01 July 2010

Responding to Victor


I am a                       bleeding
white woman            heart

sitting in a recliner 
imagining forgiveness
envisioning an educational system
where truth includes 


Could you forgive them, Mrs. Warren?

for specific atrocities, never

butchering mothers, 
babies in bellies
profaning female forms
dead and spread
vaginas: cut and dried hide 
covers for saddle horns
indigenous parts become
white man’s medicine
pubic scalps bring applause
conqueror’s eyes shine

I mean I know it was a long time ago, 
but could you forgive them if you was alive then?

me, plunging blades into soldiers’ breasts
until they take me from me, spent        no

no, Victor, not then

How ‘bout now, if you was Native now, could you forgive them?

holding onto hatred 
burns seething holes
through spirits
(don’t give them that)

forgiveness frees
it opens hearts—

open hearts 
spread kindness
and you already know 
how I feel about that 

Yeah, but you ain’t Native so you don’t know fer sure.


Think about this, Victor—
In 1972, I was 10.  
In 1972, Montana added Article X Section 1 to its Constitution.

 “The state recognizes the distinct and unique 
cultural heritage of American Indians and 
is committed in its educational goals 
to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

In my 1972 Montana classroom, we celebrated Columbus Day.
Manifest Destiny rose up, a noble beacon of light.
Tribal diversity never entered the room.
Constitutional law, denied.

In our 2010 classroom, we uncover the bullshit, Victor.
Just like Coyote scams feathers from ducks, 
the United States government scams people to impel ideologies.
We know what Columbus did.

It’s nebulous.

Do I forgive the educational system for lying to me?  
No, It ticks me off.
But I’m doing something about it from within the system.
Get inside of the system Victor—figure out its workings.  
Only then, can you ferret out change.

Remember the ducks,
When they understood Coyote’s motives 
they averted his advances.

A big thank you to the muses Big Tent Poetry inspires. The prompts offered at Big Tent get me thinking. This piece was difficult to get through. I almost didn't publish it. Something my friend Kate said nagged at me, and I hit the publish post button. "You can't censor yourself."

Here is the prompt:
Is there a question you are burning to ask someone? Is there a person (living or dead) you would love to have a conversation with? Maybe, as our IRL poet friend shared, you have had a conversation with someone that bears repeating (and examining through poetry’s sharp lens). Perhaps someone has posed a question to you that you simply, at the time, could not answer. Take some time this week and compose your answer in the form of a poem.

A high caliber of writing exists under the Big Tent. Be sure to visit for other takes on the prompt.


Stan Ski said...

Truth, apparently, has three categories:
The Truth (which everyone speaks... ha ha!)
The whole truth - which we never get to hear.
And nothing but the truth - which is too laughable even to consider.

Mary said...

Brenda, your poem gave me chills. I am glad you DID publish it here.

Naomi Shihab Nye, the poet, said there are two kinds of truth: the truth they want to hear and the truth you want to tell. (You definitely did the latter.)


Derrick said...

A great many people have suffered injustice throughout history and many suffer still. I don't believe we can impose today's mores retrospectively. We can only hope to explain things in context, acknowledge the errors and learn.

Elizabeth said...

On the first day of 'school', my grandmother was told by her teacher that her name would be changed to something more appropriate. And she was never to respond to anything but that new definition. My grandmother was Native American. I readily understand the anger and rage on both sides of this conversation. You handled it well and I applaud you for your honesty and for breaking this silence. Thank you,

PS I particularly like your use of the metaphor of the Trickster and the ducks.

Cynthia Short said...

This is a very important piece of writing...and it could be about MANY other peoples throughout history...Bravo!

angie said...

thank you for this, Brenda. it's an amazing poem all on its own, but its message needs to be heard as well. how many really know these things, how many who think they know the stories?

my grandmother spent her whole life pretending to be someone else -- passing as another race to be accepted, and her cherokee heritage is lost to her great-grandchildren because of it.

these things give her a voice.

mark said...

Palpable...that's what I felt, a palpable sense of anger, a simmering anger...well done...

vivienne blake said...

I read this this morning, but wanted to read it again, let it sink in before commenting. The dominant emotion it evokes is shame - shame for the political climate, for people's apathy in the face of injustice, which caused this story to happen. All of us must bear some retrospective responsibility. Thank you for writing and sharing.

brenda w said...

Oh my goodness. I am so honored by all of your comments this morning.

Elizabeth and Angie, Thank you for sharing a piece of your grandmothers' stories in your comments. If you've written about it at all I'd love to read those pieces. (gentle nudge--write about it if you haven't!)
Thanks for acknowledging Trickster, Elizabeth. He runs through my classroom in story. That way we can refer to him all year. The kids get him, they are of that age.... :)

I do appreciate all of your comments, deeply. Thank you.

brenda w said...

Viv - Shame is strong, you nailed it. Thanks for stopping by to read it, and for reading it again. Shame is what keeps blame flying around, too(not too mention control). That could be another exploration in word, eh?

Tumblewords: said...

So very powerful - the sins of humankind can never be erased.

rallentanda said...

I do not have an in depth knowledge of American history but I know the Spanish conquest was
ruthless.Poetry should be used as a vehicle for communicating emotion and information. It's not all sweetness and light.I am also still very restrained in what I write. I must be more mindful not to self censor as well.

flaubert said...

I am so glad you wrote this it is an atrocity what happened to the American Indian. I read the book 'Flyboys' sometime ago and was applauded by some of the things humans can do to other humans.

Systematic Weasel said...

Fix the system, by being inside the system. I hope I could help fix a piece when I get my classroom. A Wonderfully written piece! Thanks for sharing!


brenda w said...

Sue, So true about humanity's sins. Remembrance is important.
Rallentanda--I would love to see your voice in full uncensored glory! (I love it now!)
Pamela--humans can be nasty, there is not doubt. thanks for you comments.
Weasel--Piece by piece, day by day, classroom by classroom. Your passion will help you get through a great deal! (the first year anyway...lol)

Linda Frances said...

Such a powerful piece. Telling the truth about past shames is difficult and requires a special type of person. Your piece is a strong indictment. thanks for posting.

twitches said...

I hope you don't teach history in Texas! It's certainly been revised for 2012. I'm a teacher myself (but not history) and it's always hard to write about it, at least for me. You've done a good job here.

brenda w said...

Linda, Thank you for your kindness.
Twitches...I teach literacy. We read a lot of Native American fiction. Many of my students are American Indian. Montana has seven reservations and 13 recognized tribes.

History teachers in every state should present an unbiased look at our world. The textbooks present lies, pure and simple. Some teachers need extensive training to unlearn what they learned themselves.

Jeeves said...

This poem hit with force and is powerful...

Erin Davis said...

This is so powerful. I'm a college instructor in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and I'm going to refer some of my colleagues to your poem.

Diane T said...

Not only did this happen in the U.S., it happened in Australia too, and many places around the world. What happened absolutely sickens me. I am very glad that you pushed 'publish' Brenda. Outstanding poem, and the truth.

Diane T said...

By the way, there is a book called A Thousand White Women that is very interesting.

Deb said...

This is a tremendous piece, Brenda, on many levels. I love the different voices in the different sections -- it works incredibly well to "bring it" to me. Every section has its own strength and beauty. They could all work on their own, but as one poem that hit hard and true.

I love Victor's voice and his last line. Makes me wonder about myself. What I would really do & think.

I love the Trickster. What a great way to teach.

Thanks for not censoring yourself. (That doesn't seem a strong enough thank you.)

Paul Oakley said...

When I was in school, Empire was still celebrated as progress and order, its atrocities mostly not even mentioned, and the few that were were simply said, sadly with a sigh, to be the unavoidable cost of necessary progress. Manifest Destiny was still God's will for the New World. And Columbus was actually believed to be the First Man on these shores. The native peoples not even recognized as true people. TV thrived on Cowboys-and-Indians fairy tales where the Indians were frequently in the wrong except to give the white heroes a scenario in which to defeat the white (or. better yet, Hispanic) villains...

There's still plenty hiding from the truth, but even so we've come a long way, baby.

Thanks for this amazing poem, Brenda.

Francis Scudellari said...

I'm glad you published this too. These are really tough questions, and I too would generally counsel people toward forgiveness because someone has to break the cycle of hatred. But it's also important to see things from Victor's perspective, and I think having both voices present makes the poem very powerful.

angie said...

this poem is so amazing -- reading it again. I love Victor's voice; I feel like I can hear him speaking. (do you students read your poetry, I wonder?)

here's a link to the only poem I've written about my grandma that I feel "works." someday I'll get into her past and root around, see what I can dig up. thanks, Brenda, for your encouragement and your own powerful words.


brenda w said...

Erin, Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the referral.

Diane, Thanks for the book suggestion, I'll look into that one.

Deb, Your words flatter me. Thank you for your support. I appreciate what you said about sections. Section 2 is what I started with, but it was so harsh, I added the other two.

Paul, I appreciate your comments. Thank you for stopping by to read, and sharing a piece of your own story.

Hi Angie, My students read some pieces I offer in class. They can choose pieces to use as fluency builders. They practice and practice then present a perfect piece aloud to the class. My poems have been selected twice, and I've been offering them for two years. Once a year. ha! They do the presentations four times yearly.
I'll check out your piece, thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is a great poem and could speak for other cultures; at first, I thought it was about South Africa. Excellent work.