When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo with LeAnne Howe, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and contributing editors (W.W. Norton and Company, 2020), 496 pages

 

[Reviewer’s note: This review adheres to the terminology used by the different authors in this anthology.]

 

The term Norton Anthology brings to mind something good to come: a literary collection chosen with clear intent and annotated with solid scholarship. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry does not disappoint. It is that and much more. It is a celebration of the oral and spiritual traditions of the first poets of what today is known as the United States of America, a nomenclature which leaves out the tribal nations whose communities cross current national borders into Canada and Mexico. For this, executive editor Joy Harjoy apologizes and points out that state borders within the United States do not adequately define tribal areas.

This first-of-its-kind anthology is divided into five sections representing major geographic areas, partially following a traditional counter-clockwise Native orientation: Northeast and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and finally, Southeast. The need to include Alaska, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands skewed the traditional round configuration – but then again, colonization tends to interrupt the natural order of things.

In her introduction to this hefty anthology, Joy Harjoy contends that the commonality shared by all tribal nations in North America is the knowledge that the earth is a living being and that “Poetry, in all its forms, including songs, oratory, and ceremony, both secular and sacred, is a useful tool for the community.”

 

NORTHEAST AND MIDWEST

Kimberly M. Blaser introduces the first section with a bilingual and multidimensional dream song of the Anishinaabeg, arising “from an intimacy with the water landscape of the region.” This and other poetic forms also address major historical events, such as the Oka standoff in Québec and the war in Vietnam.

Gegwejiwebinan, an Ojibwe poet whose name translates into English as “Trial Thrower,” allowed ethnologist Frances Densmore to record his song with the help of an interpreter, sometime between 1907 and 1909.

Kegēt’
Indábunisin’ dangûg
Bīnes’ iwug’
Ekwa’ yaweyân’

Surely
Upon the whole length of my form
The water birds will alight.

Jim Northrup (Chibinesi) (1943-2016), Anishinaabe, of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior, was sent to a residential school, and served as a marine in the Vietnam War. He helps veterans heal from their traumas by teaching them verbalizing skills. The following first and last lines of this poem carry the message that healing takes hard work:

Shrinking Away

Survived the war but
was having trouble
surviving the peace

That’s when I realized that
surviving the peace was up to me.

Colonialism and other dark subjects are tackled by Alex Jacobs (Karoniaktanke) (1953–), Akwesasne Mohawk, in his epic poem Indian Machismo or Skin to Skin. There is a short but powerful stanza that deplores colonization:

IT’S HAPPENED EVERY DAY FOR 500 YEARS!
But i bet you be there in your buckskins when politicos
celebrate Cristofo Mofo Colombo in 1992 & make him an
honorary Cherosiouxapapanavajibhawk too! Aaaiiiieeee-yahhhh!

 

PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS

Heid E. Erdrich lets us know that generations of Indigenous people lived on vast expanses of land under very harsh conditions and yet produced lyrical and often witty poetry. Many Indigenous communities suffered harsh repression, such as the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Some poems make historical references to conflict and resistance, and celebrate respected figures such as Sitting Bull while expressing rage towards despised figures like Custer. These poems help in understanding the history of the country.

Elsie Fuller (1870-unknown), Omaha, was educated in English at a boarding school, to the detriment of proficiency in her mother tongue. However, she did not lose her native wit:

A New Citizen

Now I am a citizen!
They’ve given us new laws,
Just as were made
By Senator Dawes.

Just give us a chance,
We will never pause.
Till we are good citizens…

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa (1934–), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn, and Oklahoma’s sixteenth poet laureate, writes life-affirming poetry:

The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee

I am a feather on the bright sky.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain.
I am the fish that rolls shining, in the water.
I am the shadow that follows a child.

You see, I am alive, I am alive.

Unfortunately, not all is light in this part of the world… there is darkness as well, and James Welch (1940-2003), Gros Ventre and Blackfeet, mourns it:

Harlem, Montana:
Just Off the Reservation

We need no runners, here. Booze is law
and all the Indians drink in the best tavern.
Money is free if you’re poor enough.

Women find time to assert themselves, even in difficult times. Suzan Shown Harjo (1945–) Southern Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, Congressional liaison for Indian Affairs under Jimmy Carter and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never forgets that she is, first and foremost, a woman:

The Song Called “White Antelope’s Chant”

…Clouding Woman had a song
it was a Tsistsistas song
it was her song
because she sang it

 

PACIFIC NORTHWEST, ALASKA, AND PACIFIC ISLANDS

Cedar Sigo introduces this chapter by stating categorically that “Native people of the Northwest had no choice but to live in relation to poetry from the very outset of creation.” As simple as that. Gloria Bird confirms this sentiment when she says:

We are like salmon swimming against the mutation of current to find our heartbroken way home again, weight of red eggs and need.

Diane L’xeis’ Benson makes it clear that for Native people, Alaska is not a land of gold, but rather “an eternal connection that runs through their veins cycling through the generations.” She also points out that “the reality of loss, cultural disruption, and the effort to reconcile cultural existence in a continually colonizing and commodifying world” is central to Alaskan poetry.

Brandy Nālani McDougall makes the astonishing statement (which should nonetheless not surprise us), that the United States currently controls one third of the Pacific Ocean through different colonial subterfuges, such as associated territories and so forth. Given the diversity of cultures, languages and histories, it is best to let the poets speak for themselves.

Chief Seattle (1786-1866), Suquamish and Duwamish, is remembered for his leadership skills and conciliatory language. In one of his speeches, he stands up to the White Man

Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you forget.

He then talks about their differing world views:

Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them their being.

John Dominis Holt (1919-1993), Kanaka Maoli, was recognized as a Living Treasure of Hawai’i in 1979. You can see why.

Ka ‘Ili Pau
Give me something from
The towering heights
Of blackened magma
Not a token thing
Something of spirit, mind or flesh, something of bone
The undulating form of
Mauna Loa

Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio (1991–), Kanaka Maoli, was invited to perform her spoken word at the Obama White House. She might have declaimed the following lines:

There is a culture
Somewhere beneath my skin that i’ve been searching for since i landed here
But it’s hard to feel sometimes
Because at Stanford we are innovative
The city of Macintosh breeds thinkers of tomorrow
and i have forgotten how to remember

 

SOUTHWEST AND WEST

Deborah A. Miranda introduces this section by saying it “feels like writing a love letter about a collection of love letters.” It is easy to understand why. The poems in this chapter are about endurance, reaffirmation of Indigenous knowledge, two-spirit Indigenous experiences and resistance. It is also about totems and the seasons.

Georgina Valoyce-Sanchez (1939–), Chumash, Tobono O’odham and Pima, describes a relationship between a human and a dolphin.

The Dolphin Walking Stick

He says
sure you look for your Spirit
symbol — your totem
only it’s more a waiting
watching
for its coming

Adrian C. Louis (1946-2018), Lovelock Paiute, doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is:

Skinology

I have known
some badass Skins.
Clichéd bad-to-the-bone
Indians who were maybe
not bad but just broke,
& broken for sure.

Anita Endrezze (1952–), Yaqui, writes about a very current subject, but with a poignant slant:

The Wall

Build a wall of saguaros,
butterflies, and bones
of those who perished
in the desert. A wall of worn shoes,
dry water bottles, poinsettias…”

Cassandra López (1978–) Cahilla/Tongva/Luiseño, wants…

A New Language

My words are always
collapsing
upon themselves, too tight
in my mouth. I want a new
language. One with at least
50 words for grief

and 50 words for love, so I can offer
them to the living…

 

SOUTHEAST

Jennifer Elise Foerster starts off her introduction to this chapter by boldly stating that “Southeastern people have long been writers.” She is most probably right.

Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson (1897-1982), Cherokee, sums up the history of colonization:

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,

Louis Little Coon Oliver (1904-1991), Mvskoke, pays homage to the resilience of the women in his community, particularly the older women.

Mind over Matter

My old grandmother, Tekapay’cha
stuck an ax into a stump
and diverted a tornado.

There was power in that twister.
There was power in my grandmother.
Those who doubt, let them doubt.

The pain caused by displacement runs through most of this poetry. LeAnne Howe (1951–), Choctaw, expresses it pithily.

Ishki, Mother, Upon Leaving the Choctaw Homelands, 1831


Right here there’s a hole of sorrow in the center of my chest
A puncture
A chasm of muscle
Sinew
Bones…

Displacement might be territorial or cultural, but for Kim Shuck (1966–), Cherokee, a sense of place is fluid like water.

Water as a Sense of Place

The water I used to drink spent time
Inside a pitched basket
It adopted the internal shape
Took on the taste of pine
And changed me forever.

LeAnne Howe, in her outroduction to this inspiring anthology, reminds us that “This collection of poems, born of these lands, is not an end nor a beginning.” I’m convinced she is absolutely right. My only regret as a reviewer is that time and space constraints do not allow me to profile many other wonderful poets and their luminous words.