Editor’s note. According to philosopher Enrique Dussel, it wasn’t until Europeans colonized the Americas, subjected and slaughtered its people, and plundered its wealth that they went from being inhabitants of a backwater of the world to thinking they were inherently better than everyone else. True, the notion of Indigenous people as natural-born “stewards of the land” is a stereotype. But then again, they didn’t invent the steam engine.
And here we are, in a climate emergency.
Today’s guest post of two poems by Denise Low shows you how it all began.
First Contact: Interglacial Sagas
Anno Domin / i Domin / ion Domin / ate
half the known edge
world’s end waves Mer-men
first blow first
breath of sea monsters
[I find a map illustrated with sea pigs]
two worlds [and oceans between]
1. white-skinned people
2. brown skinned with ochre paint
[in another map’s ocean swims a fish-centaur man]
Saint Brendan in annals
The voyage is dated to AD 512–530
(Betha Brenainn / Vita Brendan)
“vines suitable for wine”
When they light a fire, the island sinks; they realize that it is actually a whale.
Skraelings, those who wear skins
[Later my black straight hair
at birth turns Norse blonde
under cloth my Mongolian spots]
Furs valued and traded
A market was formed between them; and this people in their purchases preferred red cloth; in exchange they had furs to give, and skins quite grey. They wished also to buy swords and lances, but Karlsefni and Snorri forbad it.
milch /milk given for furs before they would leave without bloodshed
[trade these years of warm seas
before another age of cold returned]
A great crowd of Skrælingar boats, coming down upon them like a stream, the staves this time being all brandished in the direction opposite to the sun’s motion [backlit]
in Markland / in Forestland
[named on parchment]
Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles.
voiceless Indigenous unvoiced amidst
waters between Iceland and Newfoundland
roll of unceasing waters
a birch bark cartograph
[thin as parchment]
glyphs of epic stories: Listen
Greenlandic Inuit Newfoundland Inuit
Innu Mi'kmaq Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut
[Munsee Unami Lenape to their south
and my grandfather’s people]
[Irish Scots English to their east
and my other grandfather’s people]
[1400s MS illustration of St. Brendan, Wikipedia
The Saga of Erik the Red, 1880 translation into English by J. Sephton from the original Icelandic ’Eiríks saga rauða’.https://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en ]
My ([Broken] [Forbidden] Indigenous) Identity
Pale mountain lions a female and mate
low-slung bodies whip tails
Our neighborhood laps their territory
The cats walk night edges
shapeshifters turning into lynxes
enormous tabby cats with whiskers
ear tufts almond-shaped green eyes
The first I dream of cats that day
I find Julie Buffalo Head’s painting
Blood and a Single Tree dripping vermillion
A crow looks outdoors from a windowsill
Another crow holds chalk draws a spiral
a portal where words rise like smoke
A raccoon against a wall of red stains
bleeds from fatal wounds reaches for blue
A deer lies on the floor tongue lolling
side covered in Ponca floral designs
A suited man’s figure wears a cat’s face
Na shëwanàkw White Man
What have you / I done to us?
Denise Low is the author, most recently, of The Turtle's Beating Heart: One Family's Story of Lenape Survival (U of Nebraska Press, 2017); Mélange Block (Red Mountain Press, 2014); Natural Theologies: Essays about Literature of the New Middle West (The Backwaters Press, 2011); New and Selected Poems (Penthe, 2007); and the forthcoming Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Breakout Survivors (with Ramon Powers, U. of Nebraska Press, 2020). She lives (and dodges wildfires) in Northern California.
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.