Life is Sacred, Yet Nothing is Sacred: New School Transgressive Writing on the Native American Frontier

When I was a little kid, I wrote my first poem. It was the summer after first grade, and my family was living in a little travel trailer while our house was being built. I went out behind the trailer. Our cat, Kitty S. Cat, had just had a litter of kitties. My favorite was named Cotton. The evergreen trees were heavy with pine needles and everywhere across the countryside were desire paths and shrubs and trails between buildings we built. I remember it was bold and blue out, and the sun was a white light, and I wrote on a little pink notepad, something to the effect of

God is awesome (x3)

God is great (x3)

God is good (x3)

And this was sort of the little song I wrote. And it was mine, on blue paper with pink plastic coils. I was wearing saddle-shoes and little shorts and I tucked my notepad under my armpit and went to show my mom. And this is how I became a writer. I kept going, of course: stories about Kitty S. Cat, poems about lizards and my baby siblings, about my brother, then-ten, after he lost his teeth and broke his jaw in a motorcycle accident. I wrote about baths and soot and sweat and about animals and things I saw around me, and I made up stories about reptiles in elevators, and all this was good.

When I was twelve, I started writing stories, and at thirteen, I was writing tiny novels about, like, adventures in Antarctica or some shit. My family lived in Eastern Washington, and I imagined that there were networks of secret tunnels under farmland where nefarious deeds along the line of Kim Possible took place. It was not exactly an escape, this writing – I didn’t have anything to escape from. But it was something I loved to do. The more I went to libraries, the less books I found that I wanted to read. So I started writing them.

I’m twenty-five now, and you could say this has become a career path for me – imagining things, just completely made-up things, and writing them down in the most beautiful language possible, and showing my writing to people. The writing is essential, of course, and I would do it whether anyone ever read what I wrote or not, but the showing is an equally important second step – which is why I publish, and I send my poems and stories to my friends, and I imagine the day when bound books with my last name are on bookshelves in Barnes ‘N Noble and at the airport and in libraries. Writing is the compulsion; it’s absolutely necessary to survive, but that second half of story-telling, the sharing, can’t be denied, either.

So let me tell you about my writing. Unlike when I was seven or eight, I no longer imagine strange scenes with lizards in elevators. I wrote more in the line of what I know. And I’m a reservation-born Indian, pronounced In-din, as Sherman Alexie would say, of the leather and feathers camp. I participate in ceremonies. I dance in powwows. I know the codes of my culture. And, in the same way I wanted to write about the blue sky and the white cat when I was seven, I want to write about Auntie’s coffee and hard-packed frybread under an Elder’s softly wrinkled hands. I want to write about kitchen countertops and long, black hair. I think about my own lived experience, and I write about powwows – the way they smell of animal furs, the scent of sweetgrass in the air, the stiffness of my limbs when I dance, the way I feel when I see other dancers.

When I see women dance, I see pride and beauty, elegance, grace. I see someone I want to be. But when I see the men. Oh.

I can see them now, eagle feathers in their hair. The way their feet move fast in a quick two-step. The nodding of their heads, their proud swoops and bent elbows, the bustles at their shoulders and hips. Bright feathers, like a peacock, beadwork that glistens and shines. I see the men who dance – honor dances, dances for their Elders, dances for God, and yeah, dances for money (it is a competition, you know) – and I think…well, that is a fine hunnie who would make a satisfactory father for my children.

You know? I have feelings, intense, conflicted, perpetuating feelings. And when I get home I write them down, comparing these modern NDN men to princes and Kings – they are Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph. They are Sitting Bull drinking a pepsi at 5’oclock, Red Cloud in a war bonnet, Pontiac getting an Indian taco and sitting criss-cross in the grass. Who am I? Perhaps I am Sacajewea, a woman who once visited my tribe. Maybe I’m Hiawatha, the spiritual guide. Better yet, I’m Thomas Builds-the-Fire in two long braids, telling stories to earn car rides into town.

I navigate these stories and experiences within the context of my own perceived whiteness (I don’t “look” traditionally Native American). As a Christian girl who practices Native spirituality, the syncretism becomes complex, and I throw in cultural modifiers and write imagined love stories, scenes with bannock and dried tea from the camas leaves. My own insecurities go into my writing – my fears, my hopes, my failures, real or imagined. And then I present those stories to the world, come what may, in whatever gritty or glorious fashion they appear to me, a potter making figures of clay.

So, let me just reiterate these two important facts:

1) I am going to write no matter what, and what I write will be from my own lived experience, even if the stories are imagined

2) The act of sharing the story is as important as the act of writing the story.

With that having been said, I identify as a transgressive writer – a woman who writes about the body, who mixes the sacred and profane, who pulls the sheets back on the corpse to examine its parts. When I was seventeen, my high school friend told me my writing was all about “finding beauty in the unbeautiful,” and that must still be true. I will write about brain matter bashed against a rock as easily as the flowers that grow alongside that rock if it tells a story. I don’t hold to the “whatever is good, pure, and beautiful, think on these things,” camp. Whatever is real, honest, revelatory. Whatever tells the truth – this is what I will write about.

So maybe I’m like Langston Hughes, who writes, “Christ is a Nigger/Beaten and black/O, bare your back!”

Maybe I’m willing to think, for the sake of a story or poem, of the Virgin Mary getting down.

Perhaps I will put myself in the bodies of children whose skin fell off in barnacles after the smallpox blankets came to the reservation, talk about that mad heat in their armpits, bellies, and groins.

What of the woman whose rapist becomes a god to her, even as he smiles down at her?

Do we forget these children? These women? These stories? They are not socially acceptable stories – no. But they are real and true. They are all “Nigger Christ/On the cross/Of the South.” The act of silence is an act of erasure. When you tell someone not to share their story, you are implying that their story has no value, or that its only purpose is to serve as a silent companion, a reminder of shame. Is not the act of story-telling somehow synonymous with the act of releasing shame?

Then can any story really be censored? As ugly and as bitter and as vile, as unsociable, as detestable, staunch, perverse, and undignified as some stories may be, are not all stories, after some fashion, true?

American Indian writer Adrian C. Louis, in Acid Dreams and Flashbacks, writes, “Life is sacred, yet nothing is sacred.” Take his poem, Glossolalia:

My girl got a little pussy

& it taste good too.

She’s an Indian girl &

she ain’t gotta be American

if she don’t want to be.

This is raunchy but it’s powerful – doubly so because the speaker in the poem is a woman. “My girl got a little pussy.” This is a true fact. Oh, ho, and let me tell you something, conservatives – many of the women you meet, they’re gonna have a little pussy. Odds are, you’ve thought of this already. The poet says this. He writes about women’s bodies as potent and wild, and in this vulgarity there is reverence.

There are culturally acceptable ways to write about Indian women, though. Sherman Alexie discusses this in “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.”

If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man
then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white
that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps
at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.
If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.

This is, of course, a joke – a mockery of a culture that insists Indian woman be portrayed in a certain light, loving a certain kind of man, walking with the right sashay in her slim hips in her slip jeans. Adrian C. Louis is one to invert this expectation, writing about such Native girls as “Wild-ass Serena,” a young girl-turned-ghost who is more memorable to me than Pocahontas for her intensity, her desire.

Can we please stop pretending women don’t feel desire?

All this is to say that I wrote a poem. It has all the elements I discussed above – culture, sacredness, the body, desire, ceremony. And this poem was published, as my poems occasionally are, because of my need to share everything I write with everyone I can foist it (my writing) on.

Peep this, yo (published on handsylit.com):

Love Poem for Lovers Out of Love

by Misty Ellingburg

If you are Geronimo, I still

will not be Pocahontas, and

If you are Chief Joseph,

I am not Sacajewaya.

I won’t bead you an outfit.

nor match your yellow roach

to your side and back drops.

Before you enter the Circle, I

won’t smudge you. When I go

after, I won’t smudge me either.

At night, your long hair tangles when

I won’t braid it. In the morning, you

cook your own breakfast, learn to

work the coffee pot, make biscuits from flour.

When your bad medicine comes

I will wish a flight of Owls further cross you.

You dip your fingers in my salves yet still

paint your war paint with another

woman’s menstrual blood. So now,

when you go to fight, I won’t paddle your canoe.

Nor will I fight for you.

And if you died tomorrow, I would not let you sleep,

I would say your name. I would quench your fire.

I would burn your last name.

I would bury it.

I’m embodying other people, and then I’m not. Maybe I’m Geronimo today and Crazy Horse tomorrow. Maybe I’m Sacajawea and maybe I’m Wild-Ass Serena. Calm down. This is writing. This is a story. I’ve never lived with a man. God knows I’ve never made biscuits, and if I’m shamefully honest, I don’t know how to work a coffee-maker very well – my dad makes it for me.

This is a story I made up one afternoon after dancing in a powwow. The only Indian man’s hair I’ve braided is my brother’s. Even if I hated someone, I wouldn’t wish bad Owl medicine on them. It’s a poem. It’s a story.

It’s a story I came under fire for.

This poem was published today in Handsy Lit. Shortly after, I received messages regarding the inappropriateness of this poem for two reasons: that it mentions smudging, and that it discusses menstrual blood. I respect the person who sent these messages, whether or not this person respects me. I was told I did not understand the meaning of smudging and blood, but of course I do – that’s the very reason I chose to use these images.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m going to say what happened, because I’m a writer – and I share things. Maybe I write about biscuits and flour because I like the thought of a woman who makes biscuits for her lover. Maybe the act of biscuit-making is an embodiment of love. If the lovers are out of love, the biscuit-making is no longer a metaphor for their love. The same applies for smudging – a highly ceremonial practice akin to, I don’t know, praying the rosary. If smudging is a metaphor for the love these characters had before the man in the poem (ostensibly) cheated, it makes sense that smudging doesn’t happen after the betrayal.

Some feel that American Indian writers ought not to think about smudging in this way. They feel it is disrespectful of all those who smudge in powwows or in their homes or in other sacred spaces. Smudging is a sacred practice, and I know this, because I dance in powwows, and I smudge.

Am I not supposed to say that I smudge? But I do. And can I not use this as a metaphor? So, is there a list now of metaphors writers cannot use in order to not seem disrespectful? Some may consider it disrespectful to talk about “Nigger Christ/On the cross/Of the South.” Langston Hughes did it anyway – to artistic purpose, to aid in revelation. I am not Langston Hughes (I wish I were). But I think I should be allowed to use codifiers from my own culture to express thoughts and ideas.

The menstrual blood goes back to the discussion of a woman’s body as a sacred space – which I agree is true. But if, as I believe, Adrian C. Louis is not disrespecting women when he discusses, in vulgar detail, their “little puss[ies]” that “taste good too,” then I must be able to talk about menstrual blood being used as war paint, in the context of this metaphor: that a warrior may burn down a village but come home a hero, yet, if the village he destroys is his own home, this, too, is an act of violence.

Whatever this all comes down to, what I have to say is this: that I am an American Indian writer. That I will always write my lived experience. That I am fearless when it comes to story-telling. That bodies don’t frighten me. Nor do images that may seem shocking, because I don’t write to shock, I write to reveal. What I’m pursuing is truth. I’m not going to stop – not even if that makes you uncomfortable. Shit, man, it makes me uncomfortable, too.

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