A Desert Memory

- 1870-1927

Lonely, open, vast and free,
The dark’ning desert lies;
The wind sweeps o’er it fiercely,
And the yellow sand flies.
The tortuous trail is hidden,
Ere the sand-storm has passed
With all its wild, mad shriekings,
Borne shrilly on its blast.

Are they fiends or are they demons
That wail weirdly as they go,
Those hoarse and dismal cadences,
From out their depths of woe?
Will they linger and enfold
The lone trav’ler in their spell,

Weave ‘round him incantations,
Brewed and bro’t forth from their hell?
Bewilder him and turn him
From the rugged, hidden trail,
Make him wander far and falter,
And tremblingly quail
At the desert and the loneliness
So fearful and so grim,
That to his fervid fancy,
Wraps in darkness only him?

The wind has spent its fierce wild wail,
    The dark storm-pall has shifted,
Forth on his sight the stars gleam pale
    In the purpling haze uplifted.

And down the steep trail, as he lists,
    He hears soft music stealing;
It trembling falls through filmy mists,
    From rock-walls faint echoes pealing.

Whence comes this mystic night-song
With its rhythm wild and free,
With is pleading and entreaty
Pouring forth upon the sea
Of darkness, vast and silent,
Like a tiny ray of hope
That oft-times comes to comfort
When in sorrow’s depths we grope?

’Tis the An-gu, the Kat-ci-na,
’Tis the Hopi’s song of prayer,

That in darkness wards off danger,
When ’tis breathed in the air;
Over desert, butte, and mesa,
It is borne out on the night,
Dispelling fear and danger,
Driving evil swift a-flight.

A Song of a Navajo Weaver

For ages long, my people have been 
     Dwellers in this land;
For ages viewed these mountains,
     Loved these mesas and these sands,
That stretch afar and glisten,
     Glimmering in the sun
As it lights the mighty canons
     Ere the weary day is done.
Shall I, a patient dweller in this
     Land of fair blue skies,
Tell something of their story while
     My shuttle swiftly flies?
As I weave I’ll trace their journey,
     Devious, rough and wandering,
Ere they reached the silent region
     Where the night stars seem to sing.
When the myriads of them glitter
     Over peak and desert waste,
Crossing which the silent runner and
     The gaunt of co-yo-tees haste.
Shall I weave the zig-zag pathway
     Whence the sacred fire was born;
And interweave the symbol of the God
     Who brought the corn—
Of the Rain-god whose fierce anger
     Was appeased by sacred meal,
And the trust that my brave people
     In him evermore shall feel?
All this perhaps I might weave
     As the woof goes to and fro,
Wafting as my shuttle passes,
     Humble hopes, and joys and care,
Weaving closely, weaving slowly,
     While I watch the pattern grow;
Showing something of my life:
     To the Spirit God a prayer.
Grateful that he brought my people
     To the land of silence vast
Taught them arts of peace and ended
     All their wanderings of the past.
Deftly now I trace the figures,
     This of joy and that of woe;
And I leave an open gate-way
     For the Dau to come and go.

An Indian Love Song

Light o’ the lodge, how I love thee,
Light o’ the lodge, how I love thee,
         Mianza, my wild-wood fawn!
To wait and to watch for thy passing.
          On hill-top I linger at dawn.

Glimmer of morn, how I love thee, 
Glimmer of morn, how I love thee! 
      My flute to the ground now I fling,
      As you tread the steep trail to the spring,
For thy coming has silenced my song.

Shimmer of moon on the river,
Sheen of soft star on the lake!
     Moonlight and starlight are naught;
     Their gleam and their glow is ne’er fraught
With such love-light as falls from thine eyes.

A Mojave Lullaby 

Sleep, my little man-child, 
Dream-time to you has come. 

In the closely matted branches
Of the mesquite tree, 
The mother-bird has nestled 
Her little ones; see 
From the ghost-hills of your fathers, 
Purpling shadows eastward crawl, 
While beyond the western sky-tints pale 
As twilight spreads its pall. 

The eastern hills are lighted, 
See their sharp peaks burn and glow, 
With the colors the Great Sky-Chief 
Gave your father for his bow. 
Hush my man-child; be not frighted, 
'Tis the father's step draws nigh. 
O'er the trail along the river, 
Where the arrow-weeds reach high 
Above his dark head, see 
He parts them with his strong hands, 
As he steps forth into view. 
He is coming home to mother, 
Home to mother and to you. 
Sleep my little man-child, 
Daylight has gone. 
There's no twitter in the branches, 
Dream-time has come. 

Related Poems

A Delaware Indian Legend

Long, long ago, my people say, as their traditions tell,
They were a happy, powerful race, loved and respected well.
To them belonged the sacred charge, the synagogue to keep,
And every Autumn to the tribes, the Manitou’s praises speak.
And all things went with them full well, the Manitou was pleased;
The Indian race was numerous then, countless as the trees;
The Manitou was kind to them, he filled the woods with game,
And in the rivers and the seas were fish of every name.

And to his children did he give the vast and broad domain;
Some the mountains and valleys took, while others chose the plain;
And everything to comfort them did the Manitou provide,
He gave them fish, game, herbs and maize, and other things beside.
He gave them rivers, lakes and bays, o’er which canoes did glide,
Forests dense and mountains high, great plains the other side.
The men were strong and brave and true, to them belonged the chase,
The women loving, kind and good, who filled a simpler place.

And they were taught while here on earth their spirits to prepare,
To join the Manitou himself, in the happy hunting-ground somewhere;
That they must never lie and steal; must for each other care;
That principles are gems that pass us to that country there.
And even though the wars do come with aggressive tribe or band,
No warrior shall strike a fallen foe, or wrong a helpless hand;
And if your foe shall sue for peace, let not his plea be vain,
Produce the pipe, and smoke with him, smothering the wrathful flame.

And while the smoke ascends above, breathe a prayer together,
That spirits of departed friends make peace beyond the river;
The Manitou’s compassion seek, for he was sorely grieved,
Provide for the widows of the slain, that their needs be relieved.
If a stranger enters in your lodge, give him both food and bed,
E’en if known to be your foe, no harm hangs o’er his head,
For now he is your honored guest, your protection he does claim;
Whate’er your source of difference be, contest it on the plain.

The voice of the Great Spirit now is heard in every clime,
The rumblings of the thunder, the whisperings of the pine;
The works of the Great Spirit are seen on every hand,
Flowers, forests, mountains, stars, sun and even man.
The Lenape all should gather in the Autumn there to praise
The wonders of the Manitou, the goodness of his grace;
And they to tell the Nations what to them he has unbound,
And the way for them to reach the happy hunting-ground.

Once many thousand moons ago, in the synagogue there came
All the tribes and warriors from the forest, hill and plain;
And while they were assembled there a young man rose to say,
The Manitou had shown him in a vision on that day
From afar a huge canoe with pinions spreading wide,
Coming o’er the waters from across the sunrise side;
And in that huge canoe were people of strange dress,
All were armed as warriors, though they peacefulness professed.

They told them of their God, “who came and died for men,”
And they were messengers from Him to save them from their sin,
But first, they said, they must have land, and thus a home prepare,
Then they would teach them truth, and heaven with them share.
The young man to the warriors old his vision further told,
And prophesied that from that day these tempters would grow bold;
That each would have a different creed, to teach a different tribe,
And when one told another each would think the other lied.

The young man for his people lamented loud and long;
He saw the friendship broken that always had been strong,
Dissension, war, and trouble, their happiness succeed,
Tribes rise against each other, their warriors die and bleed.
At last, their faith all shattered, home, game and country gone,
Dejected, broken-hearted, he saw them westward roam.
The Manitou was sorrowful that they should faithless be,
“And now where is the heaven the stranger promised thee?”

And some of the young warriors did live to see the day,
When across the sea from sunrise, with pinions flying gay,
Came great canoes with strangers who soon did boldly land,
And with a friendly gesture, extended the right hand.
Forgetful of the warning, they received them all as friends;
And made the sacred pledges to share with them their lands.
The Indians, true and faithful, their promise did fulfill,
And eager sought the teachings of the white man’s God and will.

And this recalls sweet memories of at least one truthful man;
He made and kept a promise in treating for our land;
His deeds of loving-kindness strength to their teachings lend,
And sacred in our memory is the name of William Penn.
But alas! for faith and trusting, few others like him came,
The white man’s promised friendship, thenceforth we found was vain.
While noble were his teachings, his practice was deceit,
And thus the friends we trusted, our fondest hopes defeat.

And now the road is open across the stormy sea,
The strangers are invaders—our friends no longer be!
Our Manitou is angry, their God hears not our cry,
On the bloody field of battle the noble warriors die.
Again with peace and presents our friendship would be sought,
Requesting that our vengeance on some other tribe be brought.
And now for this protection and their proffered friendship-hand,
The boasted Christian strangers ask to have as much more land.

Now many moons have passed, the Indians are but few;
For comments on the prophecy, I’ll leave that all to you.
Is the white man still deceiving? Is the Indian being robbed?
Will he yet share his heaven and the teachings of his God?
The Indian was just a savage, but he would not lie and steal,
The white man’s highly civilized, but his conscience could not feel,
To rob poor, trusting Indians—well, to him it was no sin,
And to break a solemn treaty was a very clever thing.

And when the Indian to the white man makes complaint about his land,
He is told with solemn gestures, “Seek the Government—not the man.”
“He will be your good, great father and adopt you as his child,
He knows better what you need, and will protect you all the while.”
But the father was forgetful of his foster children’s care,
So the Indian thus discouraged, finds relief not anywhere.
Will a Nation for its actions have to pass the judgment bar,
Or will God excuse the people, if the deeds the Nation’s are?

He now sees the “Good, Great Father,” better known as “Uncle Sam,”
Offering home, aid and protection to the poor of foreign lands;
Sees the foreigners in numbers seek his own beloved shore,
Where justice, love and liberty reign free forever more.
Sees the foreigners in Council, aid in making laws most just,
While he’s no voice in legislation and his lands are held in trust,
Do you know a greater torture, or think his feelings can be guessed
When he sees such freedom cherished, while his own rights are oppressed?

When on the day of judgment, their records there to see,
As God turns o’er the pages, who will the braver be?
For one is just a savage, his simple faith applies;
The other one, a white man, very highly civilized.
And should they be together long enough to treat,
Do you suppose the white man the Indian there would cheat?
Or if the chance is given, when the judgment’s handed down,
Would the white man take his heaven or the Indians’ Hunting-Ground?

Do you think that Missionaries need be sent to foreign land,
To find fields for Christian duties and neglect the savage man?
In the land of peace and freedom can bondmen still be found?
Where every man does loudly boast class-legislation is not known!
Should neither one sit on the jury without the aid of ex-parte law,
Were the records brought from heaven, the court hear what the angels saw,
Have you doubts about the judgment? Would the white man pay the cost?
Or would the heir by birthright learn that there his case was lost?

In this the Indian’s version, can he still be justified,
Or was it for his poor sake, too, that Christ was crucified?
Will Christians stand by idly, nor lend a helping hand,
And by their silence justify the seizure of his land?
Or will their God from heaven hear the Indian’s plea
And prompt the Christian people to lend him sympathy,
And through their earnest efforts, not sympathy alone,
Redeem the Nation’s credit before the Judgment Throne?

Let the Indian have some duties, treat him as a worthy man,
Give him voice in the elections, give him title to his land,
Give him place of trust and honor, let him feel this yet his home,
Let him use his mind and muscle, let his actions be his own,
Pay him what is justly due him, let your Government be his, too,
He will battle with each problem, just as faithfully as you.
One who proves himself a warrior and of danger knows no fear,
Surely can find ways to master each new problem that draws near.

Kangi in My Attic

All night during this last decay of autumn moon,
wings have been banging on the eves of my roof,
forcing slivers of shiny black quills to take hold
of all my private continuances. Every evening
for relentless hours, eyes reflecting moon’s fullness,
yellow and prying, seep through every crack in the
roof and walls. In my mind this rogue is sleek and
wants to inject a language of advice into all the layers
of wood and knots. An amount, I fully suspect, of
gray split tongue heaviness, speaking undeniable,
unchallenged but for sure on the level of new myths.
This ancient teller of old stories wants to bargain with
me. In exchange for the placement of a large winter
nest of retreat in my attic (no sticks, just debris,
wire and tubing. No dried leaves, but used plastic
sacks and old newspapers), he will tell his oldest
stories for the troubled times of the now. Stories kept
hidden like aged rocks that spark, breath and speak
when hit by flint knives, or live for a hot new fire to
sooth, replenish. His approach is a slow march of
scaled skin and worn talons from clawing his way
through. My Dakota tongue knows his rasping songs,
his pitiful stories. Always perched up high, almost
beyond reach, viewing from where we have to look
up to the divine, the sun, our blindness. It is always
the line of trees and wires, where his advantage of
looking down serves as equal. Now so close the
messenger wants his voice to be the only sound, my
attention so focused, exhales finally. I take down the
webs, wipe dust from cracked panes, open the smallest
window, leave it open for his coming and going. I’ll
have to wait, ponder as he prepares. Two of a kind,
readying our defense. Our lives will ultimately accept
what each has come to realize—how to translate this
culture for the hungry, the seemingly lost, those who
never knew what we have kept guarded so carefully
for such as them.

Kangi – Crow (Lakota language)