“There are many of us and we’re not just poets. We’re teachers. We’re dancers. Essentially, we’re human beings. And you would think that at this time we would not have to say that. But we still are in the position, strangely enough, that we still have to remind people and the public that: We’re still here, we’re still active. We have active, living cultures and we are human beings and we write poetry.”
Joy Harjo, NPR Interview
When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry is a remarkable book because of the power of its words, because of its scope (160 poets from 100 indigenous nations), and because it exists at all.
“This landmark anthology celebrates the indigenous peoples of North America, the first poets of this country, whose literary traditions stretch back centuries. Opening with a blessing from Pulitzer Prize–winner N. Scott Momaday, the book contains powerful introductions from contributing editors who represent the five geographically organized sections. Each section begins with a poem from traditional oral literatures and closes with emerging poets, ranging from Eleazar, a seventeenth-century Native student at Harvard, to Jake Skeets, a young Diné poet born in 1991, and including renowned writers such as Luci Tapahanso, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, and Ray Young Bear. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through offers the extraordinary sweep of Native literature, without which no study of American poetry is complete.”
Executive editor Joy Harjo’s (Mvskoke/Creek) introduction grounds us and prepares us for the great circle of words of power we will take through the book’s five sections: Northwest and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and Southeast. Each of these regions begins with a descriptive preface, and the work of each poet includes a mini-biography.
The focus, intent, and power of this work are aptly summarized by Harjo’s opening lines: “We begin with the land. We emerge from the earth of our mother, and our bodies will be returned to earth. We are the land. We cannot own it, no matter any proclamation by paper state. We are literally the land, a planet. Our spirits inhabit this place. We are not the only ones. We are creatures of this place with each other. It is poetry that holds the songs of becoming, of change, of dreaming, and it is poetry we turn to when we travel those places of transformation, like birth, coming of age, marriage, accomplishments, and death. We sing our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren: our human experience in time, into and through existence.”
Harjo notes that while the United States has been here only a few hundred years, “Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands upon thousands of years and we are still here.” Yet unknown to most people, an afterthought to others, and long presumed to be illiterate by most; there never was a level playing field once the outsiders arrived, and so because of all of this, it’s remarkable that this anthology has been lovingly compiled out of the subdued light into our national consciousness. Let’s hope the powerful work it represents remains there.
The wonders of four centuries of poetry cannot be adequately summarized or displayed here, much less explicated. So here are a few brief excerpts that caught my attention:
From the Northeast and Midwest
- EMILY PAULINE JOHNSON (TEKAHIONWAKE) (1861–1913), Mohawk, “Marshlands”
Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.
- OLIVIA WARD BUSH-BANKS (1869–1944), Montaukett, “On the Long Island Indian
But there came a paler nation
Noted for their skill and might,
They aroused the Red Man’s hatred,
Robbed him of his native right.
Now remains a scattered remnant
On these shores they find no home,
Here and there in weary exile,
They are forced through their life to roam.
From the Plains and Mountains
- ZITKÁLA-ŠÁ (GERTRUDE SIMMONS BONNIN) (1876–1938), Dakota, “The Red Man’s America”
My country! ’tis to thee,
Sweet land of Liberty,
My pleas I bring.
Land where OUR fathers died,
Whose offspring are denied
The Franchise given wide,
Hark, while I sing.
- N. SCOTT MOMADAY (1934–), Kiowa, “The Gourd Dancer”
A vagrant heat hangs on the dark river,
And shadows turn like smoke. An owl ascends
Among the branches, clattering, remote
Within its motion, intricate with age.
From the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands
- MARY TALLMOUNTAIN (1918–1994), Koyukon, “There Is No Word For Goodbye”
Sokoya, I said, looking through
the net of wrinkles into
wise black pools
of her eyes.
What do you say in Athabascan
when you leave each other?
What is the word
A shade of feeling rippled
the wind-tanned skin.
Ah, nothing, she said,
watching the river flash.
She looked at me close.
We just say, Tłaa. That means,
We never leave each other.
When does your mouth
say goodbye to your heart?
She touched me light
as a bluebell.
You forget when you leave us;
you’re so small then.
We don’t use that word.
We always think you’re coming back,
but if you don’t,
we’ll see you some place else.
There is no word for goodbye.
- FRED BIGJIM (1941–), Iñupiaq, “Spirit Moves”
Sometimes I feel you around me,
Primal creeping, misty stillness.
Watching, waiting, dancing.
You scare me.
From the Southwest and West
- PAULA GUNN ALLEN (1939–2008), Laguna, “Laguna Ladies Luncheon”
on my fortieth birthday
Gramma says it’s so depressing—
all those Indian women,
their children never to be born
and they didn’t know they’d been sterilized.
See, the docs didn’t want them
bothered, them being so poor and all,
at least that’s what is said.
Sorrow fills the curve of our breasts,
the hollows behind the bone.
- EMERSON BLACKHORSE MITCHELL (1945–), Diné, “Miracle Hill”
I stand upon my miracle hill,
Wondering of the yonder distance,
Thinking, When will I reach there?
I stand upon my miracle hill.
The wind whispers in my ear.
I hear the songs of old ones.
From the Southeast
- JOHN GUNTER LIPE (1844–1862), Cherokee, “To Miss Vic”
My spirit is lonely and weary,
I long for the beautiful streets.
The world is so chilly and dreary,
And bleeding and torn are my feet.
- RUTH MARGARET MUSKRAT BRONSON (1897–1982), Cherokee, “Sentenced”
They have come, they have come,
Out of the unknown they have come;
Out of the great sea they have come;
Dazzling and conquering the white man has come
To make this land his home.
We must die, we must die,
The white man has sentenced we must die,
Without great forests we must die,
Broken and conquered the red man must die,
He cannot claim his own.
The editors of this anthology read each poem aloud, better to understand, hear them, savor them, and drink them into themselves like a rare elixir. Should time permit–and why would it not?–you will do the same.