Your Montana Public Radio
Mon May 12, 2014
"A Tribute to Chief Joseph (1840?—1904)
"God made me an Indian, but not a reservation Indian." —Sitting Bull
never reached with his people,
the Wal-lam-wat-kins, Canada's promised land.
Instead, the fugitive chief sits in a corner of the prison car
clicking its way to Oklahoma.
Chained to his warriors, he is like a featherless eagle
forced to look at a sky colorless as a square.
Out the window geese rise from the storm’s center
and he remembers more men, women
and children died by snow blizzard and starvation
than by cavalry shot or canon blast.
Chief Tu-eka-kas, his father is a dream shield
of Wallowa Valley that wraps around him
like its winding waters.
So deer and elk from the forest and mountains
of his ancestors flashed in his eyes
and Spi-li-yai, Coyote wanders alonside,
running in his famous drooling circle,
but only a cricket swallows the dark.
The war chief sang to himself morning and evening
to break the cycle of cold weather and disease
his people had coughed and breathed on the run
for more than a thousand miles
through land that drifted with ice
and shredded on's clothes like a knife.
Unable to move and sleepless as the door-guard,
the train rattles and smokes
dirt in his teeth, straw in his eyes.
Holding rage secretly in the palm of his fist,
his people’s dream of home and a future
spirals to red dust, leaves his bones
on the track, his soul in the whistle.
Duane Niatum (Seattle) has published six poetry books, including The Crooked Beak of Love and was nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. He's is an enrolled member of the Klallam Tribe (Jamestown Band). His writing is grounded in the Pacific Northwest landscape an its creatures, birds, animals, and plants, along with Klallam stories and characters. He earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Michigan..
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