Winter Crosses

Winter Crosses

Winter in the Badlands is, to say the least, formidable. The wind, hail, snow and freezing-sideways-rain can create a whiteout in seconds.  It is one of those landscapes where nature truly has the ass over you.  When he was alive, Crazy Horse used the unpredictability of nature and the vagaries of landscape to his advantage in warfare and hunting.  He knew where his enemy and his prey would be in any given weather because he knew what the land knew.  Winter made hunting easier because the deer, antelope and buffalo had nowhere to hide and had to move constantly to forage for food.  Winter was also very hard on the tribes of Native Americans.  Water would freeze, fires would have to be kept perpetually burning in order to stay alive, which would in turn alert enemies as to their location.  It was a perilous time of year for man and animal.

The cross motif present in much Native American art is not Christian, it represents the four directions, or the four winds, as my friend Mark Turcotte told me.  Mark is the great Chippewa poet I’ve known for years who has been a huge help in directing me toward what to read and look for when making these offerings.  I’d been perplexed by the presence of so many crosses and had thought that maybe this element had been introduced by missionaries before they aided in the systematic attempted genocide of the American Indian tribes.  As far as we know, Crazy Horse’s deities were rooted in nature.  Like many Native American tribes, he regarded the sun as the Almighty.

In battle Crazy Horse adorned his forehead with three hailstones and red lightning bolts on each cheek.  He also carried a small pebble or hailstone behind his ear.  These images were powerful talismans in his life and visions.  When it would hail, the Native American believed it was raining stone and, depending which text you read, this was alternately ominous and hopeful at the same time.

Natural phenomenon is almost always present in Native American art and textiles; weavings and blankets and rugs and bold patterns that reflect the temperaments and shapes of landscape and seasonal shifts.

The last time I was in the Badlands, I was aware of nature as a presence, as an entity.  It is a powerful place charged with our most shameful histories, those sad resolutions of tribal fates that have forever etched regret into our American psyche.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Mad House Scarecrow

“We die of cold, and not of Darkness” –Unamuno
Madhouse Scarecrow


One of my heroes in the poetry world is Mark Turcotte, the Chippewa poet and author of Exploding Chippewas.  I don’t know a lot about Native American history, but he does.  Every time I’m not sure of my facts when writing about the American Indian, I call Mark; he knows  everything.  He is a student and keeper of this history; a Chippewa griot and the closest thing I regard to a holy man.  He has been very blunt with me about the history of American Indian tribes.  He  has told me that the white man was not the first keeper of slaves on this continent, nor was genocide unknown to this land before Whitey get here.

He is honest, bold, lyrical and sometimes too damned honest for his own good.   Mark is his own man and he brooks no bullshit when it comes to the story of his people.  I’ve read a great deal about homelessness in America and hobos and the people who were displaced in the expansion of America and nobody got hustled  like the Native American.  Nelson Algren used to bait the “America First” crowd with the statement that we lived as a body politic on stolen property.  That every street, every corner, every fruited plain, had the air of larceny about it.  Of course Algren, like my friend Mark Turcotte, was another guy who was too damned honest for his own good.

Years ago, I became fascinated by Kachina dolls, which are made by many Native American tribes, and they range from being genuine medicine to being knickknacks they sell to the tourists like cactus-candy.  I have one that is a Navajo fetish and that’s not quite right–it rather has me.   I’ve looked at it for over 20 years and it is still a mysterious, searching kind of  presence in my life.  It is totemic and loaded with a language that has never been written down.

It occurs to me that scarecrows are kind of white men’s totems.  They send a certain message that is not about scaring birds, but rather, property; as in, “this is mine, go away,” rendered in pagan, throw-away sticks and cloth.  They are totems of ill-will and ownership of landscape.

As Americans, we think of such symbolism as quaint, arcane, or worse yet, as nostalgia.
We attach sentimental ennui to old talismans like the much-loved cartoon, “Injun Summer” with no thought of the grievous and genocidal injury we did to a whole culture.  In my darker moments of making this book, I’ve thought that America is, at its base, the culmination of the best efforts of the most successful murderers in human history.


Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 2:27 am  Comments (1)  
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