Hedge Coke, Editor,
Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing Pacific Rim.
Salt Publishing: Cambridge, UK, 2009.
Reading the biographical
notes of these indigenous poets, I was suddenly no longer sure
what indigenous means in
a media-connected multicultural world. Cathy Tagnak
Rexford claims to be Inupiaq, French, German
actor and arts administrator.
more in the tradition that stems from Presocratic Greek poets
than from the shamanic voices of her Inupiaq progenitors; yet her
waft from the northern Alaska's tundra, where "By light
of an oil lamp, a child learns to savor marrow: / cracked caribou
on the floor."(1) Brandy
Nālani McDougall: Kanaka
Maoli, Chinese and Scottish. With an MFA in Poetry from The University
of Oregon, she remembers
when, in Hawaii, "We lived with nā lapu
through half of that first year / before Kahu stood in the piko
of our meeting circle, and asked them politely to move on toward
Perez-Wendt, who traces her lineage from Spain to Chinese and
Hawaiian, has a BA in political science, attended law school,
and has served on the board of many community-based organizations. "In
the old days," she writes, "Huluhulu bag / Is what
we use / For back pack . In my village Even for carry big game
/ Can pack anything / Use kukui nut / Or stone / To tie around
/ Each bottom corner...,"(3) stunting
her syntax with "indigenousness." Although dg nanouk
okpik is a native Inupait, she has a BFA from the Institute
of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, received a Truman Capote
Literary Trust Award, among others, and currently lives in
Santa Fe. Yet she creates poems in which "She put on a
carved mask with snowy owl feathers / then, danced a long,
limp, mukluk shuffle."(4)
Not to be outdone,
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, the book's editor, traces her lineage
from Cherokee, Huron, Creek, French Canadian, Lorraine, Portuguese,
English, Scot, and Irish. Why not just say, "Homo
our hominoid ancestors walked out of Africa during the
Middle Paleolithic, then dispersed, taking different directions,
at the same time or in several emigrations (5),
some staying behind to populate the African continent—many
centuries later they began to meet again. Having evolved the different
physiques and colors needed
along with customs and beliefs, instead of calling a family
circle meeting, they saw "strangers" who registered
as potential threats, or opportunities for exploitation.
and Hawaii are separated from mainland America, either by an
ocean or another
country, in a compromise
between the two major American political parties, in 1959 both
territories were granted statehood. Yet, more than fifty years
Hawaii remain somewhat alienated from the other 48
states, not just by geography, but mythology too. Although
by the 19th Century there
in Hawaii, from Russia in Alaska, to this day the indiginous
telluric spirits are still honored with those who were forced
psyche, beliefs, and into the classrooms of native peoples.(6)
crawls out of the polar ice pack
wearing the mask of a whaler.
He hunts himself. Mining
blackened marrow. His flint knife limn
ignites blue flame against dark coastline.(7)
wooden face is carving
the inua inside a birdbeak.
Nearby heads open the lighted
crawlspaces of knotted
the dark shore
I saw the old gods
I saw the
The crumbled monuments,
of her head,
Out of her breast,
Out of her mouth,
Out of her eyes,
Out of her skin,
Out of her breath,
the gods who lived
off the length of her body,
offering their piko in return.(10
I began writing this
critique one morning while flying along the Pacific Rim from
Portland to San Francisco. Sitting next to me was a woman
Bloody Mary. She told me that she lives on Maui.
replied, "Do you know Frank Bird? He lives there too." "No," she
said, "We live in the hills." "Like a
segmented pomegranate," I thought,
Glistening red encasements
Plump and faceted
Seeds fitting marvelously together
Food for the gods.(11)
of the Gods: The search for the original tree of knowledge,
(Terence) McKenna points out that in indigenous and aboriginal
not the 'average person' who takes
strong psychedelic plants to tear open what Aldous Huxley referred
to as the 'doors of perception' and lead us into other
worlds. Instead, it's the shamans. It's not the ill person who takes
the drug—it's the healer. And using that substance, the shaman
steps into the more-real-than-real world that parallels this like
to manipulate the fundamental stuff of reality or entreat the spirits
who reside there to help and heal."(12)
here an interesting dichotomy between food for the gods
and food of the
gods, as exemplified by Māhealani Perez-Wendt,
whom I assume from her poems retains the aura of the Christian
beliefs she was born
into, and Terence McKenna, who ingested psychedelic drugs under
the super-vision of shamans in the Amazon Basin, then returned
north to lecture
DMT as a spiritual practice,
amplifying the difference between experiencing spirituality
within a handed down
belief-system, and the creativity of using the imaginal resources
of one's own mind as the Chalice. Another way of looking at this
is monotheism's communal emphasis, with its churches,
synagogues and mosques, as opposed to Joseph Campbell's"hero," who
sets out alone on the perilous journey toward enlightenment.
As Campbell puts it, "If the path before you
is clear, you're probably on someone else's."(13)
the ethnology of shamanism in the Arctic is well-known in the
writings by the
explorer/anthropologist, Knud Rassmusen (1879-1933), and the
Rumanian scholar of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986),
shaman, or kupua, or kahuna, of Hawaii, where
ceremony trumps drugs or drums, has been studied far less. Serge
King, who "was
initiated by his father into an esoteric order of kahunas," says: "The
model for the Hawaiian shaman is the great culture hero, Maui,
known and loved from
one end of Polynesia to the other."
known for such shamanistic practices as turning himself into
and birds, being helped by animals and birds, visiting the
heavens to gain the secrets and fire and cultivation and sharing
humankind, and exploring the underworld."(14)
McDougall's poem, "Waiting for the Sunrise at Haleakalā," which
begins, "Still half-asleep,
I drive toward the summit /
and find a rhythm turning sharp corners, /
leaning with each familiar curve," reminded me of how, when I lived in Santa
Fe, sometimes before dawn I'd drive through the empty plaza then climb to a grove
in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Early Spring was my favorite
time, when I'd pace between silvery islands of moonlit snow and the blackness
of naked wet earth, as a nearby brook babbled indecipherable words I scribbled
into a notebook as if I were Hermes delivering messages
the dark forms of abandoned rock alters,
built by some ancestral hand, and high crowns
of silversword stand solemnly in black.
Then She curses
the tourists, wraps herself in a blanket,
and waits for the sun's first rays, as many native people around
Waking from this
dream tonight, cold, restless;
afraid of forgetting where I came from,
I knew only to climb higher, to reach
the summit before sunrise, as Maui-
the-trickster did long ago.
Because we mistake
the trail for the path, we desire to climb ever-higher,
as if the answer to our deepest
can be found at the summit, where the God, or Gods, reside. So,
early one morning Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and in the fiery rays
of the rising sun saw Yahweh/Maui/Coyote/Loki...the countless
and forms by which
the Trickster appears. Later, he descended to the mundane
world with a panoply of symbols burned into his stony heart.
The poet grieves
over golf courses planted "over graves and hotels over heiau,"
(temples); jet planes roaring overhead fouling the blue
air. "There's no rest in paradise," she writes, hearing:
in the wind and clouds,
as the sky turns from back to blue,
a silent aubade the the swallowed stars,
to Maui, fading
with the moon.
sun was appearing over the mountain's tall collar, I drove into
Santa Fe, my notebook filled with the promise
or nothing at all.
is puzzled as to why Polynesian shamans do not use "masks
or costumes representing gods or animal spirits...to enhance a
sense of connection
with such spiritual beings."(14) My
favorite story of the shaman's costume is of the Siberian shaman
Tubiakou, "who lost a patient and gave up shamanizing. Believing
that his helping spirits had deserted him, he sold his unique costume
to a government museum. 'But a shaman cannot simply walk away from
the spirits of his shaman ancestors. Eventually, he realized that
he must take up his profession again and asked for the return of
his magical clothing. Museum curators prized it as a priceless
ethnographic rarity, however, and refused to give it back. Only
after a sympathetic ethnographer interceded did the Russian Ministry
of Culture finally
I look to a North
that is thawing, its permafrost melting and releasing gases
it has stored for thousands of years, further warming the planet
in a deadly cycle.
dg nanouk okpik exemplifies what a poet can contribute
statistics environmental scientists
crank out, "groveling
before the facts."(16)—
up in flames blue oil burns,
it fumes high at my shoulder,
the area at the end of the bone,
as vapor gouges earth into a different
form of wind.(17)
However, it is a
poem by Cathy Tagnak Rexford, the other northerner in this collection,
that fascinates me, mainly because its images strike
the same tone as the Dadaist Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi.
Perhaps this is not strange, as Rexford did attend the Buddhist
Naropa University, and both Alaska and Japan are sparkling jewels
on the the Pacific Rim's "Ring of Fire."
Rexford's "Migration" begins:
I am a cedar mask,
devouring my own tongue,
I close the space between my teeth with
From this I will heave forth the Brooks Range,
leach my ears into the shape of whale flukes,
mount my face to the white wall
of a gallery.
I sat on ice and spat clouds about—
To whom shall I speak of the delight
Of being transformed into a weird little spirit?
I was, merging with all those colors
Which, after swimming between Mars and Saturn,
Passed the other side of the frosted glass.(18)
from an exhibition of Native American Art, and confronts "a
cab driver with a cigarette drooping / from his lip," who "swerves
as you stand in the middle of the street, your left foot / on the
line, your right
/ on the edge of a melting polar icecap....," straddling
with a knife that can rend a wall. Don't count
On the exquisite calculation of disrupted feelings.
O wind full of carnal odors, slap feet to ears!
burning at once that mop of wild hair,
Face yourself as for the first time:
Cherish the distance from joy found in its denial.
Rexford concludes her poem on
a note of warning:
We carved bare-breasted women
coastal bluffs of the Chukchi Sea,
They are beaten every autumn as
wind passes its hand over the waves.
We run into the city, into concrete nightmares;
we fault ourselves into the glass hallway where we stand.
Just as shamanism "takes
its place within a set of complex adversial relationships: between
the developed world and indigenous peoples; between science and
magic; between established and charismatic religion; and between
institutional and 'alternative' medicine;"(19) perhaps,
then, a linguistically fractured literature of metaphoric worlds,
darkly beautiful, would be a crafty way of finding ourselves
in a networked world, along with our niche in a nature that no
longer tolerates our
expanding economies, or systematized hierophanies. A sensual
poetics, wise beyond the illusion of its years.
A handful of broken
caribou antlers, the smell
of fresh wormwood, fresh snow on beech greens,
clefts of skin burning on one side of her face,
frozen on the other.(20)
References and Notes:
Rexford, C.T. From, "The Ecology of
2- McDougall, B.N. From, "Back When We Lived With Ghosts."
3- Perez-Wendt, M. From, "Huluhulu Bag."
4- okpik, d.n.
From, "The Pact with Sedna."
5- “The study suggests a first wave of Africans traveled
to Australia between 62,000 and 75,000 years ago and gave
rise to the
Aborigines, while a second dispersal---one that ultimately
went northward and another eastward---some 25,000 to 38,000
years ago led to modern
Europeans and Asians.” G. Naik, “Clues to Man’s
First Migration.” Wall Street Journal, 23
Sept 2011. (This theory isn’t supported by older
studies that see a single dispersal from Africa some 60,000
to 70,000 years
6- See Brandy McDougall's poem, "Ka 'Ōlelo."
7- Rexford, C.T. From, "Baleen Corset."
8- okpik, d.n. From, "Mask of Dance." In Inuit
mythology Inua is
the soul of people, animals plants, mountains, etc.
9- Perez-Wendt, M. From, "Bury Our Hearts at Wal-Mart, etc."
10- McDougall, B.N. From, "Haumea" Piko is
the Hawaiian equivalent of the World Navel, the central
place of the
soul. It is perhaps the equivalent
of the Japanese hara, which is the point of balance
found a little below the navel.
11- Perez-Wendt, M. From, "Segmented."
12- Hartmann, T.
Review of Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods. (New York: Bantam,
13- Campbell, J.
(2008) The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World
14- King, S. (1987). "The Way of the Adventurer." In, S. Nicholson,
Editor, Shamanism. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing
15: Weishaus, J. (2006-7) "The Way North." http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/North/North-4/text-4.htm The
original story is by M.S. Milovsky: "Tubiakou's Spirit Flight." Natural
History, July 1992.
Campbell, J. (1987) Quoted by J. Halifax, "Shamanism, Mind, and
No-Self. In, S. Nicholson, Editor, Shamanism. Wheaton, IL: The
Theosophical Publishing House.
17- okpik, d.n. From, "Oil is a People."
18- Takahashi, S. (1986) In, The Triumph of the
Stryk, Translator. New York: Grove Press.
19- Hutton, R. (2001) Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western
Imagination.” London: Hambledon & London.
From, "Utkiavik: a Place for Hunting Owls."