Hogan, Linda 1947-
HOGAN, Linda 1947-
Born July 16, 1947, in Denver, CO; daughter of Charles and Cleona (Bower) Henderson; married Pat Hogan (divorced); children: Sandra Dawn Protector, Tanya Thunder Horse. Ethnicity: "Tribal affiliation is Chickasaw." Education: University of Colorado—Boulder, M.A., 1978. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening and Native Science.
Home—P. O. Box 141, Idledale, CO 80453. Office—CB 226, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309.
Has worked variously as a nurse's aide, dental assistant, waitress, homemaker, secretary, administrator, teacher's aide, library clerk, freelance writer, and researcher; poet-in-schools for states of Colorado and Oklahoma, 1980-84; workshop facilitator in creative writing and creativity, 1981-84; Colorado College, Colorado Springs, assistant professor in TRIBES program, 1982-84; University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, Minneapolis, associate professor of American and of American Indian studies, 1984-89; University of Colorado, Boulder, professor of English, 1989—.
Writers Guild, Authors Guild, PEN, American Academy of Poets.
Five Civilized Tribes Playwriting Award, 1980, for A Piece of Moon; short fiction award, Stand Magazine, 1983; Western States Book Award honorable mention, 1984; fellow, Colorado Independent Writers, 1984, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1986; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1986, for Seeing Through the Sun; Guggenheim fellowship, 1990; Colorado Book Award, 1993, for The Book of Medicines; Lannan Foundation Award, 1994; Pulitzer Prize finalist, for Mean Spirit; National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and Oklahoma Book Award, both for The Book of Medicines.
Calling Myself Home, Greenfield Review Press (Greenfield, NY), 1979, reprinted, with stories added, as Red Clay: Poems and Stories, Greenfield Review Press, 1991.
Daughters, I Love You, Loretto Heights Women's Research Center (Denver, CO), 1981.
Seeing through the Sun, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1985.
Savings, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1988.
The Book of Medicines, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1993.
A Piece of Moon (three-act play), produced in Still-water, OK, 1981.
That Horse (short fiction), Pueblo of Acoma Press, 1985.
(Editor, with Carol Buechal and Judith McDaniel) The Stories We Hold Secret, Greenfield Review Press, 1986.
Mean Spirit (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1990.
Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (essays), Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
Solar Storms (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 1995.
(Editor, with Brenda Peterson and Deena Metzger) Between Species: Women and Animals, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1997.
Power (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with Brenda Peterson) Intimate Nature: The Bond between Women and Animals, Fawcett Columbine, 1998.
(Editor, with Brenda Peterson) The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women Writing on the Green World, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The Woman Who Watches over the World: A Native Memoir, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Brenda Peterson) Sightings: The Gray Whale's Mysterious Journey, National Geographic (Washington, D.C.), 2002.
(Editor, with Barbara FitzGerald) Between Poetry and Politics: Essays in Honour of Edna McDonagh, Columba Press (Dublin, Ireland), 2003.
(Editor, with Brenda Peterson) Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of screenplays Mean Spirit and Aunt Moon, both 1986, and of the television documentary Everything Has a Spirit. Guest editor of Frontiers, 1982. Contributor to anthologies, including I Tell You Now, edited by Brian Swann, University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Linda Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, draws on her Native-American heritage in both fiction and verse. Noted for novels, short stories, and poems that are characterized by a combination of a strong female perspective, a deep theological insight, and a sensitivity to the natural world that has been called uniquely Native American, Hogan has been honored with numerous awards. Her 1994 novel, Mean Spirit, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Of her poetry in particular, essayist Laurel Smith wrote in Contemporary Women Poets that Hogan "combines lyrical and political elements … that prompt us to reconsider the ways we know our world and ourselves." In a Booklist review of Hogan's Solar Storms, Donna Seaman commented "Hogan writes beautifully and with great wisdom in any literary form."
Hogan's first novel, Mean Spirit, depicts murder in a community of Osage Indians living in Oklahoma during the oil boom of the early 1920s. The discovery of oil has enriched the Osage, but it has also attracted the attention of unscrupulous white oil barons. The murder of Grace Blanket, owner of a large plot of oil-rich land—committed in front of both her daughter Nora and Nora's friend, Rena Graycloud—proves to be the first link in a chain of events designed to deprive the Osage of their territory. The escalating violence and bloodshed bring federal police officer Stace Red Hawk from Washington to Oklahoma to investigate, but to solve the mystery, he first has to overcome government corruption and cultural prejudice.
In Mean Spirit, commented a critic in Publishers Weekly, Hogan "mines a rich vein of Indian customs and rituals, and approaches her characters with reverence, bringing them to life with quick, spare phrases." Joseph A. Cincotti, reviewing the novel for the New York Times Book Review, stated that Hogan "has an eye for detail, and [for] the Native American rituals and customs" depicted in the book. School Library Journal contributor Lynda Voyles called Mean Spirit "thought-provoking and unsettling."
Hogan's 1995 novel, Solar Storms, recounts the dislocation and suffering of Native Americans through the spiritual journey of Angel Jensen, a seventeen-year-old Native-American girl with unexplained facial scars that symbolize the fragmentation and enduring affliction of her people. Angel leaves a foster home in Oklahoma to revisit her birthplace in a town near the border lakes of Minnesota. There she encounters her great-grandmother, Agnes Iron, her great-great-grandmother, Dora Rouge, and a Chickasaw friend named Bush, who help Angel reconstruct her lost ancestral origins and early life. Together the women embark on a canoe voyage to join a protest against the construction of a hydroelectric power plant that threatens to destroy tribal lands. Despite its setting in the 1970s, the lesson of Hogan's work is an allegory representing the destruction by more powerful foreign cultures of the lands belonging to indigenous peoples around the globe. "Hogan has the spiritual depth to bring us through all the suffering to some glimpsing understanding of the Holy," wrote Bettina Berch in Belles Lettres. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, Maggie Garb noted that Hogan's "sensuous descriptions of the sights, smells and sounds of the natural world are tempered by heart-wrenching depictions of rural poverty." Though in World Literature Today, Robert L. Berner felt that the last five chapters took away from the abstract quality of the narrative, he conceded that the work was an "extraordinary, almost mythical narrative." In an article for Women's Review of Books, Heid E. Erdrich praised, "Hogan's Native-American female characters wear their scars and wounds, their history, tender side out, and are no less beautiful or peaceful for them." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Susan Heeger described Solar Storms as "stunning," a book through which it is learned that true humanity depends on connections "to family, friends, nature, the whole of life—rather than lording it over the rest of creation," and Joe Staples in American Indian Quarterly considered the novel "a work of depth and beauty."
Power, published in 1998, tells the story of sixteen-year-old Omishito, a member of the Taiga tribe of southern Florida. While trying to search for her own identity, especially in relation to the traditions of her tribe, Omishito witnesses her Aunt Ama killing a sacred Florida panther. Though this is taboo in their tribe and illegal due to the panther's status on the federal endangered species list, Aunt Ama believed that by hunting it, she would invoke powerful forces that would help bring the panther back. Omishito is called to both to court and in front of her tribe to describe what she witnessed, and through the experience, the young woman asks many questions about what is right and what is wrong, and about whether someone can be both at the same time. Power is "one of those books that transports you to a different state of mind," according to Jacqueline Shea Murphy in Women's Review of Books. Bill Ott of Booklist considered the book "beautifully written, highly dramatic, and thought provoking," and a writer for Publishers Weekly commented on Hogan's "lyrical, almost mystical use of language." In an article for Horizons, a reviewer praised, "Hogan's poetic penchant spills over into her novel writing.… [She] has the remarkable ability to make urbanites stop and smell the roses. She does not waste or rush through descriptions of the natural world; she forces readers to visualize the beauty which likely surrounds them daily but may be overlooked." Murphy concluded, "[The] sense of clarity and simplicity, that feeling that you are awake and alive in the world, glancing up, for a flash of a second, into the eye of the hurricane around you, is what Power communicates."
Although Hogan published her first novel in 1990, she has been writing poetry since the 1970s. Her first collection, Calling Myself Home, according to Smith, "introduc[es] ideas of identity and community that continue to be compelling elements in all her writing." Including works about the quest for one's origins, Hogan weaves together strong characters with images of the landscape that sustains them, and includes several works about members of her own family. The poet also deals with birth and metamorphosis in such poems as "Celebration: Birth of a Colt" and "The River Calls Them," about tadpoles' transition into frogs.
In Eclipse, published in 1983, Hogan retains the perspective established in Calling Myself Home and based in her Chickasaw heritage and her faith in female strength. Containing poems confronting such areas of concern as nuclear armaments and advancing the causes of Native Americans that were previously published in Daughters, I Love You, Eclipse also includes poems that attempt to reconnect readers with the natural world, honoring each of the four winds, the sky father, and the mother earth. "Hogan crafts phrases of common speech and weaves the lines in natural idioms," noted Kenneth Lincoln in the book's foreword. "The verses carry the muted voices of talk before sleep, quieting the world, awaiting the peace of home.… Her poems offer a careful voicing of common things not yet understood, necessary to survival."
Hogan's 1993 poetry collection, The Book of Medicines, invokes the therapeutic power of rhyme to treat the psychic damage inflicted by human conquest over nature and other people. Drawing on Native-American folklore, ritual, and female spirituality, Hogan's incantations address profound manifestations of illness, grief, and the failure of science in the modern world. In one poem, "The Alchemists," she contrasts ancient attempts to transmute lead into gold with a contemporary physician's effort to heal the sick. Robyn Selman describes Hogan's work as "ecopoetry" in her essay in the Voice Literary Supplement, particularly as the poems in this volume "take as their subject the very elements of life—fire, air, earth, and water—set into motion with bears, fishes, and humans." Carl L. Bankston noted in the Bloomsbury Review, "Hogan's fine sense of rhythm weaves through images of nature and of humankind's uneasy place in nature. These are dreamlike images that draw on Native-merican legends of the time before time when the First People were at once animals and people." As Robert L. Berner concluded in World Literature Today, "The Book of Medicines is a significant step, indeed a giant stride, in the development of a major American poet."
Hogan's Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World is a collection of seventeen essays that explore the interconnectedness of nature, religion, and myth. Alternating between storyteller and poet, Hogan relates the universality of minor occurrences in daily life, especially as reflected in the essential relationship between humans and various creatures, including bats, wolves, and birds of prey at a rehabilitation center for wildlife. A writer for Publishers Weekly wrote that Hogan "successfully couples a poet's appreciation of phrasing and rhythm with Native American sensibilities and stories." Heid E. Erdrich observed in the Women's Review of Books, "Hogan's sense of mystery impels these essays, whose topics range from Hiroshima to the space probe Voyager to humor in captive primates," and noted that "Dwellings reads like a correspondence … with a partcularly intelligent, well-read, poetic, spiritual, and earthy friend." The title of the collection alludes to its central theme, that of home and shared existence. According to Liz Caile in the Bloomsbury Review, "By honoring all creatures, we grow stronger and more content—that is the message of this book."
Hogan has also edited a number of books, several of them with Brenda Peterson. She and Peterson together compiled works of women authors on the theme of women relating to the natural environment. Intimate Nature: The Bond between Women and Animals and The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women Writing on the Green World feature such well known women authors as Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Orlean, Isabel Allende, and Zora Neal Hurston. A. M. Wilborn, reviewing The Sweet Breathing of Plants for E magazine called the book "an entrhalling look at ecology" while a Publishers Weekly critic wrote, "Not merely for nature lovers, this provocative collection ranks with the best anthologies of women's writing." Peterson and Hogan edited Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening as a third book in this series of collections.
Peterson and Hogan also worked together on a project where they followed the migration of the gray whales from Baja California up to the Arctic Ocean. The book, Sightings: The Gray Whales' Mysterious Journey, covers the history both of the gray whales and the people who interact with them, and presents such issues as aboriginal whaling rights. Nancy Bent, in Booklist, noted that Sightings has "Hogan's more philosophical musing … juxtaposed with Peterson's more reporterly presentation" and proclaimed it "an unbeatable combination of a thrilling subject and good writing."
In 2001, Hogan published her first memoir, The Woman Who Watches over the World: A Native Memoir. Called a "complex, sensitive book" by Edna M. Boardman in a review for Kliatt, The Woman Who Watches over the World is not only the story of Hogan's own history, but also the story of Native-American demoralization throughout U. S. history. Tales of Hogan's family life are mixed with essays on nature, mythology and mysticism, traditions, and love. "Hogan's memories spill out," wrote a critic for Publishers Weekly, continuing, "the smallest detail can evoke a whole history." A reviewer for Booklist considered the book a "beautifully rendered, cathartic, and ultimately transcendent narrative." Donna Seaman, in an earlier Booklist review, wrote, "The anguish of her personal experiences and the sorrows of the decimated tribal world are palpable," and in a Library Journal review, Sue Samson commented that The Woman Who Watches over the World "goes a long way toward explaining Native Americans today."
Hogan once told CA: "My writing comes from and goes back to the community, both the human and the global community. I am interested in the deepest questions, those of spirit, of shelter, of growth and movement toward peace and liberation, inner and outer. My main interest at the moment is in wildlife rehabilitation and studying the relationship between humans and other species, and trying to create world survival skills out of what I learn from this."
Linda Hogan contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Daily I have been watching the first opening of green buds into the leaves of the bee balm tree, as I call it for want of a better name. Soon it will be warm, and the window will be open, the sound of honey bees thick in the tree, the sweet smell of blossom in the window. How many generations of bees have been coming to this tree? I wonder that not just about the bees, but about myself, how many generations I hold, from ancestral wanderings and journeys, miseries and moments of joy, loves, and disappointments. I think it is a miracle I slipped through history, a Chickasaw who was carried in some woman's body over the Trail of Tears, part of a world, a historical part, that defined me.
It is a question held from the beginning.
I was born in Denver, in 1947, to a carpenter and a housewife. My father, an American Indian, a Chickasaw, had come from Oklahoma to work as a ranch hand. My mother, from a farm family in Nebraska, worked as a housekeeper for a doctor's family. They met. They ate dime tamales. They won a jitterbug contest. They drank nickel glasses of wine. My father won a wedding ring set in a poker game and proposed. They were married for sixty years. My mother still wears the rings, worn thin.
After my older sister was born, there was the first disappearance of our father to war. My mother and sister stayed in Nebraska, California, and once lived next door to a turkey farm. I know nothing of this time, except for a few family photos, but believe I lived part of my infancy by that turkey farm in Colorado.
I was conceived when my father returned from WWII. I was one of the war babies, divisions of cells within an egg, beginning on one of the nights of celebration that America was back on course again. America was in the right. My father was proud of being in the army.
Nine months later, I was born with black hair and sideburns and frequent visitations from an uncle who had a great affinity for me because I was going to be the new Indian in the family. I looked like a Chickasaw. My dark eyes and sideburns were testament to that. And he, Uncle Wesley, spent years of his life introducing me to the American Indian world, until I was an adult and worked at the Denver Indian Center. It was important to him to keep the life in it, whether it was traveling to Colorado Springs to take me to powwows in Manitou or having me serve turkey at the Denver Indian Center Thanksgiving and Christmas powwows, then held in school gyms. We danced together. He spoke Chickasaw to me and teased me mercilessly. In Oklahoma, years later, we, my parents included, went to all the family reunions, mixed-bloods, some of us, some women in braids. Our identity, our relations, were important. Now the family is greatly diminished by the deaths of my aunts and uncles and father.
During the Relocation Act of the 1950s, a time when Indians were moved off reservations and sent to cities, my Uncle Wesley, a man named Richard Tallbull, and a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employee named Helen Peterson formed an organization called "The White Buffalo Council," which remained in existence for many years. They helped to feed and house and find jobs for the different tribal members who were put on buses and sent to Denver. Indians came from everywhere. The idea was to send a person or family as far from home as possible. Choctaws ended up in Chicago, Navajos in California, Cherokees in San Francisco.
My uncle had gone to Denver earlier than that and worked for the railroad. My father followed. They were a close family and traveled long distances to be together. The brothers would travel to see us frequently. My Uncle James was so much like my father that when my father came home from the Korean War, I thought he was Uncle James. On learning he was not, I went to a closet and cried. I didn't know my father, though later in our lives we became close, traveling together, interviewing Chickasaw elders in Oklahoma, returning to our historical sites and those important to our own familial history.
When I look back at the influences in my life, aside from my uncle who helped define my identity, my paternal grandmother was the greatest influence. Not in terms of my identity as an American Indian, but because she had a kindness and a compassion that was palpable. It was felt beyond the boundaries of her skin, because she loved in a world where love was a rare commodity, as if no one had time for it, or patience. And she seemed to love all equally, all of us, and there were many, and even the large land tortoise that came to her door. When I was at her house, my special joy was to get up early in the morning. Her day began around four. And I would brush her long hair that had never been cut.
We came from another America. When I was a girl, my grandparents still used horses and wagon. A photograph of my grandfather riding into the town of Gene Autry, Oklahoma, to get water in milk cans is on the cover of my first book, Calling Myself Home, now renamed with stories added, Red Clay. I somehow thought this was wondrous and magical, living in the old days for part of the year. But, of course, it was a hard life. And reflecting on it now, my family, which once had land and been ranchers, had fallen into deep poverty because of land foreclosures and dishonest policies in Oklahoma, policies designed to disinherit the Chickasaws from their land allotments. Our family Indian allotments under the Dawes Act are now the Ardmore Airpark.
Because of the closeness of our Native family and the telling of stories and history, this became my life. It was as if I had lived through the Depression, the foreclosures, the horse traders, the classroom my grandfather shared with Jesse and Frank James at the Harley Institute, an Indian boys school. As a child, I listened. My sister and I walked the land and sat at the tanque where there were fish and turtles and talked about Indian princesses. We were as steeped in stereotypes as the rest of America. We had watched Western movies at the drive-in theaters. I remember us finding beads and believing they belonged to the old chiefs, which had been our relatives. The beads we found were actually plant fossils common to that area, ancient land, of Oklahoma.
I listened as an adult, as well. We would go from place to place dropping in on Oklahoma relatives, even though I told my father this is no longer done as in the old days of which they always spoke. But at each place there were stories, or at least there was gossip.
In our other world, in Colorado, I grew up in a silent household. My father, when I was four or five, left for the Korean War. My mother took in ironing and baby-sat in order to support us. We didn't read, the only book being a large family Bible from my mother's more affluent side of the family in McCook, Nebraska. When I visited that side of our family, I spent much time on the carpet with the open Bible, looking at the pictures and all the saved added things, postage cards, cards from soldiers, pieces of lace, and the history of births and deaths. It was what I had and knew of my mother's life. She, in all her silences, was very interesting to me. I watched her. I asked her questions. I hid in places and observed her. I searched her clothing and shoes. I recall moments at her family's home in Nebraska, watching the wind blow the curtains in the early morning, listening to the doves outside where my white grandfather had a large garden with tomatoes and deep purple eggplants. Those were blissful moments.
When television arrived, I was more interested in being outdoors than in watching those first shows, except at night when I laid at the foot of my bed to watch whatever was on while I was supposed to be sleeping, and of course, I watched my mother who was ironing, always ironing. Ten cents a shirt, I remember. She worked so hard to take care of us girls.
But outdoors was my school. While other writers talk about the teachers who influenced them, the education they had, the books that illumined their writing lives, I watched the insects, the birds, and hid in the doghouse when planes flew over, being a military child very aware of bombs because of the printed materials that were given to us and not to civilians. Instructions: In case we were bombed, we were to boil our clothes and bathe our bodies. Hide under a desk or table to avoid injury. We were as deluded as the others, believing the propaganda, that this would save us from an atomic bomb.
So, I watched life. I watched the ants move their eggs and disappear quickly into the earth, the newly hatched spiders leaving trees, the sun on their strands of silk. My father once took me to an underpass to see barn swallows flying back and forth from mud to their clay nests, intricate art, all of them returning at dusk, disappearing quickly into their beautifully crafted nests. Chewing roofing tar for lack of gum, I followed beetles. My friends and I sucked on rhubarb stalks and made jewelry out of tree branches, dolls out of holly-hocks, and followed bees to their hidden shelters, looking on the ground for pieces of honeycomb that had fallen or been thrown out of the hive. I watched blue robin eggs, waiting for them to open. What an abundance of life everywhere I looked.
I look back now, at this age, not at any of the unhappiness I suffered, not on the emotions I contained that I would never have known how to express in those days. I have written the difficulties already in my memoir, The Woman Who Watches over the World. Perhaps it is my age, but I am looking back on those moments of happiness. I want to remember rolling around in piles of autumn leaves. The man next door, the only man who wasn't at war on our street, coming by the army blanket tent I made with a friend. He gave us fudgesicles and other treats. There were choices to be made in the candy shop: long black licorice or the short round ones? There was a dump near our house, a place of great finds. Furniture. Old dolls. Rusted cars we could sit in and pretend to drive. At home I sat at the end of my bed and pulled on the cloth that curtained our closet, pretending to be riding a horse, holding the reins. All the rest of my family were rodeo people. I longed to be a barrel racer. I dressed in cowboy boots and hats. I even wore a fringed vest, all this to my sister's dismay! There were also the nights out playing in our pajamas, hide and seek, with cousins and friends.
I remember one day, later, after we moved to Colorado Springs near the army base, Ft. Carson, where my father had been transferred. I was sitting at the door, peaceful in the sun, clean and wearing white, and felt a moment of spiritual strength, coming for no reason at all, unsought. It would be something, after that, I would want to open again. After that one moment of feeling awake, I would seek it out. Through acts of attention, through silence, solitude, yoga, and writing. And these are the ways it still comes to me, that being awake. Perhaps this was the early stirrings of whatever that great something was that would bring me to words and the attention that creates writing.
Then there were the teen years. Bruce Orndoff came to my house on his horse to take me riding into the woods. That was happiness! My friend, Janie, and I drove around singing. Always singing. We sang together in chorus. In madrigal chorus. Folk songs in a beatnik coffee house, La Chat Noir. She is a serious opera singer still. I joined a community chorus. Another friend, Linda, and our boyfriends went to toboggan, none of us wealthy enough to have the proper attire. I was wearing plastic shoes in snow. We sat in the car with the heater on, frozen, laughing, drying out, the smell of her wet wool scarf strong in my memory.
I worked then in a nursing home, from after school until late at night. My father was medically disabled by heart disease and discharged from the army. I wanted clothes, money, eventually a car. It meant I had to work. Looking back, it was a blessing of my birth, being born without a family of money. (Nevertheless, when people ask me what I want for my birthday, I say, a rich father and a trust fund.) Even now, the active army personnel either have extra work or are in an income bracket eligible for food stamps. Our income, disability, was even less than before.
I was quiet, chatty only in Oklahoma with my cousins and other loved ones. Beyond that, I only spoke out in defense of the world. I grew up around much cruelty to animals. I fought it, and I would fly out of bed and run out the door in record time, wearing pajamas, to save a kitten, but the rest of time I could barely speak. And I was protective of my brother. He was my special one, the love I could create in my family. Eight years younger than I was, I even wanted to take him on dates when I was older.
In Sunday school when I was twelve I suddenly spoke out and asked why I felt God more when I was with a tree than when sitting there in the folding chair hearing about Shadrach and Abednego and the fiery furnace. The Bible was full of lessons on how not to behave as a human. And if people really loved Jesus, why didn't they just act like him? That was how I felt, even though our family Bible had been my most precious item, and I traced my finger across the etchings in it for hours.
I never aspired to be a writer, never thought to assert my Native identity, but I was firm on this tree fact and the Sunday school teacher said we were in the house of God, and I knew I was different if I felt God when I sat under a tree, smelling the fresh earth, the blades of grass, the small flowers blooming. I even argued. God permits that in other religions. Perhaps this was a defining moment, though it would take years to ripen, the beginning of a greater spirit for a dispirited child. I didn't know I would one day write and that this would be my source, my breath, my God. And that there would follow again those moments of being awake and sitting beneath trees, feeling their spirit, writing there.
In the meantime, I had jobs. From my father's side were Indian cowboys and while I had wanted nothing more than to be a barrel racer and ride in the rodeo parade, it was not going to be my world. They, after all, were legends, having won ribbons, money, jackpots, being wild bronc riders and bull riders, but my skills were poor. We only had horses once, and for a short while. So I worked as a waitress, a dental assistant, and numerous other jobs that paid little. By then I had given up on the rodeo and taken to my second practical choice: figure skating. I'd wanted to ice skate all my childhood, and we could never afford it, so as soon as I graduated from high school, all my earnings went to skating, to gliding along the ice, to lessons, private, to custom skates with amazing blades, and even to dresses made by a woman who had been a skater, but developed a disease called lupus and began making dresses for skaters since she could no longer skate. My favorite dress was black with white trim across the chest. Then I had a dance partner. We learned the dances. I threw myself into it seriously, from five-thirty in the morning "patching," watching Peggy Fleming with her perfect figures, to nighttimes of free-skating. Afterwards there was still energy for beer and dancing.
During this time I now worked as a dental assistant, and I loved my job. The dentist, Dr. Pitcher, was the first person who thought I was intelligent. He taught me to read x-rays, do lab work, and I even cleaned the teeth of my friends and family during the lunch hour. It was important that he thought I was intelligent. It was the first time anyone had thought so. It was what later influenced me to return to school, that and moving to California where I stayed for a brief time with my Uncle James, my father's brother, my Aunt Corrine, and cousins. My cousin was in school at the university; he had interesting friends, and they talked about things I wanted to think about. I began to take night classes in vocabulary and reading. I would later, because of this, go to a junior college, then to the university. I wanted to be a biology major, but all the classes were in the daytime when I worked. My first degree, instead, was in psychology. I wanted to be a counselor.
Of all the writers I know, I am the one who never intended it. It never would have been expected by anyone, least of all myself. I was working as a teacher's aide in Maryland, having gone there with my husband, Pat. He was doing post-graduate work at the University of Maryland. His friends from Oregon sent him a book of Rexroth poems. I worked as a teacher's aide. One day I picked up the book and read some of the poems. It was then that poetry chose me. I began writing. I wrote to find words to say what couldn't be said in ordinary language. I wrote for the feel of it. This was what kept me writing and later what kept me in school. I returned to school part-time. I took not only a poetry workshop from Rod Jellema, but decided to study literature. The first class that was significant to me, other than the poetry class, was Proletariat Literature.
I read the underwords of America. I call them that because the stories are there, of working people, by working people, people of color. Carlos Bulosan, a Philipino fruit picker, wrote a book about his life, If You Want to Know What We Are. There was Meridel LeSueur, Tillie Olson. Meridel's work has been particularly valuable because of its beauty, Tillie's because of its craft and commitment. I could understand the literature of poor people, workers. I had worked for less that minimum wage. I had grown up with people who were poor, one family from Nicaragua next door and me not knowing about the war, drunks across the street, people fighting, and then, too, people like my father with the nicest house, trying always to assert his dignity and his pride.
And then later, in American Literature [class], I read [William] Faulkner's Go Down Moses. I had the benefit of a professor telling me about it, teaching me to understand this book, which I bought for my father. I read in it about the Chickasaw man Sam Fathers and I thought, "I am a Chickasaw. If he can write about us, so can I." And that was when I turned toward my own self and people, my own words, to further represent us. Searching for other references he might have had about us, I found a description of a Chickasaw woman ill a purple turban, proud, taking money for the land she was forced to leave, and I knew what was ahead for her, weeping, humiliation, death. Chickasaw Trail of Tears. Perhaps that woman carried a cell of mine in her body.
I decided I was going to write about us, and we were a far cry from that. My first book, Calling Myself Home, like that of many Indians, was on identity. Not knowing there were others, not having seen their work from earlier in the century. Even when I went to school later, I did not find the writings of Wendy Rose, Scott Momaday, or Simon Ortiz. When I researched Indian literature, I found ceremonies, oral traditions, materials from ethnologists, and journals of travelers.
Even while researching other areas, I graduated in creative writing, and by then my first book of poems was published by writer and publisher Joe Bruchac at Greenfield Review Press, a great champion of American-Indian literature. That book, the one having to do with Oklahoma and my Chickasaw world, changed my life. I was not really prepared to deal with what followed. I was asked to give readings. I was looked at closely, for Indian identity, I discovered, is a complex thing. I was not dark enough for some people. Being of mixed heritage was the focus of the book, and it was one of the first contemporary books of poems by many mixed-blood writers to follow, but there is, even among us, a question of "realness" and this can be directly traced to politics and the genocide of ways of thought. There is a rich heritage, from earlier times, of mixed-blood writers. There were Darcy McNickle, Zitkala Sa (Gertrud Simmons Bonnin), and others from earlier times. Even Osceola was a mixed blood and Eastern-educated Indian. And there were Wendy Rose, Leslie Silko, and others I did not know, whose books were obscure and in anthropology sections of bookstores, instead of with the other literature.
I was first a poet, and I think of it as my first language, if silence wasn't my first language. Looking back, I can say that, younger, I was a poet of heart, even before I had words, but there was pain associated with not having a means to express, and I will always be thankful I found words and beyond that. Poetry says what can't be said in ordinary language. Perhaps, also, it is most in touch with the earth, its rhythms, its dry lands, oceans, profusions and dominions of life, and also the fault lines, storms, the surprise of emotion. It also brings about the need for balance. So, it is no surprise that poetry with its silences and underpoems was my first love.
It brings in something beyond the human mind and thought. It comes from somewhere else. I can't say where. I can't point it out on a map or tell its location in the human psyche. The secret of it is its beauty and surprise and magnetic draw. It is a sacred contract of words between us and something else. For me, that something else is nature. Some Native languages do not even have a word for nature because the human is inseparable from the natural world.
Poetry is a search. It wants to make a map, but it is a map only the poem knows. You have to follow it or you will lose it. If remaining humble and in the service of the poem, magic can happen.
A way of being in the world. This is what it is, this writing, and the life of it, so calm. If I could write only poetry I would be so happy.
But as I have added essays and fiction to my world, I find my approach to language is the same, that the way I go about writing in other genres is the same approach as to a poem.
In 1978, my husband Pat and I adopted two children, Tanya and Sandra. I was delighted by the adoption. It was my dream come true, and family was important to me. There was much elation on my part as I prepared for the two girls to come into our home. It took six months, a short pregnancy. They were older children, five and ten. We did not have their histories. Their records have been "lost." As it turned out, neither of them were bonded, or attached, as they now call it, and they had already a life's history of troubles, from physical abuse to sexual abuse to malnutrition. Nevertheless, I had so much love to give, and I believed love and care would win out over all things. And yet, it didn't. The world began to seem darker then than it ever did as we struggled through life with children in pain, one child violent and dangerous, another hurting herself and unable to speak.
I wanted to write a novel about adoption, about their histories. I finished it, and never published it. At that time, I did somehow manage to write the book of poems, Eclipse, from University of California Indian Studies Press. The middle section of the book centered on my daughters, my love for them, and for the politics of those days in the early '80s.
When I was young and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "a grandmother." Now I am one. It seems so long ago now. I look back as a grandmother to those years of stress with my daughters. The tension and added burdens contributed to an already fragile marriage. In 1982 my husband and I separated. At that time I taught in an all-Indian program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs during the summer and put together other teaching jobs in various places during the school year. Then in 1984 I accepted a job teaching Native-American studies, on which I had written much, and American studies, at the University of Minnesota.
Thinking I would remain there, I bought a house. It had stained glass windows in the little living room, two bedrooms. I thought we were wealthy! I had a desk in my bedroom and continued to write poetry. I also wrote essays and short stories. But after the first school year, I realized something was not working at the University. I was young, inexperienced at politics, and I couldn't pinpoint it at the time, but when I look back I can say only that I was treated very badly. There was great resentment toward me. I was the only Native professor in a program which didn't exist except in name. And I was also in American studies. I didn't have the experience to fight it, and even if I had, I wouldn't have been able to put my energy there. The despair and stress of my job made me sick, and I finally had to leave. I wasn't even able to stay long enough to thank the people who were kind. After the second year, I left. I left my house. On leave, my daughter and I returned to our small town in Colorado, and I tried to heal. Still writing. By then I had written Seeing Through the Sun, which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Now I worked on fiction, short stories, published in small journals, and wrote, slowly, Mean Spirit, which became, to my surprise, a Pulitzer finalist, and received an Oklahoma Book Award.
My friend, Gary Holthaus, once said that writing doesn't heal, but sometimes healing comes through writing. And I felt this to be the truth. The writing, my life in the mountains. Mean Spirit contained family history, Osage history, and events that were true in Oklahoma Indian Territory. It was also fictionalized, even the landscape, and it was because I could do things with fiction that I couldn't do with only history. It was necessary for a book that contained such painful truths.
I taught again, at the University of Colorado. This time I taught in the creative writing program. It was exciting to inspire the minds and hearts of newer writers. I loved the work. There were problems there, too, but they seemed like nothing in comparison to Minnesota. I could never have complained. Later, after I was gone, I looked back at the amount of bias that existed there. In the whole history of the University, I was only the second woman of color to ever be a full professor.
Being a Native woman has been the single most significant part of my life, my identity, and of my work. It creates a direction I cannot help but follow. It used to bother me that Euro-American writers could write about anything, including us, and no one would be bothered, while we are confined to write about who we are, and our work was believed to be true, anthropological, even when it was fiction. And yet, being Native opens a world. It opens to a world. It gives me reason to understand why the most urgent theme for me has been the natural world, the physical world, the great without. The spiritual is in the air around us. We are never alone, we are never without some life force about us, on a tundra, in the sand dunes, in a prison. And I am only a small part of it, a humble being in a world large and full. Knowing this and seeking out this awareness is what has allowed me to become a writer and a thinker, and in demand as a public speaker.
A writer grows into their life and work. It is a mystery. A person's writing comes from some other place and like the natural world it is larger than the person.
It helps reveal the world. One afternoon I watched the fascinating life of ants and later I thought, if anyone asked me what I did, they would think I had done nothing. But I had done a great amount of work and ant society is extremely intelligent. In Australia there is a Green Ant Dreaming. For Navajos there is a Red Ant Chantway. Their significance is acknowledged by people of the earth. In the bush, advancing fires are predicted because certain ants protect their hills with reflective quartz ahead of time, knowing what humans don't know. The way the animals and insects knew about Chernobyl before the humans did. The bees remained in their hives. The animals fled.
Creature life is part of my autobiography. I live with other creations, mountains lions now, deer, fox, horses, yesterday even vultures. And there have been wasps in my houses. For fifteen years I lived with several generations of wasps. It was my old home. They lived in the ceiling areas above my office. I felt it was an enchanted office. No screens. Once, the blue dragon-flies drifted in and out as well as the wasps. These are as important as a human relationship, the relationships and connections with the world. They are connections and relationships with the divine.
There are so many voices and language from this world. There is nothing meaningless or without worth. I honor the cultures of the others and the often ignored. This includes animal cultures. It is told now by science that elephants communicate over a hundred miles, and we can't hear their subsonic voices. Whales make a sound that stuns squid into motionlessness. Prairie dogs have a grammar and ability to describe, their own language. Now as I pass by their villages I watch them killed as development after development goes up. Those who have studied their language find they have syntax and structure. Finally, it was in National Geographic, which made it true. Researchers found that they even describe people walking by, a thin man, a short woman.
Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Natural World, a book of essays, is a book about this world, the plants, animals I have observed and worked with in eight years of volunteer work in wildlife rehabilitation, six of those years with raptors. It is about where I live and what I have seen or known of this world, and the ancestral spirits that dwell behind us all.
After writing Mean Spirit and Dwellings, the hydro-electric development at James Bay up in Hudson Bay was evolving. I heard about it first at the American Indian Community House in New York. I was shocked by what I heard. The city of New York was so dismayed by the damage to the Native people in the region and to the environment that they canceled their contract for energy with Hydro Quebec. I began working on Solar Storms, which was not only about James Bay but also about adoption and about the child of my oldest adopted daughter, a child I wanted desperately to adopt, but was not well enough, was single, and not financially stable. So I wrote the book for her and for the land and the people of the far north. One of the consequences of the book was that I dedicated it to this granddaughter, and the woman who adopted my granddaughter called me, and we were reunited, that child I had so bonded with when she was an infant. We are still in touch.
Until now, the novels were based on factual history, fictionalized. Their focus and impetus was toward healing ourselves, our land, our spiritual lives. Similar circumstances brought about the novel, Power. I was on a Native working group for the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, and I mentioned the Florida panther. It created a polarization of people in the room. I didn't know then about the killing of an endangered Florida panther by a Seminole man, the chief of the tribe, and that there had been a four year attempt to bring charges against him. In fact, I don't believe I knew anything about the Florida panther. It was as if something spoke those words through me.
Disturbed by the incident, I went to Florida to read the court records and find out what happened for myself. I decided to write an article about this case for a legal journal. I felt that the cat was sacred, that there was no circumstance which should allow for its death, particularly considering their diseased conditions, their fight for health and the continuation of their species.
Caught in a storm, sitting it out in the car, I heard the words of the main character, Omishto, begin to speak, and I knew this for what it was, the voice, the inner world that begins as a story. I listened. I had heard these people of the air speak before and knew I had to honor them and write down what they said. And so began Power, told by Omishto. She was young but wise. She had important choices to make. It is not the story of the true event. It is fiction. And it is about what if; what if the story the man tried to bring into court at the last minute had been true, that it was a religious act. But, of course, it hadn't been.
The Book of Medicines was my next book of poetry, from Coffee House Press, the press which also published Savings, and I felt it was the strongest I had written so far. It was truly about the history of the Americas as much as a book of poems of the heart and world. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle.
About this time, I had a riding accident. My life was going well. I taught at the University of Colorado. My writing was moving along well. I was traveling up and down the West Coast following gray whales with my friend Brenda Peterson, preparing to write the book, Sightings: The Mysterious Journey of the Gray Whale. I had bought an old uninhabited cabin and some land walking distance from where I lived, so I finally had space for a horse. One was for sale in my town. I was going to buy him. I went for my first ride one happy Saturday morning, and I was inexperienced, and he was a problem horse, Big Red, but they didn't tell me this. He was "hot-blooded." They were afraid of him. I had an accident I do not remember. Someone found my body in the road. I woke up three weeks later in a hospital for brain and spinal cord injuries. I had numerous fractures and injuries, some of them healed by then. My first memory was of the doctor watching me leave in an ambulance. I was being transferred to another hospital. It has been five and a half years and I still remember none of it. I wrote still, even during times I do not remember writing or being, and I wrote about the accident in my memoir, The Woman Who Watches over the World. My memory problems, along with other brain injury left-overs, still persist.
There are things in a life that are junctures, corners turned that one can never step back to again and this accident was one of those things. It changed my life forever. Nothing has yet settled back into place, although it is beginning to.
Because of this accident, I later had to sell my house, and I moved to the little, dilapidated cabin. One day Colorado Horse Rescue called me and said they thought they had a horse for me. Considering they had a two year waiting list, I felt fortunate. Having had three fractures in my pelvis, I was still unable to walk without crutches. I went to look at the horse. She was terribly underweight, limping, her head tilted to one side. She was a miserable little horse, I realize now. The woman said, "This is the one we were thinking about, a companion horse. She can't run. She isn't for riding."
I took her for a walk, a prerequisite, frustrating as it was with crutches. She pulled away and one of my crutches fell. She looked at me, my crutch, and came back to walk at my side. I adopted her. Kelly. How could I not? She was thoughtful and aware. Before I knew it, the next day, a cowgirl in a horse trailer came and put Kelly inside it, commenting all the while on what a beautiful Arab she was, this little mess. She closed the door and began driving. Kelly looked out the window of the burgundy trailer as I followed them to her little place at Lori's house, watching my car behind the trailer all the way, as if to make sure I would not leave. Ted and Lori. Horse lovers, both. With many rescued horses there, including a blind one.
I visited Kelly daily, taking apples and carrots. I walked her down the road to fresh grass. Eventually she gained weight and began to shine. One day I went out and Kelly was running! At first I felt joy. Then dismay as I thought, Oh no, she's not supposed to run. What if I can't handle her?
At my new dilapidated cabin, the work began. Ongoing work. The siding was roofing from the '30s and it had a built-in working '30s refrigerator with a tiny ice cube tray. I didn't discover until winter that it was truly a summer cabin, made of fiber board, of materials once used for a temporary ice hockey rink, but that first summer, what joy. The cottage windows opened inward. I opened the windows wide and in my room was a painted bird house. The wasps built a home inside it. We were compatible. We kept the same hours. I closed the windows in the evenings after they settled in for the night. They woke up in the warmth of day and the windows were open. If I slept too long one would come wake me up to open the window. I placed hyssop inside my room and hummingbirds flew in and out.
Gratefully, hypnotically, beautiful nature insisted its way into my new life and brought healing. It still does, even when I write fiction, or an essay, or a book about the journey of the gray whale.
I think about the coincidences of lives, how I ended up with Kelly. In a way she laid claim to me in the same way writing does. Then, at Ted and Lori's, there was a blue horse, a mustang. Young, pregnant, she looked at me constantly. One day I saw the foal moving inside her. I began to spend time with her. No one else did. She was a pitiful horse, as well, with only a piece of cloth in a corner of a fence for a shelter, even in winter. Carrots. Apples. Walks to grass. I began to feel attached to her. One day I knew by intuition that she was going to foal. I went home, packed my dog and car for the night, and returned to spend the night. It was a long night as she thrashed in pain, and we ran from side to side to avoid being kicked by her hooves. In the end, she could not give birth. She was taken away to the hospital, the dead foal removed and no one could pay the bill. I asked the vet, "Do you take MasterCard?" I laugh at this sometimes, buying a wild horse with a charge card. A very expensive horse. Now she lives with me, too. She also stands outside my window, a stubborn little thing, the wilderness still in her, hooves like stone. In pasture, in a herd across the way from where I live, even though she was young, she became the dominant mare. Kelly, now thirty, has her own days of running and returns of youthfulness. Recently she jumped over a stone wall, surprising me. There are also our town horses. They roam loose. Sometimes they are in the road as I drive home at night. Standing.
As Chickasaws, we had our own breed of horse. Stolen and lost along our Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, experts now say that the American quarter horse is the outcome of our ponies bred with larger ones. The Chickasaw ponies possessed so many good qualities that they were sought after all along the Mississippi River. We lived at a major trade center and sold the horses far and wide. They were so short in the neck it was said that they had to get down on knees to eat. They worked. They raced. They were good to ride and had endurance. I believe this may have been my own attraction to the mustang. She is blue corn, an Indian horse. The letters "U.S." are frozen into the side of her neck followed by symbols, as are all the wild horses, rounded up. She had a broken pelvis from the round up, thinks the vet. It doesn't show in her movement. After she lost the foal she cried on the way back to her paddock and for weeks looked for it.
Tonight after the sounds of day
have given way
she stands beneath the moon,
a gray rock shining.
She matches the land,
She has a dark calm face,
her hooves like black stone
belong to the earth the way it used to be,
as grass followed rain
or wind laid down the plains of fall
or in winter now when
her fur changes and becomes snow
or her belly hair turns
the color of red water willows
at the creek,
her legs black as trees.
almost a shadow,
When we walk together
in the tall grasses, I feel her
as if I am walking
with mystery, with beauty and fierce powers,
as if far a while we are the same animal
and remember each other from before.
Or sometimes I sit on earth
and watch the wind blow her mane
and tail and the waves of dry grasses
all one way
and it calls to mind
how I've came such a long way
to find her.
Same days I sing to her
remembering the Kiowa man
who sang to cover the screams
of their ponies killed by the Americans
the songs I know in my sleep.
Same nights, hearing her outside,
I think she is to the earth
what I am to her,
Sometimes it seems as if we knew each other
from a time before our journeys here
In secret, I sing to her, the old songs
the ones I speak in my sleep.
But last night it was her infant that died
after the kinship and movement
of so many months
Tonight I sit on the straw
and watch as the milk streams from her nipples
to the ground. I clean her face.
I've come such a long way through time
to find her and
It is the first time
I have ever seen a horse cry.
Sing then, the wind says,
I have watched wasps, whales, their mappings, and have realized their sentience. It is the same with the horses. They have a great intelligence. They require much of me. Part of that requirement is that I am conscious, awake.
By some act of fortune, I was invited, around 1993, before my accident, to participate in the Native Science dialogues in Canada, a group of indigenous and Western thinkers that was started by physicist David Bohm. This was another life-changing event for me, sitting in a room with others who understood, understand, the absolute intelligence of those who came before us, our ancestors, their knowledge, from astronomy to agriculture to mathematics. I realized more than ever that my work was to give Indian people and characters dignity, to reveal the intelligence of our people, and to honor this world we first people inhabited.
I am a traditionally-minded Indian. The European-shaped mind is different. I remember being in Rome seeing Europa, America, and America was snakes and a black panther larger than life, attacking a European man. The wildness of it, the way it was portrayed, a world, a continent, needing to be subdued and conquered, contributed to our tragic histories. Looking back to European history at the time of invasions, I see how so many losses came about. As a writer I have to look into the depths of time before this history and the knowledge that was there before invasion. Now science speaks of dark matter. Native peoples have spoken of dark matter for tens of centuries. The Navajo have a concept of holy wind, meaning the air is alive and even breath is part of wind. Dark matter tells us even more completely that the air around us is full. Also the wholeness of a life is based on balance and harmony. I look often to the Navajo philosophy because it is so intelligent a knowledge system. The traditional knowledge has not been overlaid by European knowledge as it has so seemingly in other traditions, although looking to the stories, songs, and ceremonies, we find it must still exist.
I know this, that there is no lifeless cosmos, no lifeless stone. So I listen to the stones. They all have their stories and most have stories about them. There is nothing without its worth. So I listen. Sometimes Americans call us oral cultures, but my cousin Sakej, responsible for my first and my ongoing education, says we are listening cultures. Not just listening to stories, either, though they are of utmost significance.
Listening. With my poetry, I try to listen, not to speak. And its creation is uniquely its own. I just listen to the world. And I watch. I think of Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock listening to corn plants, knowing them intimately, learning gene transposition in this manner and receiving recognition from the scientific community, who had a different manner of study. There again is the importance in understanding our place in the world, the kind of knowledge humans carry, the humble creatures we are in this small planet in the universe. Sometimes I think of this process, like all processes at work, as magic. Where it comes from is a mystery. The first image, word, and then the unfolding that sometimes takes years for one poem to become whole. The stories.
I'd like to return to the circumstances of Sightings: The Mysterious Journey of The Gray Whale, and its origins: One day, working on the anthology Intimate Nature: The Bond between Women and Animals, I was kayaking with Brenda Peterson, and we were having a wonderful day watching spinner dolphins when we heard a breath behind us. It was a humpback, so close, so large, all we could do was watch and cry and say, "My God," knowing we were seeing something sacred from the ocean realm. She looked at us, we at her. We were so close.
We left the whale after a while, worried that we were bothering her, and watched her from land. Several hours later, she gave birth and a tiny spume erupted from the water, a small whale surfaced with the mother, sleek, then they headed away. This poem is to Brenda who took me to dolphins and whales:
Breath. Behind us.
Milk creature, she has navigated the world
by whale map, this ancient mother,
and we see ourselves
inside the large dark eyes
that takes our human measure,
and there is nothing to hide behind,
What moves the waves we cannot see,
nor can we know what moves a whale
to rise upward to the daughters of her enemies
except for faith in air,
and we sit in the boat for hours now, blown by mystery that, like all mystery,
could sink or drown us,
but it doesn't.
Beneath water is the blue, infinite
light from the bottom of ocean.
No one returns from there unchanged
by everything larger, that dark eye
that fixed us in its gaze, the clouds
behind us, the wind-breath of a stormy world,
the exquisite smell of fish and krill
from inside a great life.
I want you to know they are beautiful,
the songs from beneath this world,
rising up from water
as we sit in the boat,
held in the fold of its song,
lost in the mist of its breath.
Not long after this we received a call from elder women of a Northwest tribe wanting to talk to us about their protest of a whale hunt. As it turned out, we wrote a series for the Seattle Times on the Makah whale hunt. But who could not have done it after looking into the eye of the whale?
This took me to the world not only of politics, global, national, and Native, but of cetaceons. I had already been in the world of American Indian politics, having worked at the Denver Indian Center and done some work for my own tribe, so I knew what I was in for, and I felt old enough and courageous enough to take it on. As I said earlier, I am traditional. I have a traditional mind and feel there needs to be an ethical voice.
Then, too, I had to learn science. I began my self-education in marine biology and Native history along the West Coast. I tell people I should have a degree in marine biology for all the research I did, but together we wrote this book and for many years we followed the journey of the whales. I studied the ocean environment while she, more extroverted, did the above ground work, interviews, recent events, and stories. I again chose the beneath, the small, the hidden: I studied the ocean floor, plankton, diatoms, kelp forests, the Indian and European history of the coast, the pre-history and the tragedy of the whaling industry. Here is a brief excerpt: The life of a gray whale consists of the small and minute. If you could see diatoms with the naked eye, they would look like houses of crystal, boxes with exquisite patterns. Their formation is one of the mysteries of the earth. Beautiful, shapely, at times some of them form a film over the bodies of gray whales and make the skin of the whale shine luminescent in the dark so that its passages north are covered in beauty in a floating world both delicate and powerful.
The opportunity to follow the migration of whales and their ancient history as land animals having evolved into the ocean was a journey of many kinds. We followed whales from Baja to the Bering Sea. We recounted the relationship of tribes to whale, but also the biology and world beneath the sea. I wanted early in my life to be a biologist or a veterinarian, to look at the secrets of life. Yet, as a writer I have been able to do this. I live with a Horse Rescue horse and a wild mustang. I've worked in the magnificent presence of eagles, hawks, owls, even once a fawn. I have given showers to young swans shot by duck hunters, healing in wildlife clinics. After many years I still love this work, its own diversity from a woman diverse. Writing means taking risks and searching my way into them, trying to have them come out right, knowing there is a chance it may not.
At the same time there is the rest of life. Living is a large thing. Someone once said, "What are you most proud of?" and I said working with birds. They meant my writing, but I had spent eight years working with wildlife, and the last six was with raptors. That was what I felt best about in my life. Though it was not something they expected, at the time, it was where I felt I offered the most to the world, gave the most.
But now, from the feedback I receive, I think it is the writing. I learned, in large part teaching myself, how to write in order to convey the intelligence and suffering of the world, to pass on the love of life in all its forms, word by word, sentence by sentence.
All of the American landscape is "storied" land. I think writer and ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan now uses this word, also. But the land and its stories are known by those who lived here for at least ten thousand years, in some places thirty. In the north where the names of towns and places have been overlaid with European names, they are taking back the traditional ones. I like it: The Place Where the White Crow Walked, The Creator's Elbow. The land has great amounts of information and scientific knowledge attached to it by the First Nations peoples who had treaties with the land and animals.
I think of my work, in part, as a return to this. It is the creation of true, unseen bonds, filaments of connection with the world, revelations. I come from America in a way many American writers don't. I want to carry, without diminishing, without appropriating, our knowledge into the present world. For the sake of life and the future. I still carry the cells of those dispossessed Chickasaws who touched the trees, saying good-bye on the night before their leaving.
Because of this, my work rises out of the American earth and water. It is rooted in traditional indigenous traditions, and I try to open this world of indigenous philosophy and knowledge into the pages of a book. With this language I want to reestablish the bonds that have been broken. Those that are spiritual, those that are compassionate.
As an American-Indian writer, my work comes from the magnificence of this continent, the earth, the language of the land, largely unheard, too often overlooked by the new people on this continent who have a worldview that does not show humans in place with the rest of nature. Whose world, even here, is still based on a European Venus, Mars, astronomy from only one mythology laid down upon even the universe. The oldest literatures are not nearly as old as the indigenous literatures, some known to be twenty thousand years old. And part of the sadness of this is that we have all been wounded by Western philosophy and a culture that has feared or hated the natural world, or at least not known and understood it, and too often has yet to hear the voice of the land. But I can also see the fear that arrived with the Europeans, the wilderness they no longer had, the power of the land, the threat, even imagined, of the animal world.
I believe if I have any success in my work it has to do with that traditional mind, because I hope it adds one new dimension in our vision of the world, our awareness, even our own constellations of swimming ducks, snake, buffalo. There are many dimensions in this world. More than three. And dimensions, as we know, are many, varied, significant. One day, I was at a conference on medicinal plants at the birthplace of Chief Seattle and went walking along the water of the island.
How is it decided
who among us has hands,
gill slits, who will gather up
a small thing
waiting too far from the ocean
to be alive or return
with the kelp and its bulbs of gold,
and the creature we see almost through,
see in the light of morning
among the many baleful closures of the ocean.
How is it decided
who will gather up the small thing
and return it to water as its grave
only to watch it slowly open;
jelly fish like a pulse,
a robe of orange splendor
in the finery of ocean creation.
I see the wave, with a curve of light,
the force of it, one after another,
not wondering if it is the ocean.
I see the infinite pastures of the water
some with the newly born, some
with the just as newly gone.
Here is a place of sliding worlds,
the birthplace of Chief Seattle
whose people he said would always be
among those with bodies.
And how is it decided who has dominion
of the flesh
to pass through unseen
or on its way to being
forgetting the brief distances in time
I don't know who lives here,
if they are happy
in that slide of cells that created and birthed them
or who is it that decided who has hands,
who can speak
who is light?
As it has turned out in my life, my writing is larger than I am, and I have to grow into it. I am the root. It is the trunk, the flowers, the leaves. I am still a beginning, still growing into it. I have always followed the writing, rather than using my mind, my thought. I consider the mind as something that contains lesser knowledge than the rest of me. Knowledge isn't the right word. Knowing, I should say. "Truthing," my cousins calls it. We are just humans. We are humble. In our own place. Only a part of all the rest. With writing there is a way to make a balance between the head and the heart, to put it in place. I am able to convey what we thought, and to learn what we knew, as well as knowing the new world, new systems of thought.
Whatever is inside me that beckons me to write is the wind in the trees, the green light and shadows on the road. It is looking in the eyes of my grandchildren. The long light of summer, the brief light of winter, the life that resides in matter, the opening of leaf, the earth rich with turtles laying eggs, lizards and egrets. Not only the five senses, but the feeling of the land itself, as if there is cellular knowledge and understanding and exchange with the world: Tonight I walk. I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small fine details of the world around them and of immensity above.
Walking, I can almost hear the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds heavy and dark, considering snow. On the dry, red road, I pass the place of the sunflower, that dark and secret location where creation took place. I wonder if it will return this summer, if it will multiply and move up to the other stand of flowers in a territorial struggle.
It's winter and there is smoke from the fires. The square, lighted windows of houses are fogging over. It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood. Whichever road I follow, I walk in the land of many gods, and they love and eat one another. Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands. (From Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Natural World)
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World Literature Today, spring, 1994, Robert L. Berner, review of The Book of Medicines, pp. 407-408; fall, 1996, Robert L. Berner, review of Solar Storms, p. 1007.