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2008

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First, Dakotah (A Poem In Six Parts)
Lea Assenmacher

I.
No stories here.
Another ten acres have been eaten
by bulldozer; cornfield’s black dirt trucked off
for sterile lawns. No place to go
that doesn’t require effort.
How far I have to travel to see nature
not manicured, stars past streetlights straight as soldiers,
to hear crickets over sprinkler’s staccato
metronome. An eastbound plane
glides among stars as I pace
concrete still warm underfoot.
A bird’s evening call pierces the dusk
as she darts over the scraped field
searching for her demolished nest.

II.
Underneath the asphalt trail, train tracks
before houses   cornfield
before cornfield   waist-high prairie
before wagon wheels turning on rutted track
Dakotah
meaning  friends, allies

my belief that this place holds no stories is wrong
mutilated land
sacred sites now real estate
wrong to acknowledge only the Wasicu
Germans   Norwegians   Swedes
who streamed over the Mississippi in search
of air unfouled by the coal smoke of cities
land undepleted by plows
searching for their chance to live as free men

first there were Dakotah

hearing this story I weep
only saints renounce the world to gain it

III.
… one should not believe that the present generation of Indians has forgotten, or does not know, that the entire, spacious territory of the U.S. once belonged to their ancestors and that their hunting grounds were alive and filled with all kinds of game.  The savage knows this as well as we know it, and this is the reason for his unforgivable hatred of the paleface, a hatred which only waits for an opportunity to destroy the latter.                                                                                                                                      Jacob Nix, witness

Gone. All gone.
Great Father’s promises just wind in the grass
pushing them to lands they neither knew nor loved
leaving behind ancestors rich in the soil underfoot.
Some Dakotah cut their hair, learned the foreigners’ language,
wore breeches, bowed to the holy white ancestor,
planted the earth and no longer followed the buffalo:
even then for their land and their lives
Great Father made claim
issued title  demanded payment  wished them dead.

IV.
“Let the Dakotah eat grass or their own dung”
                                                Andrew Myrick, trader and federal agent

They ate their angular horses
and tree bark churned their bellies

hunger
became hot ax
                        bloody hoof beat
                                                  howl

an unappeasable rage sparked by
settler’s appetite

the white trader killed
mouth stuffed with grass

with Federal guns they were cut down

V.
. . .they went to their deaths on the scaffold singing

His People. Fearless. One Who Jealously
Guards His Home. Scarlet Otter. Grows Upon.
Iron Blower. Red Leaf. One Who Walks
Clothed in Owl Feathers. I Came. Wind Comes
Home. Baptiste Campbell. Near The Woods.
First Son. Second Son. Third Son.
One Who Walks With His Grandfather.
Father Hawk. Singer. Clear Returning Voice.
Sudden Rattle. Henry Milford. Wind Maker.
Scarlet Face. Broken To Pieces. One Who Stands
On A Cloud. Rattling Runner. Singing Water.
White Dog. Wind Rouser. Hypolite Auge.
Great Mystery. Little Thunder. Frenchman.
One Who Stands Cloaked in Stone.
He Comes For Me. One Who Walks Prepared To Shoot.
One Who Stands On The Earth. The People Coming.

VI.
Of those 38, only a handful have been allowed to rest.

Shovels rise in darkness.
The grave on the riverbank under the weeping willows
was shallow, four feet deep, the bodies
brought in by cart and dumped.
Their shawls their shrouds.
At nightfall the doctors gathered,
drew lots, retrieved their prize.

One Who Stands On A Cloud, Dakotah warrior
            this fiend with human shape
lies upon the laboratory table.
With surgical precision Dr. Mayo
cuts open the abdomen, coldly
examines heart, belly, brain

in the name of science
            the mean cranial capacity of the skulls of Whites was 87cubic inches
            based on the measurement of 144 skulls of Native Americans, he reported
            a figure of 82 in³
in the name of knowledge
           in their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in
           acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, crafty, sensual,
           ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children
           may be traced to purely selfish motives

in the name of revenge
            the Indian brain is so deficient that the race would be impossible to civilize

and when he is done with the meat
           
he scrapes clean the bones
polishes them to gleaming whiteness
wires them together and hangs them
to teach his sons.

The skull of One Who Stands On a Cloud
sits on the doctor’s desk
forty years.