2 Photos by John Smelcer
6 Poems by John Smelcer
My Indian grandmother used to tell stories
how bears would steal women for wives.
All night while my wife and I tried to sleep
in our restless bed, a bear circled our cabin,
grunting and snorting and peaking in windows.
I awoke alone in the morning to find
my wife’s ring and a small bouquet
of wild flowers crouched on her pillow.
Sally Two Trees
stood outside as the first snowflakes of winter
She tried to catch them in her hands and on her tongue—
each one a dream:
a good job
a nice home
a college degree
a car that didn’t burn oil
sobriety for her and her baby.
But every time she reached out to grasp one
the dream melted away in her hand.
Romeo and I were secretly married yesterday. We did it last night. My first time.
What a letdown. Three minutes! I mean, like, isn’t it supposed last longer than three minutes?
He didn’t even look at me the entire time, even though I had my nails done and got a bikini
wax and everything. And what about my needs? Did he think about what I wanted? Oh, no.
Not him. Not Romeo. It’s all about him. I think my Nurse was peeking through the keyhole.
At least that part was kind of exciting. Afterwards, he recited this lame poem:
Roses are red
Violets are blue;
It was good for me,
Was it good for you?
In the morning, we did some lame bit about larks and nightingales. Whatever.
AND SO IT GOES
At the Jiffy-Mart,
I open the door
for a black family,
smile at their youngest son
who smiles back.
When I leave,
coffee and donut in hand,
the boy opens the door for me.
From the parking lot,
I watch his mother
smack him to the pavement,
tell him never to open
no goddamn door
for no goddamn
white man again.
At one time or another
we each pull out the tattered map of our lives
carefully unhinge the torn and ragged folds
press it flat on a table with both hands like an iron
lean over and trace its topography with a finger
frantically searching for the familiar X that says
You Are Here
THE INCOMPLETE & UNAUTHORIZED
DEFINITION OF AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE
“Indian” is not a derogatory word.
It’s what we call ourselves. We claim it.
Not all Indians wear long black hair
or faded red bandanas.
I've never seen a Red Man.
Percentage of people who say they are part Cherokee: 50%
Percentage who claim to have an unnamed great-grandmother
who was a Cherokee princess: 100%
Percentage of actual Cherokee princesses in the past: 0%
Percentage of Cherokee tribe compared to all others in America: 0.2%
Percentage of federally enrolled Indians in America: 0.67%
Fiction by Indians outsells poetry by Indians,
yet poetry is the language of sorrow and heartbreak.
All Indians speak poetry.
No Indian has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
This is the mathematical formula for deciphering
meaning in Native American poetry:
Where a represents anger and s represents sorrow,
let P represent poetry and t represent the duration
(time) of marginalization.
Thus, P = t(a + s)2
Indian writers shouldn't drive sports cars.
I traded my yellow Porsche for a pick-up truck
with a quarter million miles
and a rifle rack in the rear window.
Not all Indians come from Horse Cultures.
Not all Indians ride horses.
I've only been on a horse once and it threw me.
Writing by Indians should contain dogs.
Many Indian writers have had at least
one of their dogs run over by a pick-up truck
with a rifle hanging in the rear window.
History is written by the victors.
Indians didn't always lose the battles.
Don't believe everything you've ever read
or watched on television.
John Wayne’s real name was Marion, but directors figured
Marion the Cowboy couldn't defeat Indians.
Columbus didn't really discover America
the way you think he did.
The Navajo Nation is as big as Nebraska.
Bingo is Indian Social Security.
Federal enrollment is how the government
counts Indians to predict when we will be extinct.
Not all Indians are enrolled. I am enrolled.
Enrollment doesn't mean anything.
There are 500 tribes in America. No individual speaks
for all of them, barely even for a single clan or tribe.
Some bigshot Indian writers think they speak for everyone.
Does an illiterate white shoe salesman in Idaho speak for you?
American colleges teach American Indian Literature
and diasporas but hire almost no Indian writers at all.
White professors who have never seen a reservation
teach Indian literature because it is trendy.
Some Indians go to tribal colleges
Where they are taught by white teachers
who want to be Indian. New Age white women
have sex with Indian men so they can become Indian.
You can’t become Indian by proximity.
America loves the Indian-sounding names of places,
but they don't want Indians to live there.
It gives them a sense of connection to a land
upon which they have little history of their own.
Sometimes a sweat lodge is just a sweat lodge.
Some American sports teams are named for Indians.
There should be an Indian baseball team called
the Cherokee Crucified Christs, complete with
a bleeding team mascot nailed to a wooden cross.
Would that hurt your sensibilities?
All Indians aren't proud and defiant.
Some Indians go to tribal colleges
where they are taught by white teachers
who want to be Indian. You cannot
become Indian by proximity.
When I do something right, my Indian uncle
tells me I've earned an eagle feather.
Only Indians can own eagle feathers.
Nearly all published Indian writing is in English.
Almost no Indian writer speaks their Indian language.
Fewer yet can write in it.
Sii cetsiin koht'aene kenaege', tsin’aen.
Indian children love to dance Indian-style
but they don't understand a word the elders sing.
Indian boys love to beat dancing drums
while Indian girls sway in moving circles.
The hearts of Indian boys are tight-stretched drums.
The hearts of Indian girls are beautiful sad songs.
The government decimated bison
so that Indians would become vegetarians.
The government killed wild horses
so that Indian spirits would break.
The government sent Indian children to boarding schools
so they could forget being Indian. Missionaries built
The Church of Infinite Confusion so Indians could
forget being Indian.
I forget what I was trying to say.
British writers don't have to write about Shakespeare.
French writers don't have to write about Baudelaire.
Blacks don't always have to write about slavery.
Indian writers don't have to write about being Indian
or about dogs killed by trucks with gun racks
on reservations while fancy dancing,
wearing eagle feathers, and beating drums
while mouthing words to songs they do not know.
Audiences at readings by Indians are almost always white.
Many urban Indians write about life on the reservation
even when they've never lived on one because it sells better
than writing about going to Starbucks after shopping at the Gap.
Few Indians have Indian-sounding names. Non-Indians pretending
to be Indians adopt name like “Runs-Beside-Spotted-Ponies,”
‘Walks-With-Wolves,” or “Elk Cloud.”
A publisher once asked me to change my name
to a hyphenated one with a preposition and a spirit animal.
I asked, “How about ‘Johnny Fakes-His-Name-on-a-Weasel’?”
All Indian writers aren't spiritually attuned to Nature.
Most are fearful of getting lost in the woods.
Some Indians write out of anger and despair.
All Indian writers are not angry and depressed.
Native America is drowning in a sea of alcohol.
Indians commit suicide ten times more often than whites.
Day after day, our hearts are turned into cemeteries.
The impoverished state of our lives is not self-inflicted.
Most Indian writers are mixed-blood
who hate the term “Half-Breed.”
I am the son of a half-breed father.
I am an outcast. Even my shadow
tries to hide its face in shame.
John Smelcer is the author of over 40 books, most recently including Native American Classics, an anthology of 1800 to early 1900s writings by Native American writers, co-edited with Joseph Bruchac.