Louise Prochaska, PhD, taught English for 25 years and is a retired Professor of Theology at Notre Dame College in Cleveland; she has always had a special interest in intercultural religion and social justice. Her three poems below were written in response to There, There, by Tommy Orange.
Professor Prochaska has also provided an audio recording of her reading her poems:
Note from Professor Prochaska:
In my profession as a high school and a college instructor, I have taught Native American literature as part of American literature, and indigenous religions as a type of world religion. I myself am an Anglo Catholic woman with little experience of American native cultures. I have always idealized the members of these cultures as people who value tribal membership and ancestors, care for the natural world, and live by deep and ancient values.
Reading There, There by Tommy Orange was my first touch with the contemporary urban Indian. This novel simultaneously shattered and held together my stereotype, and both cultures clashed at the pow wow. My reflections flow from the powwow chapters at the end of the book. In them, the almost unconscious tribal identity, ancestral lessons, symbolic dress and drumming are bound up with the 3-D plastic guns and gang violence. I was left holding my breath and praying with Opal for a miracle.
Three autobiographical poems are my attempt to express all these feelings and impressions.
ORVIL RED FEATHER
The powwow was life and death to me.
I learned about powwows all from the Internet and YouTube.
I wanted to go to one and here it was, in Oakland
I snuck my grandma Opal’s Indian stuff.
(She’s really my aunt but in our families, it’s the same thing .she adopted me and my brothers when my mom killed herself)
I decided to sign up for the dance contest.
You need to dance your feelings
Time has to disappear and leaves only the beat.
You have to dance true.
Then, before I could find my brothers Loother and Loney, I felt the bullet.
You have to dance a prayer
You have to keep breathing
Keep praying, keep…
OPAL VIOLA VICTORIA BEAR SHIELD
The powwow was life and death.
I didn’t want my grandsons to see me.
It would make Orvil nervous for his dancing.
I got my name Opal Viola from my mother and Victoria from my grandmother.
My father was Bear Shield but he left my mother.
My older sister Jacquie Red Feather –her father left my mother too.
I adopted my grandnephews after their mother killed herself and while Jacquie was in New Mexico.
These boys need powwow energy.
I knew that Orvil took my Indian regalia—he didn’t want me to know it—
to dance today.
Then I heard the shots.
I saw Orvil fall down in his orange and red and green feathers.
I ran to him, carried him to my car and to the hospital.
Now I pray, LIVE, STAY.
There’s power in saying the prayer out loud. STAY. DON’T GO.
Here comes the doctor through the swinging door.
The powwow –life and death for me.
When I put on my Indian stuff
It covered my Drome—my Fetal Alcohol Syndrome face, that scares everybody.
I loved powwows and my grandma Maxine took me all the time.
Now I am in one, but now it’s to get some cash.
No one was supposed to get hurt, just get the cash and run.
I saw Charles with our white plastic gun, shooting everybody.
Then he aimed at me.
I felt one bullet in my leg but kept running toward him to stop it.
I felt like Optimus Prime in my Transformer game.
The good guys always win, but one gets sacrificed.
I HAD to stop him.
I finally did but I was full of holes.
And the birds are singing.
Maxine used to tell me, “Dance like the birds sing in the morning.”
I want to dance like that, but
I’m full of holes.