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.
 

American Towns

Seneca, Missouri—soft wash of casino jangle
seeps through the Pontiac’s cracked window.

The map flutters on the dashboard,
one corner grit-soaked.

Sparse Ozark wash of tawny green.
A herd of buffalo lowing in the side pasture.

Here is the voyage,
conjured homeland to conjured homeland.

No, not that clawed trajectory of the past,
but a fierce conception

that quickens and scrapes inside just the same.
The drive to Ohio will take

eleven hours and forty-eight minutes,
cost one hundred and ninety-five dollars in gas.

Chillicothe—in the subtle semantics
of Shawnee, a tightened fist of connotation:

clan name and principal city,
all human systems working in harmony.

Limpid sashay of corn tassels along the byway.
Historical markers beckon the reader

to plunge an arm into the loam
tweeze with fingers to feel how fecund,

no rocks to bend the ploughshare.
What heirloom fields of Shawnee

corn hum under the crust
beside the carbon of burned council houses?

August wheeze of Bad Axe Creek.
Drought thrusts large boulders jutting up waist-high,

deep grooves in the center
for grinding corn. What is owed

grits in the corners of the mouth.
The plaque on the museum’s door in Xenia extols

a Revolutionary War hero:
The ground on which this council house stands is unstained

with blood and is pure as my heart which wishes
for nothing so much as peace and brotherly love.

Summer school kids mill around the museum.
The teacher introduces the panel of tribal council members

as remnants of the once great Shawnee tribe.
Listless murmur of pencils across paper.

In the front room, a volunteer curator leans over a diorama
anxious to capture the real story

of a Revolutionary War camp.
He stipples red paint onto the sandy ground

simulating the gore of a military flogging,
points with the paintbrush to the next room

where fifty-three letters from 1783 broker captive trades
with the Delaware and Shawnee:

wan shades of ink from blanched olive to cornflower,
blotted in the rough or refined sway of long dead hands

each one made phylum by the promise of whiskey.
Leaving Xenia that evening on an old Shawnee trade route

retraced in concrete: Monlutha’s Town, Wapakoneta,
Blue Jacket’s Town, Mackachack, Wapotomica.

Xenia—the influence of the pollen
upon the form of the fruit.

I want my ink to bellow—
where is this ground unstained with blood?

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.