Gahé Dzíł / Mountain Spirits

always for my family

Circling around flames and dancing with the blazes
Encumbering sparks take flight into the night sky,
A swirling twinkle resembling a star crown
Moving into empty canopies resembling ghosts

A threshold colossal structure with rusty bells shakes
the sound of fire sings lingering beyond the flames
sent across the mountain and valleys

These spirits come from the mountains and move towards
the south, between the sacred narrow canyons,
The Sierra Madre Canyon walls sing in their echoes

A medicine reveals a stick and brings the wall down
For the Ndé—the people who wandered into night
Ascending towards the ending sky and onto the lost land

Losing their tongues and eyes they consume the mountain
Air and waters trying to heal all their lungs that bellowed
Outward against the slow breezes and heavy breaths

A hundred years the spirits protected them from
the sixteenth calvary who then believed, in all their hearts,
a good Injun was a dead Injun. Even then the spirits protected
the people for another twenty-seven years until they reached
                                    —their forced destination

A place where cutting their hair died as the spirits watched
The people searched the underground catacombs of St. Augustine
While hearing the waves crash against the stone walls

Outside the thick walls, the people were exposed
To yellow fever and malaria, they died and died
                                    —some survived

After thirty more years the people returned to their homeland
closer to the Skeleton Canyons where an epic scribed
on the mountain walls called back their ancestors

At night the drumming echoed like the murmur inside
Their bodies hearing the loud thumps come and go

In 1986 the people returned to their original place
                                                —entering the ancient canyons
                                                —honoring those killed
                                                —remembering the mountains

At night the sparks fly high as the people hear those rusty bells
and hollow songs        —they feel the drums and footsteps reverberate
Inside their veins every time, they look to the mountains

Related Poems

Peace Path

This path our people walked
one hundred two hundred              endless years
since the tall grass opened for us
and we breathed the incense that sun on prairie
                                                             offers to sky

Peace offering with each breath
each footstep           out of woods
to grasslands plotted with history
removal   remediation                     restoration

Peace flag of fringed prairie orchid
green glow within white froth
calling a moth who nightly
seeks the now-rare scent                 invisible to us

invisible history of this place
where our great-grandfather         a boy
beside two priests and 900 warriors
gaze intent in an 1870 photo         
                                                             his garments white as orchids

Peace flag                                           white banner with red cross
crowned with thorns                       held by a boy              
at the elbow of a priest   
beside Ojibwe warriors                   beside Dakota warriors

Peace offered after smoke and dance
and Ojibwe gifts of elaborate beaded garments
thrown back in refusal  
by Dakota Warriors                         torn with grief  
                                                             since their brother’s murder

This is the path our people ran
through white flags of prairie plants
Ojibwe calling Dakota back
to sign one last and unbroken treaty

Peace offering with each breath
each footstep                out of woods
to grasslands plotted with history
removal   remediation                     restoration

Two Dakota    held up as great men
humbled themselves
to an offer of peace
before a long walk south

before our people entered the trail
walking west and north
                                                           where you walk now
where we seek the source

the now-rare scent
invisible as history
history the tall grass opens for us
                                                            Breathe the incense of sun on prairie
                                                            Offer peace to the sky


Song of the Exiles

There never was a garden,
only a leaving:
miles and miles
of footprints in the dirt.

In the beginning—
the shattered sun, the wind,
and nothing left but our shadows
sifting through the dust behind us.

When we turned
we did not turn to salt.
When we turned
there was nothing behind us to burn

nothing to return to
though who could blame us for turning,
with only the long days ahead
tongues tripping in the dirt.

They said we didn’t belong.
They blamed us
for leaving the garden
which never was or would be.

Where could we go,
we who had come from nowhere
and hence could not

How to Write a Poem in a Time of War

You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck.

                                                                             Shrapnel and the eye

Of a house, a row of houses. There’s a rat scrambling

From light with fleshy trash in its mouth. A baby strapped

to its mother’s back, cut loose.
                                                                       Soldiers crawl the city,

the river, the town, the village,

                                the bedroom, our kitchen. They eat everything.
Or burn it.

They kill what they cannot take. They rape. What they cannot kill
                                                                                        they take.

Rumors fall like rain.

                                   Like bombs.

Like mother and father tears

swallowed for restless peace.

Like sunset slanting toward a moonless midnight.

Like a train blown free of its destination.                      Like a seed

fallen where

there is no chance of trees          or anyplace       for birds to live.

No, start here.                    Deer peer from the edge of the woods.

                                                         We used to see woodpeckers

The size of the sun, and were greeted

by chickadees with their good morning songs.

We’d started to cook outside, slippery with dew and laughter,

                                    ah those smoky sweet sunrises.

We tried to pretend war wasn’t going to happen.

Though they began building their houses all around us

                                         and demanding more.

They started teaching our children their god’s story,

A story in which we’d always be slaves.

No. Not here.

You can’t begin here.

This is memory shredded because it is impossible to hold with words,

even poetry.

These memories were left here with the trees:

The torn pocket of your daughter’s hand-sewn dress,

the sash, the lace.

The baby’s delicately beaded moccasin still connected to the foot,

A young man’s note of promise to his beloved—

No! This is not the best place to begin.

Everyone was asleep, despite the distant bombs.

                                        Terror had become the familiar stranger.

Our beloved twin girls curled up in their nightgowns,

                                                                 next to their father and me.

If we begin here, none of us will make it to the end

Of the poem.

Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather

to his grandson, his granddaughter,

as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.

There it would be hidden from the soldiers,

Who would take them miles, rivers, mountains

                                     from the navel cord place of the origin story.

He knew one day, far day, the grandchildren would return,

generations later over slick highways, constructed over old trails

Through walls of laws meant to hamper or destroy, over stones

bearing libraries of the winds.

He sang us back

to our home place from which we were stolen

in these smoky green hills.

Yes, begin here.