Poem-a-Day - "The Indian’s Awakening" by Zitkála-Šá

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November 18, 2023 

The Indian’s Awakening


I snatch at my eagle plumes and long hair.
A hand cut my hair; my robes did deplete.
Left heart all unchanged; the work incomplete.
These favors unsought, I’ve paid since with care.
Dear teacher, you wished so much good to me,
That though I was blind, I strove hard to see.
Had you then, no courage frankly to tell
Old-race problems, Christ e’en failed to expel?

My light has grown dim, and black the abyss
That yawns at my feet. No bordering shore;
No bottom e’er found my hopes sunk before.
Despair I of good from deeds gone amiss.
My people, may God have pity on you!
The learning I hoped in you to imbue
Turns bitterly vain to meet both our needs.
No Sun for the flowers, vain planting seeds.

I’ve lost my long hair; my eagle plumes too.
From you my own people, I’ve gone astray.
A wanderer now, with no where to stay.
The Will-o-the-wisp learning, it brought me rue.
It brings no admittance. Where I have knocked
Some evil imps, hearts, have bolted and locked.
Alone with the night and fearful Abyss
I stand isolated, life gone amiss.

Intensified hush chills all my proud soul.
Oh, what am I? Whither bound thus and why?
Is there not a God on whom to rely?
A part of His Plan, the atoms enroll?
In answer, there comes a sweet Voice and clear,
My loneliness soothes with sounding so near.
A drink to my thirst, each vibrating note.
My vexing old burdens fall far remote.

“Then close your sad eyes. Your spirit regain.
Behold what fantastic symbols abound,
What wondrous host of cosmos around.
From silvery sand, the tiniest grain
To man and the planet, God’s at the heart.
In shifting mosaic, souls doth impart.
His spirits who pass through multiformed earth
Some lesson of life must learn in each birth.”

Divinely the Voice sang. I felt refreshed.
And vanished the night, abyss and despair.
Harmonious kinship made all things fair.
I yearned with my soul to venture unleashed.
Sweet freedom. There stood in waiting, a steed
All prancing, well bridled, saddled for speed.
A foot in the stirrup! Off with a bound!
As light as a feather, making no sound.

Through ether, long leagues we galloped away.
An angry red river, we shyed in dismay,
For here were men sacrificed (cruel deed)
To reptiles and monsters, war, graft, and greed.
A jungle of discord drops in the rear.
By silence is quelled suspicious old fear,
And spite-gnats’ low buzz is muffled at last.
Exploring the spirit, I must ride fast.

Away from these worldly ones, let us go,
Along a worn trail, much travelled and—Lo!
Familiar the scenes that come rushing by.
Now billowy sea and now azure sky.
Amid that enchanted spade, as they spun
Sun, moon, and the stars, their own orbits run!
Great Spirit, in realms so infinite reigns;
And wonderful wide are all His domains.

Hark! Here in the Spirit-world, He doth hold
A village of Indians, camped as of old.
Earth-legends by their fires, some did review,
While flowers and trees more radiant grew.
“Oh, You were all dead! In Lethe you were tossed!”
I cried, “Every where ’twas told you were lost!
Forsooth, they did scan your footprints on sand.
Bereaved, I did mourn your fearful sad end.”

Then spoke One of the Spirit Space, so sedate.
“My child, We are souls, forever and aye.
The signs in our orbits point us the way.
Like planets, we do not tarry nor wait.
Those memories dim, from Dust to the Man,
Called Instincts, are trophies won while we ran.
Now various stars where loved ones remain
Are linked to our hearts with Memory-chain.”

“In journeying here, the Aeons we’ve spent
Are countless and strange. How well I recall
Old Earth trails: the River Red; above all
The Desert sands burning us with intent.
All these we have passed to learn some new thing.
Oh hear me! Your dead doth lustily sing!
‘Rejoice! Gift of Life pray waste not in wails!
            The maker of Souls forever prevails!’”

Direct from the Spirit-world came my steed.
The phantom has place in what was all planned.
He carried me back to God and the land
Where all harmony, peace and love are the creed.
In triumph, I cite my Joyous return.
The smallest wee creature I dare not spurn.
I sing “Gift of Life, pray waste not in wails!
The Maker of Souls forever prevails!”

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on November 18, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

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“The Indian’s Awakening” appears in American Indian Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1 (1916). In Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), where Zitkála-Šá’s extant poetry is collected, editor P. Jane Hafen writes that “Zitkála-Šá reiterates many of the resentments toward assimilative educational practices found in ‘The School Days of an Indian Girl.’ The tone of desolation and separation from tribal ties is more prominent here than in other writings as she seems to seek comfort from a higher power. There remains a frank acknowledgment that even Christ had not rid the world of racism.” In “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” published in American Indian Stories (Hayworth Publishing House, 1921), recounting the cutting of her hair by employees of White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, where Zitkála-Šá was boarded for three years, she writes, “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward’s! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”

Zitkála-Šá, also known by her missionary name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was born on February 22, 1876, on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota, then the Dakota Territory. A member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux, she is the cocreator, with William F. Hanson, of The Sun Dance Opera, which was based on the Lakota Sun Dance ceremony. She died on January 26, 1938.

Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera
Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera
(University of Nebraska Press, 2001)

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Thanks to Steve Bellin-Oka, author of Instructions for Seeing a Ghost (University of North Texas Press, 2020), who curated Poem-a-Day for this month’s weekdays. Read or listen to a Q&A about Bellin-Oka’s curatorial approach and find out more about our guest editors for the year.
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