This Light Came from the Flower

c Joy Harjo

(It was a cloudy day when I took this photograph.)

Muscogee Nation News Column for February 2007

Tonight is cold in Oklahoma, colder than usual, and my Oklahoma winter memories go way back. Since I arrived here yesterday morning from Honolulu I’ve heard many stories of the big storm of snow, ice and cold. I’ve heard of ice several inches thick and solid. Of a week of days missed at work, of spectacular wrecks and close calls. Without question, the weather patterns are changing: snow in Malibu, saguaros crusted with ice in Tucson, and a record-breaking 56 degrees in Hilo, Hawaii a few nights ago. We know we’re in a shift of meaning; we’re not sure of where it’s taking us and how we’re going to get there. I suspect that uncertainty is tied to the prodigious amounts of drugs taken by the population. Most are prescription drugs given for depression, for inability to sleep, or wake up. And then drugs are given to counteract the effects and side effects of those. And then drugs are given to counter what happens when you mix the drug with the antidote. What happened to: how are you feeling? And where does it hurt? How’s it going at home? How are your children? What can we do about it? The manifestation of disease or pain isn’t always physical. It can take awhile for trauma to settle into the bones, muscles, nerves, organs, or the consciousness.
This is year of the Oklahoma Centennial. Oklahoma, the 46th state in the United States is celebrating one hundred years of statehood. The state’s motto is the “Sooner State” has always confounded me. Why elevate the Sooners who were those who crossed over the line illegally to stake land claims in one of the largest organized (illegal) land takeovers?
Consider this, Oklahoma: a takeover of Oklahoma as you know and love it, the Oklahoma you have created with all of its malls, institutions, churches, schools and houses, by a society of people who believe you don’t really live here because you don’t embody their idea of human, your institutions aren’t like theirs, or you aren’t really using the land in the manner in which they would use it. They have an edict by their God who tells them that they are a righteous people. These lands are theirs by birthright. You don’t matter. They have firepower and numbers of them pour in to take whatever resources are there in your beloved lands. And because they can takeover they believe that this is proof they are right. And you who are here aren’t really here, unless you conform to their ways, recreate yourselves in the new mind, within the new system of belief they have instituted over yours. And now they want you to celebrate with them the creation of this state of being, even as they have essentially erased you from their history, their land, their civilization.
I believe that most people are good people. Light shines through human mistakes. Those who took over the land, and their descendents who continue the takeover attitude and still believe they are right are young in their souls and misguided. I believe most would do better if they knew better. Some would not and will not. The Oklahoma story is the story of colonization throughout the whole world, and it’s still going on, even in Iraq. At the core is disrespect for others: humans, plants, animals, minerals, earth, ocean, and sky. Or the belief that these are things to be used for the benefit of one group of humans. So how does Indian Oklahoma recover such an assault of the spirit? We can fight, but we will lose. Fighting will destroy us. We can give up, or despair. Indian America has one of the highest suicide, alcohol, diabetes, and other social ill rates. We cannot ask the implanted society to give us our dignity, our rights, our sovereignty. We must turn within, towards that which has always sustained us, vnvketkv, our root ways, which are characterized by respect. We must create and nurture our own Mvskoke State of Mind.
When I had the band, Poetic Justice, Willie Johnson, from Isleta Pueblo was my right-hand guitar player. His day job was as a judge at another pueblo. The job was frustrating because he dealt directly with the fallout from grief, anger, self-hatred, and depression in the cases that came through his court. His hair had begun to turn white. One day he lost it, he said. He demanded that the whole tribe be brought in for counseling, together! (He eventually quit that job, and his hair stopped turning white.) Maybe we need to start there.
Why not use this centennial as a wake up call, to take hold of our beloved nation and remember who we really are in this time and place. We must take the lead in how we will re-imagine ourselves. We can find everything we need to stabilize ourselves within our culture, our language. Within that security and growth, we can then synthesize and grow. Cultures resemble bio systems. We need a flow in and out for a healthy and live system. Navajo rugs came out of taking what was useful from the Spanish and Pueblos and making something that has become quintessentially Navajo. Our Mvskoke music is at the root of the American musics of jazz, blues and rock, and we don’t even know it. We need to claim our place. No one else is going to give it to us. Right now we appear stuck between what the “over-culture” has demanded of us, our acquiescence to a system of belief that doesn’t honor us, and our own culture and knowledge that we are holding on so tight to keep safe, that as those carriers die we are losing everything. It won’t be easy. We have to take a look at everything at the most intimate level. Does what we are thinking, eating, doing, being sustain or celebrate who we are? Do our dreams, thoughts and deeds honor us?
Earlier this month I began two classes from a native Hawaiian organization Native Nations Foundation: an ukulele class in which we learn songs in Hawaiian, and a Hawaiian chant class taught by master chanter and cultural leader, Keali’i Gora. As I learn I can’t help but think about our Mvskoke language and culture. In these classes we learn songs and song forms; some are of a distinct cultural synthesis. The ukulele came from Portugal, brought in by Portuguese immigrants. Now it’s become essentially Hawaiian. The chants are haunting and beautiful song-poems in Hawaiian that hold within them culture and spirit. They are used for protocol and honor and dignify everyone wherever they are used. They were nearly extinct a few years ago, even outlawed by the over takers, until the people made a decision to recover them. There are other classes in hula kahiko (the old style hula, not the tourist style) and other cultural forms. The children are being grounded in these forms, and even the kapuna, or elderly are learning. Keali’i pointed out in class that he is amazed at the number of kapuna who are learning the forms, after they were turned from them in younger years, and are now traveling around the Pacific performing. We Mvskoke have our own forms that would be honored if we used them, revived them. Let’s start here.
There are more snowstorms coming. Use this weather to gather together the materials we need to grow our nation.


The Leadership Imperative, An Interview with Oren Lyons by Barry Lopez

Reprinted by permission for ORION, January/February 2007

Oren Lyons, seventy-six, is a wisdom carrier, one of the bearers of a variety of human tradition that can’t easily be reduced to a couple of sentences. One reason he—and the tradition for which he is a spokesperson—isn’t more widely known is that he doesn’t actively seek forums from which to speak. If someone asks him, however, about the principles behind the particular Native American tradition of which he has, since 1967, been an appointed caretaker, he is glad to respond. He chooses his words carefully, and occasionally, these days, there is a hint of indignation in his voice, as if time were short and people generally willful in their distraction.

In an era of self-promotion, Oren Lyons represents the antithesis of celebrity. When he converses about serious issues, no insistent ego comes to the fore, no desire to be seen as an important or wise person. His voice is but one in a long series, as he sees it, and the wisdom belongs not to him but to the tradition for which he speaks. His approach to problems is unusual in modern social commentary because his observations are not compelled by any overriding sense of the importance of the human present. In place of a philosophy of progress, he emphasizes fidelity to a set of spiritual and natural laws that have guided successful human social organization throughout history.

The appeal of his particular ethics in the search for solutions to contemporary environmental and social problems can become readily apparent. It is importantly, however, not a wisdom anchored in beliefs about human perfection. It’s grounded in the recognition and acceptance of human responsibility where all forms of life are concerned.

Oren is a Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan among the Onondaga people of western New York. He sits on the Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, or the Six Nations as they are sometimes known. (In addition to the Onondaga, these would be the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora.) The people of this “Iroquois Confederacy” share a philosophy of life given to them a thousand years ago by a spiritual being they call the Peace Maker. (He was named so partly because his instructions and warnings ended a period of warfare among these tribes, but his teachings about peace are understood to refer principally to a state of mind necessary for good living and good governance.)

When the Peace Maker came to the Haudenosaunee, he instructed them in a system of self-governing that was democratic in nature. (Benjamin Franklin and others, in fact, borrowed freely from this part of Haudenosaunee oral tradition and practice in formulating the principles of government upon which the United States was founded.) He emphasized the importance of diversity in human society to ensure sustainability and rejuvenation. And he urged a general tradition of thanksgiving.

The Peace Maker is sometimes called simply “the Messenger,” someone sent by the Creator. The clan mothers among the Haudenosaunee, along with sitting chiefs such as Oren, are regarded as “runners,” people responsible for keeping the precepts handed to them by the Peace Maker regenerating through time. As a council chief, Oren is said to be “sitting for the welfare of the people” and to be engaged in sustaining “the power of the good mind” in discussions with others on the council, all of whom are exchanging thoughts about the everyday application of the wisdom given them by the Peace Maker.

Oren has spoken often, recently, about a lack of will among world leaders, a failure to challenge the economic forces tearing apart human communities the world over, and the Earth itself. His response to the question of what society should do to protect life, however, is rarely prescriptive. Frequently what he says is, “It’s up to each generation. There are no guarantees.”

The Peace Maker’s advice included an important warning for the chiefs and clan mothers. Some of his instruction, he said, would apply to life-threatening situations that would develop before the Haudenosaunee were able to fully grasp their malevolent nature. While the insights needed to manage such trouble would emerge among council members, the people might initially adamantly reject the council’s advice. As decision makers, he said, the chiefs and clan mothers would have to be prepared to absorb this abuse. Oren recounts these words of the Messenger: “You must be tolerant [of harsh critics] and must not respond in kind, but must understand [their fear], and be prepared to absorb all of that, because it is not all going to be coming from your enemies. It is going to be coming from your friends and families. This you can expect.”

In public, Oren Lyons carries himself with the unaffected manner of elders in many of the world’s indigenous traditions—unpretentious, understated. His physical presence in a room, however, radiates authority. In conversations, you quickly sense that he takes life more seriously than most. He is an articulate and forceful speaker when it comes to discussing the worldwide movement toward civil society, a movement that would marginalize the sort of governance and commerce that today threaten life everywhere.

Oren Lyons, long a professor of American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the publisher of Daybreak, a national Native American magazine. Before being appointed to the Onondaga Council by the clan mothers in 1969, he was successfully pursuing a career in commercial art in New York City. An All-American lacrosse goalie while a student at Syracuse University, he was later elected to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in both Canada and the United States, and named honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team. He is the recipient of many national and international awards, and for more than three decades has been a defining presence in international indigenous rights and sovereignty issues.

—Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez: Why is sovereignty such a crucial issue for Native American people today?

Oren Lyons: Well, sovereignty is probably one of the most hackneyed words that is used in conjunction with Indians. What is it, and why is it so important? It’s a definition of political abilities and it’s a definition of borders and boundaries. It encapsulates the idea of nationhood. It refers to authority and power—ultimate and final authority.

It’s such a discussion among native peoples in North America, I would say, because of our abilities at the time of “discovery”—and I use that term under protest, as if to say that before the advent of the white man in North America nothing existed. Where does that idea come from? Well, it comes from the ultimate authority of the pope at the time. I’m talking 1492. The Roman Catholic Church was the world power. Now it’s my understanding that in the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is no mention of the Western Hemisphere whatsoever—not the least hint. How could they miss a whole hemisphere?

So here we were in our own hemisphere, developing our own ideas, our own thoughts, and our own worldview. There were great civilizations here at the time. In 1492, Haudenosaunee—which is better known as the Iroquois by the French, and Six Nations by the English—already had several hundred years of democracy, organized democracy. We had a constitution here based on peace, based on equity and justice, based on unity and health. This was ongoing.

As far as I know, all the other Indian nations functioned more or less the same way. Their leadership was chosen by the people. Leaders were fundamentally servants to the people. And in our confederation, there was no place for an army. We didn’t have a concept of a standing army, and we had no police. Nor was there a concept of jails, but there were of course fine perceptions of right and wrong, and rules and law. I would say that in most Indian nations, because they had inhabited one place for so long and were a people for so long, the rules and laws were embedded in the genes of the people more or less, in the minds of the people certainly, but not written. Plenty of law, almost on everything, but unspoken. Unspoken unless transgressed. There was always reaction to transgression.

Across the water, in Europe, our brother was engulfed in great crusades. If you look at their histories and what is in their museums, no matter where you are—whether it’s Germany or France or England or Holland or whatever nation—in their great halls you’ll see paintings of battles. Always. That must have been a terrible way of life. Now I speak of Europe because they are the ones that came here. And when they came here, the pope said, If there are no Christians on these lands, then we’ll declare the lands terra nullius—empty lands—regardless of peoples there. And the question arose almost immediately, Were the aboriginal people indeed people? That was the big discussion. Why? Well, you can say a lot of things, but the issue is land—always has been and always will be.

The ideas of land tenure and ownership were brought here. We didn’t think that you could buy and sell land. In fact, the ideas of buying and selling were concepts we didn’t have. We laughed when they told us they wanted to buy land. And we said, Well, how can you buy land? You might just as well buy air, or buy water. But we don’t laugh anymore, because that is precisely what has happened. Today, when you fly across this country and you look down and you see all those squares and circles, that’s land bought and sold. Boundaries made. They did it. The whole country.

We didn’t accept that, but nevertheless it was imposed. They said, Let’s make us a law here; we’ll call it the law of discovery. The first Christian nation that discovers this land will be able to secure it and the other Christian nations will respect that. What does that do to the original people, whose land of course they are talking about? We just weren’t included. They established a process that eliminated the aboriginal people from title to their own land. They set the rules at the time and we were not subjects, we were objects, and we have been up to this point. That’s why indigenous people are not included in the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. We are still objects in common law.

In today’s courts, in New York and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, they talk about the pre-emption rights of the law of discovery. Today. Land claims are being denied on the basis of the law of discovery. It has not gone away whatsoever. You really have to get the case law and look at it, because they not only say that we don’t have land tenure, they say that we have only the right of occupancy.

And they don’t have to pay us anything, because we’re part of the flora and fauna of North America.

No wonder Indians wonder about what sovereignty is.

BL: Native elders are often credited with being informed about the environment, or knowledgeable about spiritual issues, but rarely credited with expertise when it comes to governance. Why aren’t native elders sought out for their wisdom about a good way to govern, a good way to serve people?

OL: Well, to put it simply, our worldview, our perspective, and our process of governance is contrary to private property. Private property is a concept that flies in the face of our understanding of life, and we would say of the reality of life. Private property is a conception, a human conception, which amounts to personal greed.

And then there’s the spiritual side that you mention. You can’t see the spiritual side . . . well, you get glimpses of it. Any hunter will tell you, you see it in the eyes of the deer, that bright spark, that life, that light in his eyes, and when you make your kill, it’s gone. Where did it go? It’s the same light that’s in the eyes of children, or in the eyes of old men, old women. There’s a life in there, there’s a spirit in there, and when you die, when your body gives up the ghost, as Christians say, spirit leaves. We believe that.

We believe that everything we see is made by a Creator. Indeed that’s what we call the ultimate power. Shongwaiyadisaih. The maker of all life. The giver of life. All powerful. We see the Creation—everything—as what the giver of life has produced here. And if we believe that, which we do, then we must respect it. It’s a spiritual Creation, and it demands that kind of respect. So when I see people, they are manifestations of the Creator’s work, and I must respect them. It doesn’t matter what color they are—anything alive.

A thousand years ago, when the Peace Maker brought to us the Great Law of Peace, Gayanahshagowa, he set as our symbol for the confederation of Haudenosaunee a great tree, and he said, “This is going to be the symbol of your work and your law: a great white pine, four white roots of truth that reach in the four directions of the world. And those people who have no place to go will follow the root to its source and come under the protection of the Great Law of Peace and the great long leaves of the great tree.” And then he admonished the leaders and the people, and he said, “Never challenge the spiritual law. Never challenge it because you cannot prevail.” That’s a direct instruction to leadership.

BL: It seems to me that the federal government in the United States is reluctant to invite Indian people to the table because, as you’ve just said, you can’t have effective leadership without spiritual law, and you can’t talk about good governance without environmental awareness. Yet we need—all of us need—the counsel of minds that successfully addressed questions of social justice long before Western culture, arguably, complicated them with the notion of industrial progress.

OL: After the Peace Maker gathered five warring nations—the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Onondagas—and after great efforts and great cohesive work, the power of the unity of the good minds brought together this confederacy based on peace. And after he had taken the leaders and sat them under this great tree on the shoreline of Onondaga Lake and instructed them on the process of governance, on the principles of governance, on the importance of identity and the importance of rule and law, he said, “Now that we’ve planted this great tree, in your hands now I place all life. Protection of all life is in your hands now,” and when he said all life, he meant literally, all life.

And it’s an instruction that we carry today. We feel responsible for animals, we feel responsible for trees, and responsible for fish, responsible for water. We feel responsible for land and all of the insects and everything that’s there. And when he spoke of the four white roots reaching in the four directions, I think he was talking to all people. Not just Haudenosaunee. This is an instruction for all people.

But after all of that, a woman said to him, “Well then,” she said, “how long will this last?” And he answered, “That’s up to you.” So it’s completely up to us if we want this Creation to continue, and if we want to be involved in it, a part of this whole recycling, this whole regeneration of life, and we want to be celebrating it, and we want to be enjoying it, and we want to be preserving it, carrying it on, protecting it for future generations.

In one of his many instructions he said, “Counselors, leaders,” he said, “now that we have raised you here, now that you are who you are,” he said, “when you counsel for the welfare of the people, then think not of yourself, nor of your family, nor even your generation.” He said, “Make your decisions on behalf of the seventh generation coming. You who see far into the future, that is your responsibility: to look out for those generations that are helpless, that are completely at our mercy. We must protect them.” And that’s great counsel in today’s times, if we want the seventh generation to be here, and to have what we have.

BL: What do you think is the great impediment to the implementation of that wisdom?

OL: Human ego is probably the biggest impediment—the amazing ability of any human to perceive themselves as almighty powerful, no matter what. That is a big problem. We were instructed long before the Peace Maker to be respectful, to have ceremonies, to carry out thanksgivings for everything. We have an enormous amount of ceremony and thanksgiving still going on in North America. Indian nations across the country are still carrying on those ceremonies in their languages and through their dances. We’re trying.

And we’re told, as long as there is one to speak and one to listen, one to sing and one to dance, the fight is on. So that is hope. To not give up. To try, and to use reason. Peace Maker said, “I’m going to throw your weapons of war into this hole.” He uprooted that great tree and instructed all the men to bring their weapons of war and to cast them into this hole. That was the first disarmament. And he said, “I’m not going to leave you unprotected and helpless.” And he gave us the great tobacco plant. And he said, “This will be your medium to speak to me when you need to.” And he gave us a very special plant, which we still use, still speak to him with.

We believe. And I think as long as we’re doing that, there is a chance.

BL: When you meet with people—Desmond Tutu for example, Gorbachev, other people who’ve sought your counsel and the wisdom of the Six Nations—do you sense a possibility that these cultures that are driven by issues of private property, social control, and capitalism can be guided by your example of how to conduct a civilization without warfare?

OL: Indian people have as much dissension among themselves as anybody. I think that our understanding is simply that dissension begins with each individual. You don’t need two people to have that tension; you have it within yourself. As a human being, you have a spiritual center, and if you go too far to the right or too far to the left, you’re out of balance. And that occurs every day.

In the creation story that we have, we talk about the twin brothers, one good, one evil, and we talk about the battles that they went through, enveloping the Earth itself. It’s a story to the people, to explain that within each of us we have these tensions, and that on any given day any one of us can be the world’s worst enemy.

And that’s why you have councils, and that’s why you have rule, and that’s why you have community and law, because that is part of humanity. And there is no ultimate authority. But of course over time people have found standards of moral right, and I think that’s where the real law lies. It lies in morality. A balance.

The only thing that you can do is have custom in usage, and a good example. That’s why grandpas and grandmas are so important. They are the transition people. They move the children into the next generation. Peace Maker said, “Make your decisions on behalf of seven generations.” He’s telling you to look ahead, to not think about yourself. If you can stop thinking about yourself and begin thinking about responsibility, everything is going to get better. Immediately everything will change. But that is not the makeup of the human mind. There’s always the evil twin. And there’s always the good twin. It’s a daily battle.

BL: My own problem at the moment is a frustration that my fate, the fate of the people I love, and the fate of my family are in the hands of men who see no reason to listen to counsel from outside the circumscribed world of their own knowledge. I live in a country in which people take pride in never having had any kind of experience with other cultures, who believe that they have perfected the ways of life to such a degree that forcing them down the throats of other people is an act of benevolence. They don’t want people who speak for the integration of spiritual and material life at the table because these people are disruptive when it comes to issues of consumerism, economic expansion, and international cooperation. To me, this is fundamentally not only unjust, but stupid.

OL: I see it that way too. We’re being placed in an untenable position by greed and force and authority. If I was sitting on the moon looking back on North America, on the democracy that was here when Haudenosaunee was meeting and the Peace Maker was bringing these ideas to us, I would have seen this light, this bright light. I’d see it grow. And then in 1776, when the Continental Congress came as close to Indian nations as they ever would in their style of thinking, that light was growing again. The idea of democracy and the idea of peace were there.

But it began to dim almost immediately, as they began to take away peoples’ rights in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution institutionalized the idea that only men with money or property could vote. They said it was okay to have a slave or two or three or ten or twenty. The light began to dim. Haudenosaunee chiefs shook their heads and they said, “You’re courting trouble.” And then it really got dim in 1863, and 4 and 5 and 7 and 8, when they had a great civil war in this country over the issues of power, authority, slavery. That was a very intense war. That was brother against brother.

And so it goes on, this idea of private property, this idea of accruement of wealth. And now we have corporate states, corporations that have the status of states—independent and sovereign, and fealty to no one, no moral law at all. President Bush has said, “Let the market dictate our direction.” Now if that isn’t about as stupid as you can get. What he said was, let the greed of the people dictate the direction of the Earth. If that’s the basis of a country, then it’s really lost what you would call a primary direction for survival.

This is really the danger today—this empty, senseless lack of leadership. But it doesn’t mean that responsibility isn’t in the hands of the people. To come down to the nut of the whole thing, it’s the people’s responsibility to do something about it. Leadership was never meant to take care of anybody. Leadership was meant to guide people; they take care of themselves. People should be storming the offices of all these pharmaceutical companies that are stealing money from them. They should be dragging these leaders, these CEOs, out into the streets and they should be challenging them. They’re not doing that. They’re just worried about how they’re going to pay more.

It’s the abdication of responsibility by the people. What was it that they said? By the people and for the people? That was the Peace Maker’s instruction: Of, by, and for the people. You choose your own leaders. You put ’em up, and you take ’em down. But you, the people, are responsible. You’re responsible for your life; you’re responsible for everything.

People haven’t been here all that long as a species on the Earth. We haven’t been here all that long and our tenure is in question right now. The question arises, Do we have the wisdom, do we have the discipline, do we have the moral rule, the moral law, are we mature enough to care for what is our responsibility? That question can only be answered by the people.

This interview grew out of an Orion Society event called
Artful Advocacy, which was hosted and funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, with additional support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Compton Foundation.

Copyright 2007 The Orion Society. Reprint requests may be directed to the Editors.

Flying Into Albuquerque

I flew in over the Rio Grande for the ____th time. This time from a meeting in New York City, and a "Praise Day" for Diane Burns at the Bowery Poetry Club. Actually, it was a "Praise Dusk", sparsely but warmly attended. A major memorial had been held previously at St. Marks. Diane's beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter Britta was present, and read one of her mother's poems, and something she had written. I winced when it was mentioned a couple of times in the tributes that Diane died from drinking, because her daughter was present. But then again, Britta was a witness. In a brief video, Diane talked about how growing up on the reservation she loved the energy of the circus or carnival. When she went to New York City, all she had to do was step outside, and there it was, the supreme circus carnival in the Lower East Side. She stayed. Bob Holman was a gracious host, and Steve Cannon the griot of grief and love. Liz Woody and others read and told stories of Diane. We ended with a improvised 49 song medley. A publication of Diane Burns collected poetry is being planned. Steve Cannon of The Gathering of Tribes might know the details. I don't. I left that evening with a sense of Burns burning but thwarted genius.

And please, when confronted with despair, sadness, shame, compulsion or the need for vision and excitement, go hug somebody, write, sing, dance, clean house, plant or make prayers. Leave the damn drugs and alcohol alone. What the labels don't tell you is that not only are these portals addicting, they come with tricky spirits.

Tribute to Louis Ballard

When I arrived at the Institute of American Indian Arts for high school as a teenager from northeastern Oklahoma, Ballard was one of the first faculty members to whom I was introduced. He’d been assigned as my advisor. We were both from Oklahoma; that was our starting place. When I needed a place of refuge from my many battles, I would wander up the sidewalk, past Academics to his music studio. We didn’t talk music. I had given it up a few years before, had walked out of a band room because the band teacher refused to allow me to play sax, because I was a girl. And I had stopped singing because I was forbidden to sing. I was drawn to Louis Ballard by his immense kindness; he was someone who knew how to listen, even when words weren’t necessarily spoken. On his walls were large, beautiful images of Indian ballerinas, including Maria Tallchief, who was also from Oklahoma, he told me. He had composed music for her. I saw that he was a man of achievement. And, like many others, I was inspired by the music that came from his studio, by the native choir he fostered for which he arranged traditional music. I still know those songs.
It was only years later that I became aware of his immense contributions to the world of music, of his many orchestral compositions that always referred back with great dignity to the roots of our indigenous music. He managed to carry a great respect and always dignity for the gifts of our nations, though he came up through a time of shame of identity, like many in my parent’s generation.
In my late thirties I turned back toward a music that had been denied me. And this restarted my relationship with Louis Ballard. He was always helpful. His knowledge was coherent and wide-ranging. And he shared. He was a fierce proponent of what our cultures have to offer.
I called Louis before Christmas, a few months ago. We talked for over an hour, about family, about our music endeavors, about the organization we were founding members of: First Nation Composers Initiative, about what matters. He encouraged me. As we talked I realized how lonely I was for these mothers, fathers, grandparents of our old ways. For though Ballard lived in New Mexico, his spirit was rooted in those old ways, from the center of those tribal lands in Oklahoma. His memory was profound. He even remembered my Sonic Drive-In order from a visit with him there twenty years ago!
This is how I know Louis. He was an exemplary mentor, and will remain so, because the spirit lives long past the body or time. I will use his example for a template. He reminds me to be dignified, coherent in what I say and how I listen. And to be exact in my art, in anything I give back to the world. I will always hear his voice as he spoke on behalf of our peoples, and of course, his music. He was all of this, and more.

Mvto. Mvto Mvto Mvto.
May your journey be beautiful.

Joy Harjo February 24, 2007


Once I Traveled Far Above This Earth

Photo c Joy Harjo 2007

Moishe Beadle to Elie Wiesel when Wiesel was a boy, looking for a master to teach him Zohar, the Kabbalistic works, the secrets of Jewish mysticism: “There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.”
From: Night. Elie Wiesel


More to Honor Louis Ballard

(I hope you don't mind, Ray Evans Harrell, Jr. but I've moved your comment up to my blog. Mvto for your eloquent speech on this man we knew for awhile in this place.)

"Growing up within one mile of each other and after study together at Tulsa with Bela Rozsa I saw him again many years later at the Composers Orchestra premiere of his work at Lincoln Center. His old and my new student Jane Lind brought us together after so many years. He was not in my experience a gentle soul as Joy Harjo said but a fierce patriot for Indian music and American Music all over the world. His wife Ruth was an amazing woman, a pianist who was a student of Alicia DeLaroccha and a magician and the daughter of a America's oldest magician (at his death) who would come to our apartment and perform for my daughter. Ruth was Jewish and we had many arguments and hours on the phone but she was 100% for Louis and for our music. Louis honored her and expressed his love on many occassions to me for her person and loyalty to him and Indian Art.

Louis sacrificed for the children, wandered into the fields of Wounded Knee to express the story, struggled with the contradictions of traditional and new music in the Indian context and always thought about the importance of the people even when he was dying these last years. During that entire time he always had time to talk and to give his opinion around issues that concerned us both. But he too followed the edict that one would not truly care or value him and the gift if they wasted his time in idle chat.

He told me a story about bringing Igor Stravinsky to the Deer Dance in New Mexico. He said the great Stravinsky only heard monody "simple melodies" and didn't "get" the complexity of the art. Telling me the story I was incredulous. Now many years later as I have come to know what Louis was saying, I realize that we all must struggle to hear one another and that even the greatest can be foolish when they presume too much.

Louis Ballard was a great man and a great American Artist. A gift of the Cherokee Medicine Priest who was his grandfather and his Quapaw parents. He was my Hunka and will be sorely missed. May we idiots (sichas) accept our responsibility and turn, as Louis did, to the meanings of the original instructions given to the children by the Creator and embodied in all of the Arts that have passed to us by our ancestors to add to without destroying or taking away from.


Grant him peace.

Ray Evans Harrell, Jr."

Thank you for your eloquent testament on the great man we knew as Louis. (My previous blog was a quote from an email forwarded to me, not my words. I will come forth with my own later this week) I knew Louis first as my assigned advisor when I was a high school student, fresh from Oklahoma. Through the years I have come to know what a great man he is, what a great artist. I talked to him on the phone, just before Christmas. Well, actually not just before, as he was the first person I received a Christmas card from! We talked for about an hour and I felt as if I were in the presence of those old ones whose presence I miss. He created that place with his coherent speech, his mere presence. There aren't many around these days and I count myself lucky to have known a few. Now we've lost another.

I feel a ragged hole from his leaving.

I am grieving. And I am inspired to go on with his example.


p.s. Please give Jane Lind my regards


After the Rain

For Your Monday morning.

c Joy Harjo


You Never Know

Late again in my refuge here near the Rio Grande. I am once again reminded that I never know where I'm going to wind up or what I will get myself into--A few years ago I found myself in a parade with other outrigger canoe paddlers in Townsville, Australia. We were there to race in the world outrigger canoe championships. Most were from Pacific Island countries, one from the U.S., one from Italy, and a few others. Our Hawaii group marched under a Hawaiian flag and there I was, carrying a paddle, in racing gear singing in Hawaiian. I could never predicted that one. Today was another such moment. My colleague Sharon Oerd Warner was given a well-deserved service award on South Campus, in the UNM athletics domain. As the reception broke up after the honoring I went looking for a bathroom. The only bathroom I could find turned out to be in the UNM football player locker room. No one was there though a pair of wet footprints tracked across the floor. I used their facilities. Quickly, stealthily. I have pictures to prove I was there.


We Acknowleddge the Life of Louis Ballard, Esteemed Quapaw-Cherokee Composer, Friend and Mentor

"Louis Ballard, Quapaw-Cherokee, passed away just around midnight at his home here in Santa Fe. He was 75. His daughter Annie and daughter-in-law Ricki were with him. He was a gentle soul who brought joy to likely millions of people through his music, books, and compositions, one of which was “Incident at Wounded Knee.” His “Four Moons” ballet was performed by Oklahoma’s premier ballerinas in the late 60’s.

My husband was a lifelong friend of his, and we were able to spend the evening with Louis and Annie. My husband conducted a cedar ceremony, at the request of Annie. Louis was a believer in the Native American Church and KD sang a peyote song and a Ponca prayer song for him to help ease his way and be of comfort to his daughter.

Please keep the family in your thoughts as they go through the next few days."






Debut of a new San Antonio annual event: Las Américas Letters Series in Literature

WHEN: March 8-10, 2007

WHERE: St. Mary’s University

MAJOR EVENTS: Performances by Native American poet and musician Joy Harjo and by
Caribbean author and performance artist Mónica Gontovnik.
SEE BELOW for full schedule.

PRICE: With the exception of the opening banquet / Harjo performance (see ticket info below)
all events are free and open to the public

CONTACT: Dr. Gwendolyn Díaz, English Department, St. Mary’s University
gwendiaz@sbcglobal.net • (210) 436-3107 or 431-2007
Dr. Diaz will be happy to facilitate interviews with the artists.

Las Américas Letters Series in Literature and the Arts is an exciting, three-day celebration of the literature and art of the Americas. Spreading our wings to cover the entirety of the Americas, this year we are featuring two extraordinary artists of international renown: Native American poet and jazz musician Joy Harjo and her new band, The Arrow Dynamics, and Colombian-Caribbean author and performance artist Mónica Gontovnik.

Other guests include artist Consuelo Gómina, scholars Patricia Gonzales, Debora Andrist and Marian Aitches, poets Jenny Browne and Cyra Dumitru, as well as students from area high schools and colleges. All events, except for the banquet, are free and open to the public. This series of events intends to offer our community empowerment through creativity and cultural understanding, while uniting the two Americas through the eyes of authors, artists, musicians, scholars, and educators.

Las Américas Letters Series in Literature and the Arts is the successor event to the decade-long series of Latina Letters Conferences, which were co-sponsored by St. Mary’s University and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. That conference was predominantly academic, and focused mainly on US Latina literature. St. Mary’s University is the sole sponsor of Las Américas Letters Series in Literature and the Arts.

Gwendolyn Díaz, Ph.D
Director, Las Américas Letters


Joy Harjo is the most well known of all contemporary Native American writers. Her many honors include The American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and fellowships from the Witter Bynner Foundation, the Lannon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Harjo’s books of poetry include How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (2002); A Map to the Next World: Poems (2000); The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994), In Mad Love and War (1990, American Book Award), Secrets from the Center of the World (1989),and She Had Some Horses (1983). She performs her poetry and plays saxophone on several CDs and in performance around the world. Her CDs include Native Joy for Real, Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, and She Had Some Horses. Born in Oklahoma, she lives in Hawaii when she is not teaching (University of New Mexico) or touring.

Mónica Gontovnik is a writer, stage and film actress, and performance artist. Originally from Colombia, she has performed throughout Latin America and the Caribbean for thirty years. In 1982, she founded the Kore Dance Theater Company for which she wrote, produced, directed, and performed original work. Gontovnik was in the cast of the short film, Rita va al supermercado (2000, directed by Jessica Grossman) and in Ben Flaherty’s 2002 film, Tuscaloosa (Best Feature Film, New York International Independent Film & Video Festival). Her books include Pandora Parrandera (2001), Flor De Agua (1992) Objeto De Deseo (1992), and Y Tirada Temblando Mirare El Relampago (1982). Gontovnik’s areas of expertise extend beyond the arts to the fields of psychology and philosophy, particularly in feminism. Her current work explores the topic of Cyber-Feminism, an area of thought developed in large part by feminist Donna Haraway. For more on cyber-feminism and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto visit http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/ CyborgManifesto.html


Monday, March 5-Friday, March 9

Performance Workshop with Mónica Gontovnik:
Gontovnik will conduct a performance workshop with area students. The focus is on exploring connections between words, language and movement. If you are interested in participating, contact Dr. Gwendolyn Diaz at gdiaz@stmarytx.edu – subject line: “Monica’s workshop”

Thursday, March 8
“Poetic Tax, Good Luck” with Mónica Gontovnik
St. Mary’s University Quadrangle
A public/private reading of poems/cards in the style of a fortune teller. This creative interactive event will involve passersby who want their “poetic fortune” told by Gontovnik. Unsuspecting students who have their “poetic fortune” read by the author will find that there is a “tax” to pay...

Thursday, March 8
Banquet and Concert with Joy Harjo & The Arrow Dynamics
Room A, University Center
A poetry and music performance by Harjo and her band, The Arrow Dynamics. This special event will be followed by book signings by Harjo, Gontovnik, Frances Treviño, Nina Durán and other authors.

Banquet/Concert Tickets $25
Credit card purchases: (210) 431-4311
By Mail: Make checks out to “St. Mary’s University/Las Americas Letters”
and mail to Advancement Services, St. Mary’s University
One Camino Santa Maria San Antonio, TX 78228.

Friday, March 9
Student Panel: Presentation of papers on the work of Joy Harjo
St. Mary’s University Center, Second Floor, Conference Room B

Scholar’s Panel: Presentation of papers on the work of Joy Harjo by Jenny Browne, Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas; Dr. Marian Aitches, UTSA; amd Dr. Debora Andrist, St. Thomas University.
St. Mary’s University Center, Second Floor, Conference Room B

Open Mic Poetry Readings
Second Floor, University Center
Friday, March 9 (continued)
7pm: “Cyberlilith: A Third World Feminist Manifesto” with Mónica Gontovnik
St. Mary’s University Center, Second Floor, Conference Room A
An ironic performance that showcases a Latin American woman’s response to women’s issues in the U.S. Gontovnik’s Caribbean/Latina response to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto is humorous, clever and enlightening. It is an interactive performance that will incorporate local students attending her workshop. Dr. Patricia Gonzalez, Smith College expert in theatre, will conduct a discussion following.

Saturday, March 10

10am—11:15am: A Public Interview and poetry session with Joy Harjo, by poets Cyra Dumitru and Marian Aitches, St. Mary’s University Center, Second Floor, Conference Room A
This interview and poetry session is intended to explore issues of Native American culture and history as well as literature. The public is invited to attend free of charge.

11:15 am—1 pm: Poetry Reading by San Antonio Area Students
St. Mary’s University Center, Second Floor, Conference Room A
A poetry reading by area high school and college students of original works inspired by the poetry of Joy Harjo. Students who wish to participate contact Cyra Dumitru at cdumitru@stmarytx.edu.

March 8-10
Art Exhibition by Consuelo Gómina
Second Floor, University Center
Exhibition of paintings on porcelain by Colombian plastic artist Consuelo Gómina


Nearing Midnight,and the Mind Turns Toward the Moon

And I talked earliler with an ex on the phone who was watching CNN and relayed to me the drama of the astronaut bust: a love triangle. Why is it called "love triangle"? Sounds more like a "fury triangle", or "triangle of disaster". Actually I haven't watched tv for three days and the effect has been startling. I didn't watch much before. I have a few favorite shows, and I catch the news now and then. In Albuquerque the news is basically the local police blotter, not worth watching except for the weather report, and that's probably more up to date online. I can hear deeper since turning it off. I can hear how the night moves stealthily across the earth, I can hear the clatter of dishes in a sink, I hear how many times a heart can be broken and put back together, hear drownings, knifings, and though we might go under fighting or in a drench of passionate confusion, we are not destroyed.

I'm listening to Zakir Hussein and I am drunk on music.



In the days before the materialists, humans were very aware of their gods, and of the spirits in everything around them, including the winds, the rocks, the plants and to all the creatures of the sky, the land and the sea. Through these relationships, everything was treated as sacred. Our ancestors lived in harmony with the environment and the gods provided for them.

And then we forgot. We grew monsters with our dissatisfactions and contentions. The monsters’ hunger knew no limits, and they were not sated, no matter how much we fed them. The earth grew bare and lonely. And the plants, creatures and forces of the earth turned away or disappeared, for lack of attention.

And then floods, fierce fires and winds or earthquakes destroyed nearly everything. Shook it up. And then another world emerged from the destruction. And we could hear again. We could see and we remembered who we really are, and where we really come from, and where we are going, together. We lingered there for a while in that field of beautiful memory. And then what hadn’t been put to rest emerged. It could have been a scorned lover, a brother jealous of another, an envious friend, a greedy ruler. It took only one furious split of passion and the rest of us followed. Humans are tender like that—we are the same human of wild and sweet.

And so we built the same story all up again, out of the same materials constructed from gravity, addiction, love and need.

Now we are in it again, making stories in the marked rise of forgetfulness. Clean, fresh water is becoming a memory. Only a few remember how to sing and talk to the spirits of the earth. Intimate transformational moments that bind us together: birth and death, have been taken over by the shining corporate system of metal, money and machines. When we lose the connection, we lose the doorways to wisdom, we forget how to begin and end. The monsters are disguised as rulers, leaders, bureaucrats and celebrities. People are enslaved to production to feed the fat banks of these rulers. Children run the streets with guns, ragged for love. Those with money, packing fear or the prospect of fame, are given respect; no matter the means of the acquisition.

What kind of love is this America?

Light shines through human mistakes.


A Note from the Moccasin Telegraph, from Up North

On February 3rd for the Vancouver VS Calgary game, the (Canadian) National Anthem will be sung in Cree, by Akina Shirt, a 12 year old girl from Saddle Lake First Nation.

It is the first time the anthem will be sung in another language besides English and French.

Can you imagine something like this happening in the lower 48?