Birds for Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse Tashunca-uitco My land is where my dead lie buried. A flock of red birds or a necklace of stars. He wished to be black leaves--flying over water...

Crazy Horse Tashunca-uitco
My land is where my dead lie buried.
A flock of red birds or a necklace of stars.
He wished to be black leaves–flying over water…

Crazy Horse wanted little to do with other people, red or white. He was happiest out wandering in nature. He was as content to sleep in a cave or a hole, as he was in a camp. He loved being out under the stars and was comfortable with his own company. There was a reason the Oglala Lakota referred to him as “our Strange Man.”

His nonconformity set him apart in a tribal culture. He had much responsibility in his tribe. He was among the most fierce of warriors; a brilliant tactical fighter and a superb hunter, and to his tribe, he was necessary and he was up to shouldering his immense responsibility to his people. He hunted buffalo, he led war-parties and raids, but when the opportunity arose, he would go off by himself to be in nature and fast and seek visions. He was curious about the spirits and the next world and he sought wisdom. Like Basho, he was always searching and seeking knowledge.

In Tokyo, I visited some Shinto shrines and was struck by how much Shintoism reflects the beliefs of some Native American beliefs as well. I’m not religious at all, but do tend to cede the power most attribute to god, to nature. The Shinto teachings have an intense reverence for the natural world and the shrines are sublimely beautiful.

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.

It may sound odd that I once went to Japan to better understand Crazy Horse, but I think it helped. In every culture, there are these odd-spirited men who don’t quite fit into the world easily, yet they push that culture forward for better and ill. They are necessary people who don’t want to punch a clock or color inside the lines. There is an otherness about them. In Japan, the Haiku monks were thought to be oddballs in their day. Basho was an admirer of Li-Po, the great Chinese poet of the 8th century, another wandering spirit enamored of wandering in nature. It is not an accident that Haiku is rooted in nature and reflects the seasonal shifts of one’s lifetime.

I hope that after Crazy Horse was murdered, he went somewhere. He certainly deserved better than he got. I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I’d like it if he had one. Haitians refer to the land between the living and the dead as the “Gray World” and there is no time continuum; it is a place where Basho and Crazy Horse could meet. I hope wherever Crazy Horse went, he wore a necklace of stars.

Published in: on May 7, 2014 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing 17: Kid Blinky

Lunch Drawing 17: Kid BlinkyThere is a notion among many First Nation cultures that nature bears witness to everything; that all things in nature are merely shadows of entities in the spirit world. Owls, in particular, carry a metaphorical weight and definition.

The Hopi believe that burrowing owls are keepers of the “underworld,” the world of the dead and unquiet beings that walk among us in the spirit world. Other tribes believe owls are intermediaries between the world of the living and the dead. Almost all cultures agree they are our night watchmen–our witnesses–and that every event, phenomenon, and transgression that occurs against nature is remembered. . .that the land, itself, possesses memory, and that people have no idea what the land knows.

This one is for the ghosts and spirits that do not forget.

Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 1:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Sky at Ohio #6 – Iroquois Ohio

With the election ever nearing, operatives and politicians are beating Ohio like a rented mule. From river to city there are dipshits with clip-boards talking a smooth line of sophistry from both parties.

Democracy, down where the kernels get small and greasy,(the margins) are where elections are won and lost.

Sadly, that IS the history of this unique slice of ruptured geography.

The word, “Ohio” is Iroquois for “Big River.” The iroquois peoples were part of a powerful conflation of First Nation tribes known as the nation of six.  The others, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and the Seneca, inhabited a wide swath of the Northeast from New York to Ohio and including the St. Lawrence seaway.

They primarily farmed, trapped fur and protected their nations which extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of Ohio and north through Canada. In my research, I’d always thought of the Iroquois peoples as primarily Canadian. I was wrong–their home base seems to have been mostly New York State and along the Great Lakes.

Only the tribes of the Sioux were a bigger nation of indigenous peoples.

The Iroquois were tough. They fought the French over land, water and beavers.  In fact, there were whole wars about beavers and their pelts in the 1600’s. Over the glacial march of a couple of centuries, any American Iroquois were mostly in Ohio.

Ohio was where you went when you lost the Indian wars of the American Northeast. That, or flee to Canada, who treated First Nation peoples a little better, but not much.

The Iroquois kinship extended through a great many Matrilineal tribes, meaning the women ran things.They were broken up into “clans”–Turtle, Bear, Elk, Eel Hawk. They are also known as the “Haudenosaunee,” which means “people of the long house.” Unlike a great many tribes, the Iroquois built their housing like long barracks (an actual house) rather than tipis. Their architecture was more evolved and soon copied by white settlers.The Quakers owe a debt to the Iroquois’ “long houses. As tribes go, they succeeded at farming, raising animals, fishing, fur-trapping, etc. In other words, the Iroquois were self-sustaining and doing fine when the French decided to “civilize” them by murdering them and trying to steal their land and resources, as well as convert them to Christianity.

To this end they sent a couple of earnest young missionaries–Jean deLalande and Isaac Jogues–to civilize the savages. The Bear clan didn’t know quite what to think of these two funny-talking, pasty-assed Jesus freaks who wore their shirts down to their shoes.

So they shanked them and ate their hearts. A message to the French (and the Huron tribes) that “When we need your advice, we’ll fucking beat it out of you.”

Ohio has a fascinating history. The more I read about it, the less, I realize, that I (or the rest of the Republic) know about it. In the 1800’s, Ohio natives were fond of reminding the rest of the country that what we had in this bloody, merciless, expanse of natural beauty was, in fact, a Republic. That as Americans, we owned ourselves and didn’t answer to any kings or queens anymore. It is a bitter, horrific irony that we would not cede these ideas about liberty to the Africans we kidnapped or the First Nation tribes who, rightly, were this great land’s caretakers before we stole it.

Americans who go to the polls in the next few weeks would do well to remember that those they will cast votes for are our employees, and we, the people, are but custodians of these fifty states, and that our haggard, beleaguered, beating heart can be found somewhere between Canton and Dayton where we, the people, clip the coupons and hope.

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Dog of Winter (For Ten Bears)

The Dog Of Winter (For Ten Bears)Driving back from California through the desert, one is always cognizant of the hungry world that surrounds you.  The desert may seem still, but beyond what you can see it is teeming with life . . . coyotes, owls, hawks, vultures and some genuinely scary-ass reptiles, thick western diamondbacks, prairie rattlers, gila monsters and sidewinders.

There are small boars called javelinas; ugly little fuckers who love-you-not.  There are roadrunners who tear along the desert until they find a lizard to peck to death and devour.  They are psycho-looking sons-of-bitches who remind us that for all of the cute photos of baby seals and shit like that, that nature is around-the-clock murder.

There are prairie dogs who all of the predators rely on for food.  They are reliable because they are dumb motherfuckers with a brain the size of a marble and just about as sharp.  They are forever getting picked off by everything that flies, walks or crawls.  They’re like a more stupid version of rabbits, without the dork-ears.

There are packs of dogs everywhere.  Dogs domesticate easier than any other animal; they also go feral faster than any other animal.  Die on “Fido” and see what his ass is eating three days later.

Months ago I made some scarecrows and I’ve missed making them.  In many Native American stories, wolves and coyotes are tricksters invested with a ferocious spiritual presence.  This piece is called, “The Dog of Winter.”

Published in: on January 2, 2010 at 9:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Snake Planets

The Snake PlanetsI love snakes.  As a kid, I had many boas, corn snakes, fox snakes, and once a speckled king snake that was as beautiful and lithe as yellow-dotted fine silk.  It was truly lovely.  I love drawing snakes as they are kind of one fluid line that curls and loops, never achieving an actual angle. Snake lines just kind of walk around on the picture-plane.

I worked in a pet shop in high school that dealt largely in exotic reptiles.  The guys who ran this place were also collectors of reptiles and falconers.  They were fascinating guys who knew a lot about nature and natural history.  They were especially adept at getting rare, barely-legal kinds of reptiles, including rear-fanged poisonous snakes and odd specimens like the Spilotes snake, which was a gorgeous black, yellow and white, and crazy-fast.  He was also a very big (six feet) and ill-tempered motherfucker.  This pet store was a wonder to me.  We got ferocious monitor lizards, as well as gentle chuckwallas and iguanas, one of which grew to be five feet long.  For me, though, the snakes were the treat.  KWI Pets got everything from reticulated pythons, Burmese pythons and rosy boa constrictors to shimmering black Indigo snakes that moved like liquid poetry.  It was a great place to work.

There is much lore surrounding snakes in Native American culture.  They are harbingers of storms, earthquakes and floods, as well as an ominous symbol of the near proximity of enemies.  It is a bad foreshadowing of things to come if one senses that the snakes are angry.  The lowly snake is able to feel the earth with its belly and is, therefore, a powerful spirit.  Horses are scared shitless of them . . . the snake is a powerful talisman.

Years ago I traveled the West and came upon a diner in Wyoming that had a tank full of prairie rattlers outside of it; big heavy-bodied, sons-of-bitches who love-you-not.  I thought they were SO boss, this glass box full of godless, undulating, death writhing in red dirt.

Ever since Christianity put the stink on snakes, they’ve been a symbol of the outlaw, the sexual, the other.  What I always loved about them as a kid was that they scared the shit out of everyone.  I used to taunt little girls with garter snakes that I’d caught.  One day I found a girl who was not the least bit scared of snakes–Kim Florence.  We were in fifth grade and she had more snakes than I did.  Naturally, I fell madly in fifth grade love with her; she was my first girlfriend.  She later kissed me off for a boy with dirty hair and a guitar, but my love for snakes and their dangerous kind of cool went unabated.

In Texas every year, a bunch of fucking Neanderthals get together and kill rattlesnakes by the thousands, even though they are among the most useful of creatures eating mice, rats, gophers and even other snakes.

Many Native American tribes have “Snake-Dances” that celebrate the power and mystery of these amazing creatures.

Published in: on October 22, 2009 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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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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