journey, given that both leaders were dismissive of Indian women in general. Historians disagree as to how to spell or pronounce her name. As Earling notes in a personal correspondence, she deliberately spelled Sacajewea’s name the way she grew up pronouncing it: “There is such an element of controversy in the pronunciation of her name and I think it has done much to silence her and remove her even more from the idea of personhood—a person, not an idea. She has become so many things to so many different people and there are so many legendary tales about her that the simple recollection of her name is in dispute. In essence she is torn apart, lay claim to like a land divided into countries and we have lost her to myth. [italics mine]”

How to recover the sound of the name of a word? Of course, there are no lost journals of Sacajewea’s. She was, as were most Indian women of that time, illiterate in her native Shoshone language and her husband’s French and English, though she served as translator in their encounters with many different tribes. During the journey, she would have had no time to write anything down, even if she could. She gave birth to a son within a few weeks of meeting up with Lewis and Clark. She traveled at the pace of men. She had her duties as the wife of the translator, Charbonneau. She was deathly sick a number of times. And yet the possibility of a found journal, recoverable after two hundred years, written by a woman with the unique vantage of having lived in the old Medicine World and traveling now with the new, insider and outsider, Indian with the whites, woman among the men, is irresistible. It is the perfect form and a forum for Earling to attempt the rescue and recovery of this missing person and missing point of view, as well as to powerfully investigate the nature of loss itself.

A journal is a record of a journey, whether temporal or geographic. It typically consists of daily observations, usually of weather, transactions, and major events, sometimes listing items one has seen or bought or eaten. Unlike the famous and public journals of Lewis and Clark’s, few women have been assigned them. As wife, mother, and Indian, Sacajewea had no voice in the journey, or the journals. Her point of view was something no one would expect existed, as the point of view of the fox or the deer would not exist, nor was it something anyone in the party would seem curious about. Yet, like most captive outsiders, one can imagine her observing carefully, stealthily. To imagine that the speechless finally have a voice, albeit a secret one, has always both frightened and intrigued us. It is our intrigue with hermetic histories, suicide notes, and the psychics who claim they can talk to animals, and with anything that has been irrevocably lost. Her journals, like the diaries kept by many pioneer women—who recorded births and deaths, the lack of food and the crazy-making prairie winds—might serve as a shadow enterprise to official histories, counterpart to the famous journals of Lewis and Clark, their viewpoint conditioned by their western education, their way of seeing Indian and white alike, their convenient assumption that they are civilized and the people they meet are savages. Who else but Sacajewea could tell us?

Earling maintains the conventions of the journal: each day is named, events are recorded, the voice is first-person but not necessarily personal. The speaker is observant, alone, watching others. She notes the weather. But there are crucial differences in Sacajewea’s version, ones that serve to distinguish and highlight the vast gulf between world views, and, knowing as we do how the story turns out, illustrate the profound nature of what has been lost.

Day of the Aching Moon in the Year of Their Lord

In my dark sleep the moon hair is split and the rain falls. Days find the lowest point
of the channel and move slowly, not wise, and the world is wicked.
All day they have been collecting

Sacajewea names the days not in white man’s terms, using the Gregorian calendar, but in the traditional way, by the moon and the seasons: Strawberry Moon, Corn Planting Moon, Moon of the Strong Cold. In her journal, even the tribal names are abandoned; instead, she creates strange new names that speak of her alienation: Day of Not One Knows My Name, Day of the Crying Animals. Under each date is an entry, which contains only a few sentences. The effect is to sense how careful and quiet, even dangerous, is her watch, not filled with duties, though she must have had many, but judgments and her registering of horror. One can almost hear her whispering to herself: They act wickedly. They are wicked because they have been collecting animals for their specimens. She sees them killing things without eating them, without proper regard.

Day of the Crying Animals

Last night the wind creaked through the trees and spent spat the last breath of Indians. The only thing I look forward to seeing is the red light that lines the meadows, the brassy light of kettle fire, sleep.

Kidnapped by the Hidatsa when she was just a girl, forced to travel east hundreds of miles across the plains far from her home, and then sold to what many have speculated was a brutal man, Sacajewea had already suffered trauma by the time Lewis and Clark arrived in her Hidatsa village on the banks of the Missouri river in 1804. One can imagine her fear and confusion as she watched them—as many other native people there must have watched them—as they prepared to build a fort at which to spend the winter before braving the tall mountains to the west. It is here that Sacajewea’s journal begins:

Building Mandan Camp

There is no fever like the fever of white men building the sound of trees falling hissing the branches of bones snapping/cracking/dying.
Building they are building their houses.

One day their buildings will devour the sky.

Point of view is possibly more clear-cut in a journal or diary than any other form of writing. One records in a journal what one sees, but also what one chooses to exclude. What one sees and excludes is most often determined by one’s culture. Sacajewea immediately establishes the difference: they are white men, unlike her. They build their homes, unlike her people, who are nomadic. What they see and hear, she also notices, is different. It is apparent to her in their capacity for violence and in their complete disregard for the pain and destruction they are causing the plants and animals to suffer. She hears the remaining trees, “gathered shoulder to shoulder / shuddering loss,” but the men do not.

On a day named “Two Suns Dull the Thick Clouds,” one can sense Sacajewea watching in the old way, one keenly observant of the weather, faint changes in the light, and the movement of animals, signs on which her people, living intimately in nature, were dependent:

In the waking hour when all animals turn the color of dust,
the hour of first feeding
a faint glimmer of light at the edge of branding, blunt, blue snow calls.

My blood returns stinging.

One imagines her alone, in her world, not the world of the whites, no one there but herself and her baby, who has woken her to feed, just as the animals have awoken to feed outside. It is no longer six a.m. but the “waking hour,” pre-dawn, when animals are colorless. For Lewis and Clark, this hour changes throughout the year, but she is precise in her language. This hour does not change. Sacajewea ushers us into a different world, one that is timeless. Cheyenne historian Linwood Tall Bull writes that Indians are experts at body language because of their many centuries of watching animals.8 Sacajewea hears the prairie dog trapped, crying in its specimen cage. She feels the other animals hiding in their response to hearing it. At dawn, in winter, her sense of her own blood “returns stinging.” She uses her own body’s response, in turn, to make her decisions:

I must gather
                      myself as many
[Particles, cottonwood down in cinder light].
                                  My spirit shivers over the river.

Her extreme attention provokes a response, which results in her own set of instructions. Carried further, it becomes an uncanny act of prophesy: “We will leave this place soon,” she concludes. It is a resonant world Sacajewea lives in, one in which all beings she encounters speak and listen to each other, a way of being that ecological studies with their emphasis on the importance of biodiversity seek to explain but which might also be described as a visionary one.

The “journal” does not cover the entire two years of the expedition. It begins with the building of the camp at Mandan and ends with Sacajewea’s vision of the buffalo gone: “Buffalo haunt the sky.” One speculates that pages or volumes might have been lost or damaged by weather like the fragments of Sappho’s. Or perhaps her work was interrupted or she wrote sporadically, not daily. Perhaps she lost heart. Earling doesn’t say. It is clear, though, that Sacajewea, and hence her people, had a different sense of time. There are entries which speak vividly of events in the past: the rage of a stampeding buffalo herd rampaging a village, for instance:

Sometimes the ground rolls and the great houses shake.
Tassels of corn rain pollen. For on the shelf of the earth the buffalo riot.
Skulls of their hooves
                                                the land.

Often, one doesn’t know whether she is recounting an experience, recalling a memory, or repeating a story she was told, or if, in passing through a place, she is seeing what occurred there in the past. “For me, memory isn’t situated in the past, but moves about freely,” Harjo writes. “We can catch hold of it. And some of it is born within us, probably located somewhere in that DNA spiral.“7Harjo and Winder, p. 11.

Sacajewea knows that her stories are different. “This is the story Lewis and Clark won’t be writing down,” she says. Lewis and Clark couldn’t possibly tell her story of the buffalo trampling the village because it contains all those things—the destruction of the village of the past, her exhilaration at the hunts of her youth, the buffalos’ future obliteration, even their haunting us now—as her experience of time does.

One harsh winter day, the kind of weather when “the weak [buffalo] calves fall to attendant wolves,” she begins a horrifying story of a woman, burdened with buffalo hides on her back, falling prey to the cold and then being devoured by wolves. “No one speaks about the woman / dying in the frail rising of a killing day,” she writes. Lewis and Clark are out hunting. Again, it isn’t clear whether the thought of wolves has jogged her memory of this story of a woman’s sad fate, whether she is witnessing it, or if she has seen a ghost. Sacajewea tell us that, though the woman is dead, she sees her still: “Her rigid spine /sparkles in the steam of river light. /Her eyes glitter at the swooping birds.” Her death is embedded in the land she passed from. But, there is something more. Just as Lewis and Clark can’t hear the cries of the animals, or see the dead lying around them, they are also incapable of seeing the suffering wrought upon Indian women, a blindness they share, she implies, with Indian men. “The white men don’t see the wives who are hidden / in the lodges at the edges of lost,” she writes. This is hardly a romanticized depiction of pre-contact life. Women are sent by their men to trade buffalo meat “for one small favor from the white men.” Women who are poor, unbeautiful, “unfortunate,” hump-backed and broken, those with small pox, or dying children, are outside everyone’s range of vision, she complains. “They are not the beautiful women / men fight over.” She says, “We have passed the graves of a thousand women in a single day.”

John Berger, in “Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead,” claims that the dead and the alive exist as a whole together: “The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead. In this core are the dimensions of time and space. What surrounds the core is timelessness.” He continues: “Between the core and its surroundings there are exchanges, which are not usually clear. All religions have been concerned with making them clearer.“8Berger, John. “Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead.” Web. 8 Feb. 2012. When there is any kind of transmission, from core to periphery or periphery to core, something is invariably lost in the translation. One senses this as mystery and feels it in all that Sacajewea doesn’t explain. We sense it also in the technique Earling uses of redaction. Lines within brackets are those that are crossed out:

A child stands so close to fire his hair singes smokes.

If we suspend our disbelief that the journal was found, that it is being translated by someone who speaks and reads Shoshone, the redactions convey the inability of the translator to bridge the gaps in language, in time, and in the cultural and world views between contemporary American culture and that of nineteenth-century American Indians. There might be no words in English for certain objects or experiences. In some places the words are crossed out until the right one appears, as if the initial translation weren’t successful. In some, the redaction functions as a correction, as in this devastating explanation of the rape of Indian women: “The white men [mistake] believe / they are desirable.”

There are also a few explanatory addendums, placed, as an editor might place them, in brackets, such as when, after Sacajewea’s lovely description, “I must gather / myself / as many,” used in preparation for the coming bad weather, she gives us an image of what that might look like: “[Particles, cottonwood down in cinder light.]” There is a double sense that these could also be Sacajewea’s corrections, given that she is a translator in her own right, a medium through which the past and future seem to move fluidly. In either case, the technique works to give us the sense of words and images coming from across great distances to emerge stuttering, straining for the light, the way we might try to recall the figures in a dream.

Throughout the journal, Sacajewea sees behind, but she also sees ahead. She sees Meriwether’s suicide, which occurred in 1809, long after the expedition ended. “Meriwether will lift a musket to his head and feel the spruce-feathered crack of his skull, his cold brain./ Dusk will haunt the rusty sky. He’ll live for days in his last hours. He’ll see the dead he has killed.” She has foreseen the building of houses everywhere, the disappearance of the buffalo and the prairie. “They can only take so much,” she writes in a revolving and revelatory sequence of syntax. “Only they can take so much. / They can only take so much.” The lines move through connotations of hope that the whites will not take everything, to the realization that they are intent on just that, to a sense that there is still something left that they will never be able to take, or a last meaning, that of a possible curse, as in they won’t be able to take what will happen to them.

If we have vanquished the lost and the dead from our perimeters of the self, we ignore them at our peril. The world, as Sacajewea writes in her journal, is dangerous with spirits of the past. Their voices are still here, as are their images, if one could see them. In 1855, the Duwamish chief, Chief Seattle, famous to white people for a benign speech about caring for the earth, also gave a speech that said, “And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. . . At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.“9Brooks, Drex. Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995. [no page] This is the prophesy Sacajewea leaves us with. “Someone is moving. / Beyond the clearing,” she writes. It is a gift that Earling gives us, that she has seen them, too.

About the Author

Melissa Kwasny is the author of five books of poetry, most recently “Pictograph” and “The Nine Senses,” as well as a nonfiction collection,“Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision.” She co-edited, with M.L.Smoker, an anthology of poetry in defense of global human rights, entitled “I Go to the Ruined Place.” She lives in southwestern Montana.

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