A five-year-old asks his mother if the clouds are solid and wants to know why, when he looks up, he can’t see the old people and their old cats. I must have dozed off. The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green. Tom Waits is bellowing downstairs and any second now someone I love is going to walk through the door. I want to know why the clouds told the Serbian poet their names in the quiet of a summer afternoon. And why didn’t he share those names with the rest of us? Perhaps they did not translate into English. Perhaps the old want to stay hidden and keep their secrets all to themselves.
If I see a patch of corn, in front of a house as I did this morning, or a zinnia bed, or a wrecked mattress leaning on the side of a house, an emotion overtakes. Not one of sadness as you may imagine, you being you, but a familiarity, a grace of some weight. I might even say longing, because it occurs to me that in the zinnia, the desultory mattress, there used to be hope, not a big hope, but a tendril one for the zinnias’ success, or the mattress’ resurrection – the nights slept on it and the afternoons spent jumping on it. And then the scraggle of corn fighting waterless earth. A small, present happiness and an eternal hope, even also, joy.
If I see a patch of flowers near a road surviving heat and exhaust fumes and boots, a homesickness washes me and I am standing in the front yard looking at zinnias. The dire circumstances in the house behind, the material circumstances, the poverty, are part of this homesickness. Not because, one, the scarcity, and two, the zinnias, set each other off as some might think, but because they were the same.
After the celebrations,
people, TV channels, telephones,
the year’s recently corrected digit
finally fall asleep
Between the final night and the first dawn
a jagged piece of sky
as if viewed from the open mouth of a whale.
Inside her belly and inside the belly of time,
there’s no point worrying.
You glide gently along. She knows her course.
Inside her, you are digested slowly, painlessly.
And if you’re lucky, like Jonah,
at some point she’ll spit you out on dry land
along with heaps of inorganic waste.
Everything sleeps. A sweet hypothermic sleep.
But those few still awake
might hear the melancholy creaking of a wheelbarrow,
someone stealing stones from a ruin
to build new walls just a few feet away.
Dad reads aloud. I follow his finger across the page.
sometimes his finger moves past words, tracing white space.
He makes the Moon say something new every night
to his deaf son who slurs his speech.
Sometimes his finger moves past words, tracing white space.
Tonight he gives the Moon my name, but I can’t say it,
his deaf son who slurs his speech.
Dad taps the page, says, try again.
Tonight he gives the Moon my name, but I can’t say it.
I say Rain-an Akabok. He laughs.
Dad taps the page, says, try again,
but I like making him laugh. I say my mistake again.
I say Rain-an Akabok. He laughs,
says, Raymond you’re something else.
I like making him laugh. I say my mistake again. Rain-an Akabok. What else will help us?
He says, Raymond you’re something else.
I’d like to be the Moon, the bear, even the rain. Rain-an Akabok, what else will help us
hear each other, really hear each other?
I’d like to be the Moon, the bear, even the rain.
Dad makes the Moon say something new every night
and we hear each other, really hear each other.
As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.
So I will recount facts as best as I can, given limited resources and understanding.
Before Minnesota was a state, the Minnesota region, generally speaking, was the traditional homeland for Dakota, Anishnaabeg and Ho-Chunk people.
During the 1800s, when the US expanded territory, they “purchased” land from the Dakota people as well as the other tribes.
But another way to understand that sort of “purchase” is: Dakota leaders ceded land to the US government in exchange for money and goods, but most importantly, the safety of their people.
Some say that Dakota leaders did not understand the terms they were entering, or they never would have agreed.
Even others call the entire negotiation, “trickery.”
But to make whatever-it-was official and binding, the US government drew up an initial treaty.
This treaty was later replaced by another (more convenient) treaty, and then another.
I’ve had difficulty unraveling the terms of these treaties, given the legal speak and congressional language.
As treaties were abrogated (broken) and new treaties were drafted, one after another, the new treaties often referenced old defunct treaties and it is a muddy, switchback trail to follow.
Although I often feel lost on this trail, I know I am not alone.
However, as best as I can put the facts together, in 1851, Dakota territory was contained to a twelve-mile by one-hundred-fifty-mile long strip along the Minnesota River.
But just seven years later, in 1858, the northern portion was ceded (taken) and the southern portion was (conveniently) allotted, which reduced Dakota land to a stark ten-mile tract.
These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as the Minnesota Treaties.
The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.
Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.
Everything is in the language we use.
For example, a treaty is, essentially, a contract between two sovereign nations.
The US treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.
It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.
The previous sentence is circular, which is akin to so many aspects of history.
As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it into the hands of Dakota people.
In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food or goods.
Without money, store credit or rights to hunt beyond their ten-mile tract of land, Dakota people began to starve.
The Dakota people were starving.
The Dakota people starved.
In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.
One should read, “The Dakota people starved,” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.
As a result—and without other options but to continue to starve—Dakota people retaliated.
Dakota warriors organized, struck out and killed settlers and traders.
This revolt is called the Sioux Uprising.
Eventually, the US Cavalry came to Mnisota to confront the Uprising.
More than one thousand Dakota people were sent to prison.
As already mentioned, thirty-eight Dakota men were subsequently hanged.
After the hanging, those one thousand Dakota prisoners were released.
However, as further consequence, what remained of Dakota territory in Mnisota was dissolved (stolen).
The Dakota people had no land to return to.
This means they were exiled.
Homeless, the Dakota people of Mnisota were relocated (forced) onto reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.
Now, every year, a group called the The Dakota 38 + 2 Riders conduct a memorial horse ride from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Mnisota.
The Memorial Riders travel 325 miles on horseback for eighteen days, sometimes through sub-zero blizzards.
They conclude their journey on December 26th, the day of the hanging.
Memorials help focus our memory on particular people or events.
Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues or gravestones.
The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act.
Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.
So, there is one other event to include, although it’s not in chronological order and we must backtrack a little.
When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to “Indians.”
One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakotas by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”
There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.
When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.
When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.
There’s irony in their poem.
There was no text.
“Real” poems do not “really” require words.
I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue; a revealing moment.
But, on second thought, the particular words “Let them eat grass,” click the gears of the poem into place.
So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work.
Things are circling back again.
Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.