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



Copyright © 2016 by Heid E. Erdrich. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

About this Poem

"The North Country Trail leaves Minnesota and heads toward Fort Abercrombie just above my hometown—Wahpeton, North Dakota. This poem envisions the tallgrass prairie as I have seen last remaining swaths of it in areas of the trail. The poem depicts events that took place when the grassland was unbroken and when our great-grandfather, Keesh-ke-mun-ishiw/Joseph Gourneau, serving as an altar boy and standard bearer for a Catholic priest, was photographed at Fort Abercrombie in 1870.

The path the North Country Trail traces from the Lake Superior shore through the North Dakota grasslands, maps the migration of my Ojibwe ancestors as they moved, and were removed, from their territories as treaties decreed. For me, and for other Native Americans, a map of the trail tells a specific story, one of tribal history.

The Grasslands stand as an emblem of peace for me—the hush of wind in tall grasses, the surprise of wild roses and rare lilies, the open faces of sunflowers in fields, the prairie potholes where water is life and the home of thousands of birds—this peace, like the weathered wooden structures of previous centuries, remains for everyone to walk by along the western section of the North Country Trail."
Heid E. Erdrich

About the Sioux-Chippewa Peace Conference of 1870, with photograph
For further reading: American Indians and National Parks by Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek