Saturday, August 29, 2009


This morning I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie's One Stick Song. I remember now why I was so taken with Alexie's writing. He mixes humor with pain and writes with such an honesty I want to write with in my poetry and creative non-fiction. The MFA program will help me mature as a writer. I hesitate to post any of my poems here, they're not finished yet. Going into the MFA program I was enthusiastic that my two chapbook length collections of poems were just about finished but I am wrong. New levels have been reached and given my penchant for doing things backwards, it makes sense that I learn things now I should have known long ago.

So I'm sitting in Mark's Maple Leaf Restaurant waiting for my breakfast and reading Alexie, smiling, chuckling and shaking my head because there is no other humor like Indian humor. Read his work if you want to know why I think this. I felt a little envious of Alexie, because he lived on the reservation longer than I did. I was there until age two. Unless I become a fan of hypnotism there is no way for me to remember what my life was like. I only know what reservation life is like now, when I visit.

I wonder if I would be in an MFA program had I grown up on the rez? During the days I was still searching for my birthmom I wrote out different scenarios of what her life was when she was young and after I was born and what I might find when I got there. If that happened. It's on my mind now because it's been six years since the reunion and now that I'm growing closer to my family I feel a unity building.

I spoke with my mom recently and she said, You will come back to live on the reservation permanently. I wondered if this was a prophecy; does she know something that I don't know? My biggest fear is what happenes if I do pick up my life here and take it over to my family and don't feel like I belong? What then? That's a serious committment I'm not ready to jump into.

Each day when I wake up I give thanks and praise for the gift of life. I ask Father what He wants me to do today, where He wants me to go, who He wants me to talk to about Him so I don't step out of His plan and purpose for me. I believe when it is time for me to return to the reservation He will give me the okay loud and clear so I don't have to question His timing. I will know that I know that I know. Until that moment, I don't know. I'm okay with that. As long as I 'm here, I'll keep learning, keep working for my degree, raise my child, and reconcile with living the life of an Urban Native.

Even though being taken from my mom at age two was a horrible thing to do to both of us, I still believe, everything happens for a reason. I'm not talking about fate or karma. I'm talking about plan and purpose. Until I can write about my story and the stories of countless others who lives are changed permanently by separation with clarity and power I still need to keep myself accountable to those who teach me that craft of writing.

I had no voice when I was taken, but I have one now. Believe me, I will use it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer of 1974

My parents, who adopted and raised me and two older brothers and one older sister, loved to travel on family vacations in a motorhome. In the beginning, my dad built his own pop-up camper. He called it the U.R.O., translation; the unidentified rolling object. My dad had a great sense of humor. We'd load up in the station wagon, Chris and Dan, Becky, myself and Daisy, the dog. Off we'd go on vacation.

In the early 70s, my mom and dad purchased the motor home and we took a trip out west, one stop being Pine Ridge reservation, where Dan, a full-blood Oglala Sioux was born. I was nine, perhaps ten years old, depending on the dates we were gone. The other stop was the St. Francis Mission on Rosebud reservation. For some reason, my parents were told I was Rosebud Sioux and I grew up thinking that was part of my identity. Later on, I discovered I was Yankton, a different tribe, different place and different dialect of language. This is not an uncommom blunder. Other Lost Birds I've known were also wrongly informed of their tribal roots. I can only think that social services or whomever was in charge of taking down our non-identifying information was either ignorant of the different tribes or just didn't care. Either way, there is no justification for such carelessness.

It was hot, hot, hot. There were water mirages on the road and dry, dusty terrain. We visited the Rosebud reservation and my dad stopped at the St.Francis church to see when Mass was held. I don't remember if we stayed for Mass but I do recall the priest or deacon said he was kola, but in my nine year old mind, all I could think was cola.

After that, we visited the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and Dan was now the proud owner of some sea monkeys. I was jealous. We headed further west in the direction of the Badlands and Pine Ridge. I remember prairie dogs and how mom drank too many cans of soda-pop, (she was an un-cola person) her feet swelled. We stopped a trading post and my brother and I went into the store. I can see the crowded interior now and an Indian was sitting behind the counter.

I often wonder what the he thought of my brother and I and if my parents felt uncomfortable being non-native? I will never know for sure. The man behind the counter felt it important to teach us a word in Lakota, kola, which means friend. He repeated it several times until we could say it, know what it meant and remember.

My mom wanted to see where Chief Red Cloud was buried. We went into a small cemetery and were cautioned not to wander off because of rattlesnakes and mom stubbed her toe on Red Cloud's grave. Funny, I would remember that. But there is something else I remember seeing.

Wounded Knee.

I think now of what had happened the year before we visited. The Wounded Knee Occupation was in 1973. When we were there, we passed burned buildings. The white church on the rise stood by the cemetery where the mass grave held the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. It was eerie and desolate to pass burned out buildings and feel the hot blast of wind on the rise. Thirty four years later I returned to Wounded Knee, the same hot wind blew, the memorial brought forth a deep grief and the white church had burned down, replaced by a log cabin style structure.

Although I didn't know it then I was so close to my birth mom, when we passed through Mitchell. Only 50 miles or so, an hour drive. I shake my head everytime I think of it. How close but how very far away.

People often ask me if I knew anything about my culture growing up off the reservation, the nearest city to us 30 miles west. I do know Dan and I share a kinship closer than any other relationship I've had. We always knew we were Indian. Our adoption days were a celebration. It's like we were put together by circumstance just to know that we were not alone. We were each other's culture, grounding, touchstone. My other brother and sister did not share the same kindred connection with us. If nothing else, we had each other. And we had the summer of 1974.

Sometimes identity can be found in culture, another person, or in one word, kola.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On the path to a Master's Degree

I have returned home from an intensive two week residency at Ashland University. The residency is the gate through which I must enter to achieve an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry. Ashland offers a cross genre study of Creative Non-fiction and Poetry, a degree which will advance my writing.

I want to write about Urban Native Americans, travels on and off the reservations, grappling with traditional Native religion and Christianity and connectedness to culture. All of these topics revolve around the larger issue of identity. The questions mankind has asked since the beginning of the human species, Who am I and what is my purpose in life? remains a motivation inherent to humanness. I ask this age old question in an increasingly complicated world that does not necessarily recognize the time required for such introspection. It's a pity that a collective lack of downtime is the meager reward for the payoff of constant and immediate technological connectivity, as if that were any valid substitute for the blood and guts of identity.

I say this because it has come to my attention that people have an increasingly shorter attention span. If immediate gratification is not met, the mind wanders. Worse yet, anger and frustration spread like dark ink on white fabric leaving the indelible mark of squandered time. Time that is better spent examining identity rather than electronic gadgets. Where, among this, is our connectedness, our unique reasons for walking on earth at this time? I think of whistling in the dark, if I can just stay busy enough, then there is no time left for those unanswered questions that I would rather not have answers to. This was one of many thoughts unearthed at the residency.

Where is the "I" in my poetry? I assumed since I was the one writing the poem, that question was a no-brainer, but not so. Not so at all. I wondered how or why or when I had put myself in the passenger seat of writing recording what I observe and then distancing myself from the process. How many other times have I distanced myself from whatever event unfolds in my day as if it were just part of the a unending newsfeed containing a few sentences interwoven with other people's newsfeeds. Our lives are a miasma of generalizations that naturally go along with distancing ourselves. It's an insidious form of disconnection on a deeper level.

I'm sure there's a poem in there.

If I lived on the rez, I wonder if I would stand in the same educational shoes? How could I? Certainly, I would have been a different person molded by daily life. I have spent the past six years questioning what does being a Yankton Sioux mean? So much so, I have traveled back and forth between the Yankton Rez and the home where I was raised, forging new territory which, at times, was gut-wrenching. As I talk with others about my lifework, I discover the thirst people have for taking part in the journey in some way, if only to read about it. I have cast my net in search of identity, deep and wide. Join me, won't you?