in the fog-brutal days when backs of buffalo scab with ice
and the weak calves
fall to attendant wolves.
Lewis and Clark are shooting game
gray clouds tumble birds
falling from the gun-hazy sky—
Fawns mewl in the frosted grasslands
Red guts steam snow and the
Hooves of deer and antelope
click in the trees
slaughter-hung where wolves cannot reach them.
The woods are haunted by the silver eyes of dead animals.
But these things are always and survival and
these white men have not cached the summer berries
haven’t split the rye grass to seeds or twisted the black moss
to chewing ropes for winter hungry days.
Now a blood scent rises in the bowl of sleep.
No one speaks about the woman
dying in the frail rising of a killing day.
A woman hard-frozen in the field
Her trail marked by the blood of the hundred pounds of buffalo
And the sleek footed wolves trailed her,
wove weaved* a tight trail around her sniffing
the bitter wind she carried.
The razor snarl of their teeth chewed the meat off her back
down to the column of her bones.
But her life was so powerful
even in death she is still
standing. Her rigid spine
sparkles in the steam of river light.
Her eyes glitter at the swooping birds.
Men weight their wives with venison antelope buffalo meat
make them walk for miles
for one small favor from the white man
a handful of beads
a promise of plenty
dying in the shrill wind.
In the deep burr of sealing snow
women are struggling
the rattle of leaves falling forever
They are not the beautiful women
men fight over.
The white men don’t see the wives who are hidden
in the lodges at the edges of lost
the women who carried the small-pox dead
losing their fingers
in purging fires
or women who gather bundles of sticks
in the frost-bitten winters of fever.
They are witches
who crawl hump-backed
their hands only palms/ the webbed feet of ducks/work dogs to carry
This is the life left to unfortunate women.
Infection a quick blessing.
Fingers of weeds
point to sky
Blind days of men.
But the beautiful women are running
the banks of the black river
the white men
hiding in the gray timber grass. Even the faces of trees
turn toward him.
The white men
they are desirable.
*I used strike-outs on the manuscript in an attempt to say and not say the things Sacagawea may have thought to say (or not say). I also used the strike- outs as a device to get at the idea of cross-cultural interpretation and misinterpretation on the page. I believe–although history tells a different story—that she spoke English and understood nuanced language and the power of words better than any other in her company. As an interpreter I think she would have struggled to grasp the right word or words and would have cast them out as shimmering ghosts of the whole idea she wished to convey. Words obscured but evident. As a traditional woman I think she saw words as living things, not so easily dismissed or discarded.
** York was William Clark’s slave on the expedition. He fully participated in the expedition. I have often wondered what he thought of the whole thing. I believe for the first time in his life he experienced power, a rare and certain power that went to his head—I imagine he was dizzy with the attention he received from all the Indians along the Missouri. Instead of a slave they saw a man of great power and might and wished for their women to sleep with him in order to retrieve his power for their own.
Traps —They are Trapping the Animals
Lewis and Clark are sending fox to the great white father.
They have trapped a spirit fox, a fox that carries the weighted soul
of a man possessed by bad spirits.
Meriwether places the caged fox at the edge of camp every day
because his cage is foul as pig’s blood, he says.
But I know Meriwether is afraid.
Every night the caged fox moves
when night fastens
the moon-heavy water
when light sifts
down in dark currents
and the river
Do not look
at the bottom
along the lip of shore
water channeling the thing-not-named
the dim sky water carries is older than time older than blood
In the deepest still place of the river
fox is chanting
sparkling scales of fish scattering silt
beaver slick currents
sparks of waves smoothing stones
fox gnashes his teeth
his black mouth open
his teeth so white
I chatter in sleep
put his cage
away from me
In the dark he is the thing moving
his rattling cage beside me
a harsh wind low
I have opened the cage door
Fox blood is sour
his small head wounded
I am afraid of his teeth,
his grim shining eyes
I am afraid
of his voice
He could kill me with his stories
I bludgeoned my wife he tells me——
the blood of her flesh—-
the thin bones of her fingers for touching another man—-
her ribs with fists.
I stabbed her
with a fire stick blazing
to sear her
so many colors the sky could no longer please me.
Who is she? I ask.
Wife for Dark Nights, he answers———-Wife for Dark Nights Wife for Dark Nights Wife for Dark nights Wife for dark nights wife for dark nights
November 13, 2015
I woke up around 3 in the morning and in the staticky light saw a woman standing next to my bed. She had a cage at her feet. I couldn’t make out her face but I saw that she wasn’t very tall and that her hair was in braids. I turned on my light and the apparition disappeared. But I began to scribble something down on the notepad I keep by my bed.
The next morning my mother phoned to ask me if I had heard the news. Apparently the Smithsonian had announced the return of a sacred fox to its rightful place and people. The sacred fox had been removed from its traditional homeland by Lewis & Clark over two hundred years ago. I cannot remember the tribe but when I hung up the phone I picked up the notepad and was stunned by what I had written. An odd coincidence? I am not sure. But the story of Sacagawea is so powerful, it haunts me.
I see Sacagawea as a very young woman, so young we would consider her a child in this day and age. There is dispute about who she was, her name, her origin, but the fact that she was a traditional native woman has never been disputed. She knew the sacred ways, the old ways and when I think of her, I also think of all the native women who have disappeared in recent years. Sacagawea is powerful because she refuses to disappear. Her knowledge of the old ways is a lifeline to memory, a light that continues to shine. She continues to be reinvented, revised, re-envisioned.
After reading the journals I was struck by the references to the ferocity of the time. Women were strapped with a hundred pounds of buffalo to carry to the corp in deepest snow. Women had to attend to the small pox sick, the dead and dying. In writing The Lost Journals of Sacajewea I tried to capture, perhaps illuminate, native women’s longstanding struggle and desire for freedom.
Because her name is also in dispute I wrote her name phonetically–the way I remember it pronounced as a child hoping perhaps people would once again feel comfortable talking about her. The revisionist thinking in the pronunciation of her name–even if correct–is another lens that removes us from her story. When people become uncomfortable attempting to pronounce her name, they become silent, and little by little the story becomes lost to us. Remember how often you used to hear of her. Now I have people correcting my pronunciation and insisting on a glottal stop—but how can that be—when the Lemhi Shoshone still call her Sacagawea? I fear it is another way to make native women disappear.
Oh, and I don’t call these pieces poems. I don’t consider myself a poet. I used line breaks to accomplish a pattern of image that I call shattered prose but feel uncomfortable with the term poet.
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About the Author
Debra Magpie Earling – is Bitterroot Salish and a member of the Flathead Nation. She is the author of the novel Perma Red, and The Lost Journals of Sacajewea. She has been a recipient of an NEA grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Montana.