American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center

American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center by Linda LeGarde Grover; Number Four - Native Writers Chapbook Series II [a machine-readable transcription]

by Linda LeGarde Grover

Number Four Native Writers Chapbook Series II

Black Knife book cover.

Figure 1. "Vermillion Lake Indian School"

Copyright 2008 Linda LeGarde Grover, All Rights Reserved

Published by

Sequoyah Research Center
301A Ottenheimer Library
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
2801 S. University Avenue
Little Rock, Arkansas 72204

Linda LeGarde Grover is an Ojibwe Indian, and an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.  Her reservation (called Bois Forte or Nett Lake) is in northern Minnesota about an hour's drive south of the Canadian border.  She is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she has done qualitative research on the effects of federal and state Indian education policy on Ojibwe children, families, and communities.

The Native Writers Chapbook Series II is published by the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Chapbooks are published simultaneously in hard copy and in digital format in the Tribal Writers Digital Library on the Center's website, Native writers without substantial previous publications who wish to submit their work should contact the editor by email at

Table of Contents


Everything You Need to Know in Life
        You'll Learn at Boarding School

Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is
dead. Forget their teachings. They are ignorant and unGodly.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Indians are not clean. We will
teach you to be clean.  You will never amount to anything.  Stand in
line. You will practice proper hygiene. This is a toothbrush.
Hang it on the hook next to the others. Do not allow the bristles
to touch. This spreads the disease that you bring to school
from your families. Make your bed with mitered corners. A
bed not properly made will be torn apart. Start over.  The boarding
school feeds and clothes you.  Remember and be grateful.
Say grace before meals. In English. Don't cry. Crying never
solved anything. Write home once every month. In English.
Tell your mother that you are doing very well. You'll never
amount to anything. Answer when the teacher addresses you.
In English. We do not recommend visits to your family. If you
visit your family in the summer, report to the matron's office
immediately upon your return. You will be allowed into the
dormitory after you have been sanitized and de-loused. Busy
hands are happy hands. Keep yourself occupied. You'll never
amount to anything. Books are our friends. Reading is your key
to the world. In English. Forget the language of your grandparents.
It is dead.  We forbid you to speak it.  If you are heard
speaking it you will kneel on a navy bean for one hour. Don't
cry. Crying never solved anything. We will ask if you have
learned your lesson. You will answer. In English. Spare the
rod and spoil the child. We will not spare the rod. We will
cut your hair. We will shame you. We will lock you in the
basement. Learn from that. Remember and be grateful.
Speak English. You'll never amount to anything.

South Dakota Mission School, 1890

At mission school, so far away from home,
at night I heard the song through dreams of trees,
birches and jackpines in rocky woods
that I walked in my white nightgown, peering
through night fog for my mother, who perhaps
might walk in her own dreams, looking for me.
Days inside the classroom, prim and chaste
we kept our dark wool dresses smooth and clean,
covered by starched aprons, stains bleached out
as our souls and spirits by our rejection of sin
and practiced English by living it,
our existence limited as our proficiency
in that language, and our peculiar use of it.
Evenings, Sister Joseph read aloud,
eyes foggy behind ghostly white orbs,
gaslights reflected in thick spectacles,
while Sister Agnes taught us fancy work,
and so we improved our English by listening
and our skills as ladies by embroidering handkerchiefs and petticoat hems.
Nights, across the plain we heard them sing,
the foreign Indians, throughout that icy fall.
As winter started, still the people sang
in a language that we didn't understand.
Sister Joseph said to pray for their poor souls,
those Sioux who didn’t care to use English
but kept their devil tongue.  They’d never be
White if they didn't try, we had been told.
We mission girls had left our pagan ways
behind, when we learned how to read and write
and about Jesus, and our sin of origin.
We tried to be as like his Blessed Mother
as Chippewa mission school girls could get.
no wicked willfulness here     We had learned
obedience, to do as we were told,
which on that winter night we did, although we didn't understand why, awakened
from shadowed virgin sleeps to stand
shivering by narrow white iron beds
by Sister Agnes, who told us to hurry.
Wrapped in stiff blankets and rumpled sheets
nearly naked under our nightgowns,
a sight to scandalize the Blessed Mother
and obedient, we did as we were told
no wicked willfulness here
following Sister outside into the night
through brittle long grass deadened yellowed sharp
that cracked under our bare cold feet, to lie
in a frozen ditch. Our bodies warmed the ground;
sparkling frost patterns on dark earth
melted, turning ice crystals to mud
that smeared shocking stains on our nightgowns
as, obedient, we did as we were told.
no wicked willfulness here
I thought I heard gunshots; then a child's cry
rose so thinly, a sliver of smoke into the sky.
Sister Ann, bulky in her dressing gown,
knelt; she whispered,  “Blessed Mother, please
ask your Son to spare these baptized girls,
obedient girls who always do as they are told.”
                        And what I think
pressed indecently to that frozen muddy ground
as the nightgown of the girl next to me
blew skyward in the icy wind
doing its own ghost dance; what did I think?
Did I ask for the Blessed Mother's help,
and for Jesus to spare the baptized Indians?
Well, I prayed for my mother, and my brother, Louis.
I prayed to see them again;
forgive me, I prayed for myself,
for the other girls and for the Sisters
for those foreign Indians the Sioux, God help them
prayer unheard prayer         prayer unanswered prayer
and then   
        I prayed in my own language
        in wicked willfulness, my own language
        my unbound words a visible cloud of frost
                some fell; crystals glittered on frozen earth
                melting where our bodies warmed the ground
        the rest rose in the bitter winter sky,
        an ice snake coiling, unwinding, silent,
        willful  more prevailing than the wind.


Old enough now to walk to the depot ourselves,
we waved to Ma and she smiled back from the porch
waving goodbye! see you in the summer!
take care of your little sister!
in one breath looking smaller, in another out of sight.
I ran back for a last look; Ma, unaware,
head bowed, wiped her eyes upon her sleeve.
I almost felt that sleeve wipe my eyes too
but it was just the wind blowing cold tracks
that dried to a salty soreness
from the corners of my eyes to my ears
as I blinked in the bright cold sun.
Bud the oldest carried Angeline the youngest
wrapped in her new coat a warm brown
cut down from her own
by Ma, for starting school.
It wasn't easy. On the train
Angeline cried herself a hundred miles,
a spring of misery dug deep as China
while our own tears dripped down our throats
to our stomachs, sour puddles
that in briny darkness would never dry.
Later, grief-dulled and wearied she slept,
one braid undone, one matted; face hot,
 cheeks shiny from salty runoff
in dreams
gasping arrhythmic short intakes of breath
that kept me awake. I looked out the window
at the progression of small towns, a movie run backwards
from our trip home last June, their reversal of order
familiar to me in heart and memory.
Through the night, grief-dulled and wearied, sleeplessly
inert I watched with resigned, open eyes
Angeline Bud Mitchell and Waboos
reflected in the glass and now reversed
too in my senses and in the glass
in rehearsal it seemed for our destination,
that life backwards from all we knew at home
sleeping in the glare of the overhead light
a tangle of children smelling home in dreams
as their heads rested on Ma's cut-down coat,
then my own staring face blank, tearless
smooth as stone, reflected in the window
reversed too in the glass and in my senses
in rehearsal it seemed for our destination,
that life backwards from all we knew at home.
left hand to right daylight to darkness
yes ma'am yes sir raise your hand
stand at attention take your beating
remember remember remember

Ma at Home

After they turned the corner, that huddle of children
carrying bread to eat on the train, my children
with their dark coats still faces resigned feet
that had walked down the porch stairs
moving, moving, a catch of breath seen and felt
walking forward and away, a catch, and then pause
but then forward, forward to the corner
in one breath looking smaller, in another out of sight
I lowered my arm and placed into its crook my smile
goodbye! see you in the summer!
take care of your little sister!
and my tears, the full-blown bloom of my heart
damp on a dark cotton dress sleeve.
Back in the house my hands did their tasks
without the summer help of my heart
whose seasons had changed in two beats:
picked up the quilts from the floor, folding
gray and black wool, old skirts and trousers
bits of red, a man's wool shirt
faded maroon and brown, my wedding quilt
and the lightest a summer dress, flowers blurred in fog
tucking batting where patches frayed and threads broke
smoothing soothing mothering the prints of my children's bodies
to squares that I placed under the bed, until after spring.
Then I walked to work, warm without my coat,
cut down for Angeline, the smallest and today the warmest
walking to the train in her huddle of brothers
in my cut-down coat, my arms around her arms
my shoulders on her shoulders
my cut-down coat warming her in my absence
my smile and wave the last she saw
my starving eyes the last she felt,
on the back of her small head
on the straight part between her tiny braids.
With her brothers she walked, without them I waited,
back to my old hangnail existence, three seasons deadened
but living for the day they would return


When I tucked my feet under the bench
and looked down, my legs ended at the knees;
no brown high top shoes no black wool stockings
just legs that ended where my knee pants ended.
If I pushed my stomach out to a hard air-filled paunch
my hunger ended at my ribs
no emptiness no growl no sorrow
just an ache in the hollow of nothing to eat.
Passing time we were, my brothers and me
waiting at the depot for the priest,
strangers in a strange land. We sat
straight and quiet, as if he watched us
while we watched for him. Waited.
Lethargic homesick patient heartsick
then fatigued with the wait and restless,
swinging our feet from the bench, getting up
roaming the block begging bread from a bakery
eating on the sidewalk watching and waiting
for the priest in his black car. It's funny,
nobody noticed us but the ticket seller
who ignored us and went home
leaving us to sleep there in the waiting room
on wooden benches slippery as church pews.
Awake in the dark depot that first night
I sat up, then knelt on the seat of the bench,
my mouth resting on the curved back, tasting
and smelling church, unanswered salty prayers
of damp change, soft bills, chewing gum, matchbooks,
a tackiness from other people's hands on my lips
as I passed time awake in the dark depot, waiting
for the priest in his black car. It's funny,
nobody noticed us, nobody missed us.
The bakery lady fed us twice, children like
shy squirrels, or timid small birds,
small town wildlife nearly tamed,
carrying that leftover bread back
past the eyes of the passive ticket seller
to our den our nest our chapel the depot,
our new life in that brick and concrete waiting room
a purgatory between home and boarding school.
Then that second morning, uneasy though we were
the dread of returning to Indian school lessened
ever so slightly, and we began to hope, maybe
we would shine shoes, wash dishes,
find lost change on the sidewalk
and we'd buy tickets home from the ticket seller
who wouldn't say, aren't you boys from the Indian school?
And we'd ride home on the bus, walk in the door
and surprise our mother. The second night we dreamed that,
moving and turning easily on our varnished pews,
which in our dreams were bus seats; out the windows we watched
a progression of towns reversed from our trip north,
time running backward it seemed a natural and right progression,
in the hopeful dreams of misplaced boys.
The misplaced dreams of hopeful boys.

Grandmother at Indian School

Left on scrubbed wooden steps to think
about disobedience and forgetfulness
she feels warm sun on the back of her neck
as she kneels on the pale spot worn
by other little girls' tender sore knees,
a hundred black wool stockings
grinding skin and stairs,
beneath one knee a hard white navy bean.
Unreal distant lightening flickers pale
flashes down her shins, felt by other
uniformed girls marching to sewing class
waiting for their own inevitable return
to the stair, to think and remember what happens
to girls who speak a pagan tongue.
try to forget this pagan tongue
Disobedient and forgetful she almost hears
beyond the school yard
beyond the train ride
beyond little girls crying in white iron beds
her mother far away
singing to herself as she cooks
and speaking to quietly with Grandma as they sew
the quilt for the new baby,
and laughing with the aunties
as they wash clothes
the little bean,
does it hurt?
Bizaan, gego mawi ken, don't cry
she thinks, moving her knee so the little bean
feels only the soft part, and not the bone
how long can I stay here?
And when Matron returns to ask if she's thought
she says yes,
I won't talk like a pagan again
and she stands and picks up the little bean
and carries it in her lonesome lying hand
until lights out,
when the baby bean
sleeps under her pillow.

        Lights Out

Moonlit, the bed under the window glows
blue; a boy breathes soft snores, in and out,
his sleeping face a lunar lavender.
He turns once, turns twice, grinds his teeth and sighs.
Across the room, against the inner wall
the bed in the corner hidden by shadow
creaks, the bedsprings an assonant whine
as a dreamer kicks a stifling wool blanket
to the floor; then, light enough to fly, he soars.
Five other beds are gray shapes in the night,
two lumpy mounds, two barely outlined bodies,
the fifth a restless sleeper who moves, yelps
a brief cry from a winter union suit flailing,
changing color as arms and legs move
shadow to moonlight, brown gray blue
below the bright moon rising higher in the sky.
Two boys wait, breathing below the cry,
below the snores, below the whine of bedsprings
as the bed under the window appears to turn
under the moon's steady sail through the night,
a window's width strip moving across the floor
counting one more night one more night gone,
one more.
Tonight two boys turn facing, eyes mirrored, and wait,
their closed lips a silent song of captivity.
They wait, watching the sky, watching the stars
that frame the moon's slow sail through the night
counting one more night one more night gone,
one more.

        Saint Bernard

When I got to mission school
my worries about my mother
and how was she doing without me
had to wait when
the priest told me
I had a bigger worry than that.
When I died, he said,
they would never let me into heaven
when they heard my name.
With a name like mine, Barney,
not any kind of Bible name at all
I couldn't float in
past the eyes of God.
He'd turn me away for certain
with a name like mine, Barney
and send me right back to mission school.
And so they named me after this big dog
who carried whiskey
in a little barrel around his neck
and saved people's lives
by bringing them a drink.
Well, I'd heard about that
and even saw it with my own eyes
in a bar in the West End.
“Thanks, niijii, you saved my life,”
a man told my uncle,
“I was sure dying for a drink. “
So I supposed it must be all right
and tried to feel the honor
of my namesake.
But it didn't stick
and I reverted to my pagan ways.
See, when I finally got home
and my mother said hello Barney
I was so happy
I forgot all about heaven.


One thing we never had at school was lugalette. I always
liked lugalette and always thought that word sounded so
funny, LUGGLE-lett. Some of the kids at school called
it lug-o-lay, and some called it Indian bread, or bannock,
or lug bread, or just plain lug, but they all knew what it was.
Back at home we had it every day, lugalette.
Here's how you make lugalette. Take enough flour to fill
a good-size bowl a little less than halfway. Mix in just
a small handful of baking powder, some salt, a bigger
handful of sugar. Draw a circle in it, to make a little river,
and mix in enough warm water or milk to make a nice
soft dough. Knead the dough just a little, then put it in
a greased pan and flatten it, careful, with your hands. Bake
it twenty, thirty minutes.
Some people cut the lugalette into squares before they bake
it, cut it into squares right in the pan, that makes it easier to
break into pieces after it's cooked. My mother used to
slice it. You can eat it hot or cold. If you've got some
blueberries, you can mix a handful into the dough, and
that's good, too. Mino pagwad.
We never had it at school, lugalette. But I always wished
for it. Back at home our mother made it every day.


My first night at boarding school
the girl next to me in the dormitory
talked in Indian to me, asked me
just like the people at home
where I was from and who my family was
which comforted me. Then she said,
“don't wash your stockings yet;
we need the radiators.”
The girls took out the bread
they'd saved from supper, and a jar of syrup
and said they were having a party for me,
the new girl. I'd never had a party before.
They taught me to make zip sandwiches.
Have you heard of them, zip sandwiches?
You take a piece of bread and pour a little syrup
and fold it and let heat up and dry out
flat and hard on the radiator. Zip sandwiches.
Next time there was a new girl
sitting all sad and lonesome on her bed
I said after the matron was gone
“Aniin, ezhiyaa yayaan?”
and told her to save her bread from supper
for a party that night. She smiled sideways.
Those zip sandwiches? Hard, stiff, sticky
they were a little unsanitary for my taste,
drying out right where we hung our underwear.
And tasty? Well, they didn't have much taste
but we loved them, and to this day, to me
when I eat any sweet, hard, stiff, sticky food
it makes me think of those days,
and I taste kindness, and comfort,
the goodness and generosity of those girls.


It was a good job.
Close to town. Regular pay.
Room and board. A good job.
Don't look at me, I wasn't the first one;
other Shinnobs had done it before me
and all things considered I didn't mind it
even if it was at a goddam Indian school.
The boys? They were all right, the boys,
and we all got along when they kept their noses clean.
And when they didn't, there wasn't anything new,
nothing I didn't see before, those hellish days
I was a boy at Indian school, myself.
Runaways, fighters, young
blanket-ass Indians sneaking around
like their ceremonies were a big secret from me,
talking Indian under their breaths,
like I couldn't understand what they were saying.
I took care of all that,
and when I caught some of them
having a little Indian dance out in the woods
I took care of that, too. Every one I beat,
the ones who cried, the silent ones,
they all acted like I didn't know myself
what a beating was. What did they think,
that I was born knowing how?
I went to goddam Indian school, too.

        Mary Remembering, on a July Afternoon

An afternoon like this reminds me of my grandma,
way back when she taught us how to bead
one summer. On a day like today, warm.
Summers, she wore a gray cotton house dress
washed so soft it fluttered light as silk
when she walked. On a day like today, warm
she stretched carpet thread on a wooden loom,
forgetting about dishes, laundry, ironing,
chores that could wait, that afternoon
as flowers grew and bloomed beneath her hands.
Large knuckles she had, and knobby fingers
that lifted beads carefully from a jar lid
with her needle counting
two blue two red eight white two white four green
four white two green two blue six white two blue.
A steamy afternoon it was; we sat
at her table, Grandma flanked and squeezed
by me and Cynthia getting closer and closer
yet she never said to move, or make more room,
only that the warm air from our open mouths
as we breathed and watched limbered her fingers,
and the waxed threads, and felt good.
One day she gave us little wooden looms
she'd made, and our own needles, fast and silvery
to try out beading, and we felt honored
to do what Grandma did; honored
we watched, and then we did what Grandma did.
Threaded our looms
picked up beads with our needles
pressed up and wove
into no pattern at all, just beads,
but you know? She praised us,
praised us anyway, said that looks good.
It's been eighty years since I saw my Grandma
but I remember when we learned to bead,
that summer just before my father died,
and mother in her sadness never thrived
again, but passed nights drinking, days asleep
til the Indian agent noticed and sent me
to boarding school, where I was to forget
what Grandma taught me, and learn other ways.
But I never forgot how we learned to bead
and when we brought our bracelets into town,
a long, hot walk with Grandma to the store.
We sold our “just beads” bracelets for five cents,
And Grandma got four bits apiece for hers.
She said, you girls keep your money, as
she bought blue yarn, white sugar, brown flannel
and three red suckers for the long walk home,
along with endless days, I would have thought,
of Mother singing as she sewed and cooked
of Father, cutting wood and hauling scrap
and Grandma, flanked and squeezed by two small girls
who watched her work. I never did forget
that summer when she taught us how to bead,
and held it in my heart those lonely days
at school. Marching to class, learning English,
scrubbing the floors, I held it in my heart,
that summer when she taught us how to bead,
her strong brown hands, that soft gray dress, the steam
from summer heat, and concentrating mouths
limbering her fingers and the threads,
that summer Grandma taught us how to bead.


Bells at six.
Wash face and hands.
Brush teeth.
Hang the toothbrush on the hook with your initials next to it.
Gather clean stockings and underclothes from the radiator,
school dress and apron from the hook on the wall, shoes
from under the bed.
Comb, part, braid each others' hair.
Bells at six-thirty.
Line up.
March to the dining room.
Stand behind your chair.
At the signal, sit.
At the signal, pray.
At the signal, eat. Oatmeal. Coffee.
At the signal, rise. Line up. File out.
Place dirty dishes in the washtub next to the door.
Bells at seven.
Return to the dormitory.
Make bed.
Bells at eight.
Line up.
March to the classroom.
Stand next to your desk.
At the signal, sit.
Lessons. Reading. Writing. Arithmetic. Penmanship.
Bells at eleven-thirty.
Line up.
March to the dining room.
Stand behind your chair.
At the signal, sit.
At the signal, pray.
At the signal, eat. Soup. Bread. Milk.
At the signal, line up. File out.
Places dirty dishes in the washtub next to the door.
Bells at twelve-thirty.
Line up.
March to the dormitory.
Change into ticking-stripe work dress.
Hang school dress and apron on the hook next to the bed.
Bells at one.
Line up.
March to work.
Mondays, laundry.
Tuesdays, mending.
Wednesdays, ironing.
Thursdays, floors.
Fridays, sewing.
Bells at four-thirty.
Line up.
March to the dining room.
Stand behind your chair.
At the signal, sit.
At the signal, pray.
At the signal, eat. Beans. Potatoes, Bread. Blanc mange. Coffee.
At the signal, line up. File out.
Place dirty dishes in the washtub next to the door.
Bells at six.
Line up.
March to recreation.
Mondays, reading and letter writing.
Tuesdays, brisk walk around the school grounds.
Wednesdays, reading and letter writing.
Thursdays, brisk walk around the school grounds.
Fridays, dining room for group singing.
Bells at seven-thirty.
Line up.
March to the dormitory. Supervised free time

Meni, you going home this summer?

Louisa lemme rat your hair for you,

put it up, like the white girls in town.

Somebody help Amenia polish her shoes.

Bells at nine.
Change into nightgown.
Hang work dress on the hook next to the bed.
Place shoes under bed.
Wash underclothes and stockings in the lavatory sink,
hang them on the radiator to dry.
Brush teeth.
Hang the toothbrush on the hook with your initials next to it.
Bells at nine-thirty.
Stand next to your bed.
At the signal, kneel.
At the signal, pray.
At the signal, into bed.
Lights out.
Listen to the girl in the next bed cry.

        Town, As I Recall It

was a pretty interesting place to be,
those Saturdays we got a ride in the wagon from school
with our outing pay, sometimes two, three dollars
in our pockets, a lot of money in those days.
Mabel and me, we were an item, and I could see
she had curled the sides of her hair for the occasion.
I'd borrowed my brother's good pants, she could see that
though we never looked at each other.  Too bashful.
In town we walked around together
looking in the store windows, picking out things we liked.
We were an item, like I said. Once we almost touched.
Mabel blushed and looked down at her shoes.
At school I went to class mornings; afternoons,
they lent me to a farmer; I worked hard.
He called me “Buck” and had me drive his tractor,
a big thing wilder than a steer. It took a lot to handle,
driving on those iron tires, but I enjoyed it.
When I got my money I wanted to buy something for Mabel,
who worked mornings for a teacher’s wife in town,
cleaning the house, wiping kids' noses,
scrubbing the kitchen with chapped hands.  Hard work.
They called it “working out” though she worked “in,”
and she never made the kind of money I did.
In the store Mabel bought crochet thread,
and I bought her a hair ribbon the color of the sky
because I knew how she liked pretty things,
then I mailed a dollar home to my mother.
We went to the show, and sat watching in the dark,
Mabel and me, so close and so bashful.
I could feel it without even touching her,
Mabel’s soft skin that smelled like coal tar soap,
across the space between us.  Mabel,
so shy she never looked away from the screen;
never turned her head, but I felt it,
her looking into my face past my eyes
to my hopeful lonely self, tender Mabel.
I remembered this long after I left school
and even today sometimes I’m still back there
at the show sitting in the dark next to Mabel.
As the stagecoach escapes the hostile Indians
I think about holding Mabel's hand; John Wayne
defends the honor of the girl he loves;
the sheriff hates like hell to lock him up.
I look sideways at Mabel; would she get mad
if I put my arm up over the seat, I wonder.
I think how one day I’ll be like John Wayne,
like Ringo Kid, escaping to the west,
with his girl         if she’ll be his girl

Mabel reads my thoughts; she turns to smile

then the credits roll, the usher hits the lights.
“Next show at fi-i-ive,” he bawls.”  Across the street,
the wagon waits to bring us back to school
and another month of work for outing pay,
two, three dollars for my mother and a Saturday.


There were certain things you could do to leave school.
Run away. Runaways and boarding schools always
went together; you hear them mentioned together. A
lot of kids tried to run away. A lot were caught.
Runaways were easy to find, because they all ran the
same place, home. Some were allowed to run without
pursuit. When they got home they were met at the
door by someone from school, saving everyone a lot
of work. Some kids, though a few, ran home and
never went back to school, either because home was
too far away for retrieval to be worth the trouble, or
because they ran so many times
the school got tired of it.
Get sick. There was sickness at boarding school, that's
for sure, and at every school. Measles, whooping
cough, impetigo all went through the schools, and
everybody caught them. Influenza. Influenza closed
whole schools down in 1918. Trachoma wouldn't get
you home, though you might get a transfer to a trachoma
school. You'd walk around with sore eyes, red and
runny, couldn't see straight. It blinded you, eventually.
T.B., tuberculosis, would get you out of school, but
you'd go to a sanitarium for your lungs to dry out and
scar over. If you were lucky. If you weren't, you
might be sent home to cough and hemorrhage yourself
to death, and give it to your family.
Die. You could die from getting sick, or you could die
from getting hurt. Accidents, sometimes. There were
runaways who died from exposure. How many ways
to die. A boy kicked downstairs by the disciplinarian;
another boy from pneumonia after he wasn't allowed
to sleep inside. A little girl with scarlet fever. A teenage
girl giving birth in the infirmary. A boy drowned
swimming in the lake. Some died from broken hearts;
they were just too homesick to eat and couldn't live
without their mothers.

        Chi Ko-ko-koho and the Boarding School Prefect, 1934

From this owl's nest home, unsteady greasy oak
covered by cowhide long oblivious
to claws tough and curving as old tree roots
I breathe the night breeze, starry broken glass.
I am Cho Ko-ko-koho. My black-centered
unblinking owl eyes see past the dark
growl of this old bear den of a bar,
through stinging fog of unintended
blasphemy, tobacco's tarry prayers
stuck and dusty on a hammered tin ceiling,
to grieving spirits mirrored by my own.
I am Chi Ko-ko-koho, young among owls
as young among lush crimson blooms of death
is the embryonic seedling in my chest,
the rooting zygote corkscrew in my chest
these days all but unseen, a pink seaspray
sunset on a thick white coffee cup.
My grieving spirit hardly notices
though, in this old bear den of a bar.
My owl head turns clear round when I see him.
I am Chi Ko-ko-koho; I blink away
smoke and fog, my head swivels back
and he's still there, the prefect. Still there
and he's real, not some ghost back to grab my throat
again with those heavy old no-hands of his
or crack my brother's homesick skinny bones
on tattooed concrete stained by miseries
of other Indian boys who crossed his path.
To the darkness of this bear den of a bar
he's brought his own sad spirit for a drink.
I am Ch Ko-ko-koho, but who he sees
is Kwiiwizens, a boy bent and kneeling
beneath the prefect's doubled leather strap,
and Kwiiwizens I am. My belly feels
a tiny worm the color of the moon
write in laughter at my cowardice
as that now embodied ghost the old prefect
step-drags, step-drags his dampened moccasins
to my end of bar. The flowers weep
wet, broken beads in mourning for us all.
He asks me for a nickel for a beer.
With closed eyes Kwiiwizens waits for the strap.
Ch Ko-ko-koho dives from his grimy perch
to yank the apparition by the hair,
then flies him past the blind side of the moon
to drop him in the alley back behind
the dark growl of this old bear den of a bar.
Indizhiniikaaz Kwiiwizens,
dash indizhiniikaaz Chi Ko-koho.
Ni maajaa. Mi-iw. I leave him there.
I am Chi Ko-koho. I leave him there
under stars of broken glass. I leave him there.

Miss Shawn

I am afraid of that deceptive face
handsome, dark-eyed, intelligent
in structure, a sheep's face, or a camels,
with an animal's candid dignity
that masks a cruel soul I have seen before

but even more of that melodic voice,
a deep and long-vowelled cello song oozing
through a beige throat draped by long folds of skin
two knobs at its fearsome base, and to its
menacing and oddly tuneful hypnotic beat
“Linda LeGarde” I rise, as learned the hard way
to stand at the right side of the desk
eyes front straight ahead face to face with Miss Shawn
chilled by the meter of that voice,
my left hand touching home, my desk
fixed and stable, warm wood with floral iron grillwork
a trellised passage to the tranquility and safety
of sitting behind the boy who blocks her view of me
but I have risen now and stand exposed,
eyes front straight ahead face to face with Miss Shawn.
“Your family is Indian. What tribe are you people from?”
And while above thirty-three other iron-trellised desks
pale faces turn to watch the glare of my misery
curious and glad it's not them
the other Indian child in class looks away,
sympathetic and sorry it's my turn. He knows,
he's had more than his share. I stand exposed,
in need of cover try not to look afraid
eyes front straight ahead face to face with Miss Shawn
and can't look down, that's not allowed
as she takes two steps, and I can't help it
my eyes drop and I can see it all so clearly.
Brown leather teacher shoes with chunky heels. Two extra pairs on the shelf by her desk. Brown teacher dress, chunky pinover the left breast. More teacher dresses, gray, beige, black, in her closet at home. Teacher car in the parking lot, tan Chevy with tan upholstery. It has a spare key and a spare tire. She's never had a flat. Never run out of gas. Her house is large and everybody sleeps in beds. Her garden is for decoration with no pit for burning trash. When she gets bored she talks about these things and sometimes her college days, spent on the moon for all I understand what she's talking about.

My uncle, who went to Indian school awhile and got left behind. My uncle, kinder, more decent, certainly smarter and more interesting than Miss Shawn. My brothers and sisters, who would have to have Miss Shawn for sixth grade after me. My dad, teaching us kids  the most important word in the Chippewa language, migwech. Indians. Chippewas. Visiting, joking, laughing. My aunt, setting her mother's hair. “Sister, make sure you make them pincurls good and tight.” “I'm making them so tight, Ma, you won't be able to shut your eyes.” My cousin, who got slapped by his teacher for not speaking. Timmy, the other Indian kid in class, getting slapped by Miss Shawn for smiling during singing time. Miss Shawn.

I don't want to tell her.
Exposed, I look for shelter with a lie.
“Oh. NAH vuh ho.” Amazingly, she says
that I may sit down. And I have survived
unharmed, to take my place again behind
the boys who blocks her view of what I see.
It's not such a bad day at school, after all.

        For Asin

Eyes down sitting alone he is
below the salt outside the pale beyond the tracks
he is a twelfth grade Indian boy eating his lunch
on the steps outside the school.
His parents are proud, his cousins envious
of the accomplishments of this solitary boy,
this invisible warrior who is a silent apparition
unseen and unheard, unknown
by other students flirting and horsing around
on the steps after lunch and unaware of the warrior,
those laughing girls in imported peasant chic
and teasing boys in jeans and chambray shirts,
the proletarian kitsch of 1973.
Eyes down he eats two vapor sandwiches
and folds the brown paper bag into his pocket
for tomorrow, and walks into school unnoticed,
a ghost floating past the guidance counselor's office.
This morning the ghost took human form
for the counselor, who with blind blue eyes saw
an Indian boy, head down, too shy, unappealing,
frayed shirt, bad complexion, a C student.

I was wondering about college, said the warrior.

It isn't for everyone, said the counselor.

Below the salt outside the pale beyond the tracks
unseen, in silence the invisible warrior walks point.
He is a woodland warrior in a foreign jungle,
camouflaged in wash pants and frayed shirt,
a C student with bad teeth and downcast eyes,
the pride of his parents the envy of his cousins
the hope of his brothers and sisters, walking point
leaving tracks that shine impossibly in our dreams,
tracks that trace the shade of the sky the hue of tomorrow
through the foreign jungle across cracked concrete
up the stairs through the Age of Aquarius crowd
to school. To college. Asin, you walked before us.
Asin, we rise to our feet and walk now
step after step, visible now we will walk
to follow you, filling your tracks with our own.

The Class of 1968

Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians,
seven little, six little, five little Indians,
four little, three little, two little Indians,
one little Indian…
And that left me, the last one
of the bunch, kindergarteners of 1955
our teachers, the shade of our skin, our histories
those random chances silent banshees chasing children
one by one out of our parents' dreams, til I was
the only one left, and the one perceived as leaving,
leaving Vicky, pregnant in the 8th grade, who never came back
Vernon and George, nomads between res and town til they were forgotten
Wanda, always sick and agonizingly shy, who disappeared
Birdeen, who went to work after her father died
Percy and John, expelled for fighting
Susan, for skipping school to take care of the younger kids at home
Jim, who studied incorrigibility at Juvenile Hall
Pete, who perfected that art at Red Wing
Eliza, who never learned to read, and waited for sixteenth birthday
Bonita, who almost made it but “had to” get married, as we said in 1968
and that left me, the last one
the forgotten the untouched the protected
the bookish the lucky the lonely
the pride of my family
the last one.

        To the Woman Who Just Bought
        a Set of Native American Spirituality
        Dream Interpretation Cards

Sister, listen carefully to this.
You'll probably go right past me
when you're looking
for a real gen-yew-whine
Indian princess
to flagellate you a little
and feed your self-indulgent
about what other people
not as fine-tuned and sensitive as you
did to women
by the way, women like me
who you probably go right past
when you're looking.
I know what you're looking for
and I know I'm not it.
You're looking for that other Indian woman,
you want
a for real gen-yew-whine
oshki-traditional princess
and you'll know her when you see her
glibly glinting silver and turquoise
carrying around her own little
magic shop of real gen-yew-whine
rattling beads and jangling charms
beaming about her moon
as she sells you a ticket to her sweat lodge.
She's a spiritual concession stand
and it's your own business go ahead and buy
or rent it if you want go ahead
what do I care
acquire what you will,
you've done it before.
I know what you're looking for
and I know I'm not it. Hell, no
I won't be dressing up or dancing for you
or selling you a ceremony
that women around here never even heard of
I won't tell your fortune
or interpret your dreams
so put away your money. Hell.
What you really want to buy
you'll never see, and anyway
it's not for sale.
Sister, you weren't listening to this
I know, but I know too that
that authentic, guaranteed
satisfaction or your money back
gen-yew-whine for real
oshki-traditional Indian princess
is easy to find. Bring your checkbook.
Or a major credit card.
I'll be watching you both.

        Mary Susan

Our little sister is named after an aunt who died before we were born.
The story in our family is that she survived the Wounded Knee
Massacre in 1890, when she was a mission school student.
She was just a young girl then, and the nuns took the children out
to a ditch where they spent the night. The nuns knew something
bad was going on, and they wanted to take care of the children.
Our aunt was widowed when she had five small children to
support. She found a job as a cook at a boarding school, then
spent all of her working years with boarding school children.
My dad remembers her as a generous woman, only as tall as
a child, who spoke softly and kindly. He honored her memory
by naming our little sister after her.
Our little sister is the only blonde in our family. As children, we
were fascinated by her coloring, her hair that lightened to an
ice frost in the summer, her cheeks that bloomed with a red fire
in the winter. Winters, she became the sun; summers, the moon.
We masked our anger and humiliation at the neighbors' stupid
jokes about the stork, the wrong baby, the milkman by pretending
we didn't understand. She was our sister, we could see that. We
were photo negatives, reversals of the same black and white
image, a bone structure and history interchangeable under skin,
eyes and hair.
In the early 1970s an Indian Club was started at our high school.
What an event that was, an organization to acknowledge and
reinforce Indian ways in an institution that had stood for the
annihilation of our people through education/assimilation. Our
little sister went to Indian Club until the day the other Indian
students asked her leave because with her coloring she wouldn't
match the group in the yearbook picture.
Years later she mentioned to my husband that she always felt
like she stood out in pictures.

        The Refugees

To the dirging of “The Way We Were”
sung by some sweet girl nobody knows
six pallbearers
two in sweatshirts with washed away logos   
three in second-hand dress shirts
one in a borrowed sportcoat
carry above their bowlegged lockstep mince
the flocked vinyl coffin out the side door. Inside
our beloved mother, grandma and aunt rests,
megis shell on a black string
wound over her hard brown fingers.
Six pallbearers worn as their boot heels
and ground to unassuming humility
by the rounds of looking for work
and sometimes finding it bravely
wear their bodies as a single suit of clothes
fraying fast, and worn at the knees. Their
aging young face at first tanned
by outside work, then sun creases
filled by grime and hard living
search then escape what they've found
spending night after numb night on a stool at Mr. J's
thinking, maybe after a couple more
I'll ask that blonde or her friend to dance;
No, guess I'll just go home, after all.
This is what really happened to the other Indians,
not the savage beauties you watch on made-for-TV movies,
clad in artfully draped loincloths, running
through a pristine forest full of friendly animals
with an important message for the Chief
from his daughter the Princess,
who enthrall you so with their simple ways
oh wow these people are just so close to nature,

so SPEAR-itual (I wannabe, I wanna have
that you can buy at a craft show stand
along with some gen-yew-whine turquoise and silver
jewelry so that you can be an Indian, too.
No, we're the other Indians,
the ones who did our time in boarding school,
where we learned to take a beating
never quite mastered forced English
learned the work ethic and what it meant for us
and chose to survive in spite of it.
We moved to town, refugees we became
displaced persons scorned by our own people.
Our daughters married white men, and learned to take a beating
never quite mastered Anglo housekeeping
lived the work ethic and for them it meant
they would grow old early our daughters

beloved and revered the bearers of life

and generations to come
how could we protect them,
our daughters whose spirits tired and whose
blue-eyed children went to public school
and learned to take a beating
and give one
and never mastered school work,
leaving when they turned sixteen,
having learned what the work ethic meant for them
so they too could live hard and grow old early.
And today we're at another funeral,
and since it's the mortuary's cheapest package deal
we have to hustle outside The Sunset Chapel
once our hour is done. We're grateful, though,
for this warm and sunny day
and there's room on the sidewalk
for cousins to meet and talk
(“ain't seen you since the last funeral”)
til the chapel needs the sidewalk back 
and we head for Mr. J's.
Our beloved is gone she has finished
her four day spirit walk
and has arrived west.
Her corpse waits in a green vinyl coffin,
on a shelf in the mortuary's garage
for the off-hours ride to the cemetery,
megis shell on a black string
wound over her hard brown fingers. 

The Ho-Chunk Nation
has provided generous support for the publication
of the Native Writers Chapbook Series II.


Author: Hoahwah, Stuart Y..
© American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center