The Tecumseh Motel

In Shawnee cosmology,
a shooting star can fall to earth as a mythical panther.

            Tecumseh—
            phonetic approximation of an Algonquian name:
            Shooting Star,
            One Who Waits,
            Crouching Panther.

The first cultural event in Chillicothe
is a matinee performance
of an outdoor play
highlighting Tecumseh’s life.
We are honored guests,
ushered backstage before the show.

How to approximate a scalping at the Tecumseh Outdoor Drama:
            Hollow an egg with care.
            Fill with Karo syrup and red tempera paint.
            Soak a toupee with cherry Kool-Aid and mineral oil.
            Crack the egg onto the actor’s head.
            Red matter will slide down the crown
            and eggshell will mimic shards of skull.

Actors on horseback frame the stage.
A roan flicks his tail irritably at flies
as his rider shifts uncertainly on the saddle blanket.

How to approximate death by gauntlet:
            The victim must lead the action.
            The aggressor follows.
            Burn marks are approximated on the actor’s chest
            with burnt ends of wine corks
            hidden in the sand at his feet.
            The knife is dull edged,
            lined with a small tubing mechanism.
            The actor squeezes a pump
            of corn syrup, liquid soap, and red food dye
            in a limp arc across the torso.

At the end of the performance
the crowd turns a standing ovation
to the representatives of our tribe
sitting in the middle rows.
Are we mocked or honored with such a display?
That evening,
I rail glibly on the telephone:
            historical inaccuracies,
                        hooping and hollering,
                                    pandering to the worst stereotypes.
My husband interrupts me—
            you sound like you’ve been crying.

A Chillicothe chief to the British Army Commander in 1779:
            We have always been the frontier.

More by Laura Da’

Leviathan

In Westport the small French cart
of the voyageurs earned the name mule-killer.

Once Shawnee was the lingua franca
up and down the Mississippi,

then mollassi became molasses.
For the bringing of the horse

it is said much can be forgiven: burn
of Missouri whiskey and aching molars,

lunatic fevers of cholera,
even those men

born astride. Rare beast to share
that weight on such fine and slender legs.
 

Poor Lazarus

Live long enough
and salt pork, beans,
yearling colts, honey and butter,
            something will turn into a wedge
            to bend your will.

Missionaries call for my sons to send off to school,
each season when the corn is green.
I tuck them into the rows
farthest to the north of my cabin.
Keep them busy with the threshing as I whisper
their true names into the ears we consume,
            but I leave a path to them
            like a snake
            by slithering away through the sparse harvest.

Frost breaks under my mare’s hooves
when I ride to sign my name at the Neosho mission.
My sons and nephews
traded to industrial school in the north
            for the release of seven barrels of winter rations.

This commerce—
makes me brother to dragons, companion to owls.

Riding away from the mission,
I call to my sister’s youngest child,
            the only one
            still too young for school,
            come over here and ride with your old uncle.

The boy clambers up behind me,
bare toe notched into the girth for warmth and purchase.
My boots quiver along the sides of the horse’s flanks
            as I endeavor to slip them into the stirrups
            that frame the ground below in jerky patches.

Child, I keep repeating, Nephew.
The horse dances nervously,
sensing my frenzy.
To his credit,
            the boy
            keeps a steady hand on the reins.

Passive Voice

I use a trick to teach students
how to avoid passive voice.

Circle the verbs.
Imagine inserting “by zombies”
after each one.

Have the words been claimed
by the flesh-hungry undead?
If so, passive voice.

I wonder if these
sixth graders will recollect,
on summer vacation,
as they stretch their legs
on the way home
from Yellowstone or Yosemite
and the byway’s historical marker
beckons them to the
site of an Indian village—

Where trouble was brewing.
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter.
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred.
Where most were women and children.

Riveted bramble of passive verbs
etched in wood—
stripped hands
breaking up from the dry ground
to pinch the meat
of their young red tongues.