MNN Column February 2010 (Please note: for now my columns are bi-monthly

This morning I’m in Anchorage, Alaska, and at 7:15AM it’s dark as night and will be until close to 9AM. I was invited up for the first Native Playwrights Festival at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The playwrights are from native villages around Alaska, and from here in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Some of us performed on Saturday, and the workweek began Saturday evening with meetings. We’ve been meeting every day from 8:30 to 5. Then we have work assignments at night. So I’m scrambling to get my column in (as usual!).

I first came up to Alaska in the early eighties to go to the jails and prisons and help prisoners with poetry. Rent-A-Wreck was the only car rental company that would rent without a credit card. And guess what kind of car they loaned me…a refurbished police car! It was just what I needed to drive up and gain confidence of the prisoners! I went to four different penal institutions in the Anchorage area, four, with a population half the size of Tulsa. One was a women’s prison. About ninety percent of the prisoners in the men’s units were native. Black men were next in population size, then the poor white guys who’d come up to work on the pipeline. Most were in primarily for being native, black and/or poor with no money for attorneys, and/or doing something stupid in the wrong place at the wrong time. I did not pick up malevolence, but neither was I placed in high security. I met the brother of a friend of mine, who is now a shaman. He’d been riding around with a party and got picked up. The women were mostly in for taking the rap for their boyfriends, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’ll never forget being led into a room of male prisoners by the jail keep at the Fourth Avenue jail, and hearing him say “I’ll be back in two hours” as he locked the door shut behind me. The prisoners were hungry to speak and sing. Most of them knew poems by heart. There were tears and laughter as they wrote and spoke. All of them responded to poetry because they needed a way to hear and speak their souls. They took to writing with a hungry fervor. I’m convinced that most waywardness is creativity turned backwards.

There's a young moose who has been roaming the grounds of the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Tourists who don't know moose think they're cute with the personality of deer. They are more dangerous than bears. Bears are predictable. Moose will charge, kick, and then dance on you, and not think about it. One woman's cousin just had her scalp pulled loose by a dancing moose. So we had to navigate the young one as we walked out to use the Inupiak village site for a classroom. (There are several kinds of traditional houses in the on-site village.)

My brother has been having a hard time getting his citizenship card. He used to have one. He was turned away because our father’s name had “Jr.” on one document, and not on the other. All the rest of us in the family have our cards. Even his son has his enrollment card. My brother needs the card for health care. He’s been having stroke tremors. But the receptionist kept telling me: “He’s not in our system.” We were here before there was a system. We have been Creek for thousands of years, before cards. I know my brother isn’t the only one who’s been having a problem. I'm afraid he might not live along to get his card.

And finally, don’t forget, be kind to all you meet along the way.


peninaava said...

Dear Joy,
Its good to read your words this morning. Your journey, your prayer in action gives me the courage to never give up on my passion for justice. It seems to me a poet and a musician is mightier than any of the man-made system of oppressions alive in the jails, in the school districts, wherever it is – it is all wrong - I believe it is the word, the jazz or folk chorus, the dancing mouse, the trees that speak to us - to bring us out of denial into the truth - give us the opportunity to fight for ourselves and our brothers and sisters. I am always happy to see your blog notices in my email. I am sure your words, your reports from the cities, the towns, the jails you visited past or present – well, I know you are a life-line for myself and countless others. I love you.


Otter7 said...

Joy, So hard to hear that yet another Native person is struggling to be recognized. I live in the U.S. but because I lived in a different tribal community, my band would not enroll me, even with blood quantum and a traditional upbringing. Fortunately, my Grampy's home community in Canada helped me to locate records back to 1837 and enrolled me with C-31 status.
Being "part" this and "part" that is a tough way to live. I have a whole human heart. I know who I am.
This war over tribal enrollment has become a strange, seemingly incurable disease. We all suffer from it. Another gift from the American government. My basket is heavy. I want no more gifts. My spine aches from the weight of these burdens. I know that in so many places, the people lie in the bitter dust of disenfranchisement.
People surrender. They embrace the long walk because the mirror lies to them, and there is no enrollment card in their pocket.