“Nakoda Sky People”
Many Voices Press
Poets were once the keepers of cultural knowledge. Their verses defined what it meant to belong to a particular ethnicity or nation. After the advent of the printing press, still photography and motion pictures, however, their role in Western societies, most would say, declined. Today, many people never read contemporary work, and poets anguish over their marginalization.
Minerva Allen, author of “Nakoda Sky People,” a finalist in the 2013 High Plains Book Awards, provides an antidote to such angst. Her stated purpose is deceptively simple, to “leave some good words for people somewhere.” But her book is nothing less than evidence of the strength and beauty of Nakoda Assiniboine culture.
“Nakoda Sky People” offers many “good words” — poems, a glossary of Assiniboine phrases, a short collection of traditional recipes and a delightful miniature almanac of native plants and their uses.
Plants indeed figure throughout the book. In poems that recall the past, quaking aspen, cedar, sweetgrass, cottonwood, pines and white birch predominate. They perfume the air, “bleach” in winter, shelter and warm, and purify ceremonial participants. Even poems with a contemporary setting rely on plant imagery for mystical continuity, as in these lines from “Horseboy Rode Away”: “He hears spirits singing, / teardrops from the weeping sky. / As he left, the aromatic smoke of sweetgrass / filled the air.”
Renewing wind and sacred song also take their strength from the prairie, and the afterlife as envisioned by Allen is verdant: “The grass will be tall over the last hill; / Grandfather wrapped in his buffalo robe stands tall. / White hair shines in the moonlight.”
Buffalo, of course, are not creatures of the past or spirit world alone. They are “coming again” with a “change of weather.” They are recalled in rock formations. Sustaining and holy, they are both physical and spiritual. And, because of their “peculiar/power,” they are honored.
A person so dedicated to her natural and cultural heritage might flirt with exclusivity, but Allen’s empathy extends to white society in such poems as “Tex Alerd’s Saloon” and “Ruby Mine.” If anything, these lost enterprises with their reliance on economic gain divorced from spiritual meaning are emptier and sadder than a changed but enduring indigenous culture. While mine shafts “echo,” it is the woods, the waters and the aspen trees and pines that “whisper stories” and provide “the only gold that all men share.”
Though “Nakoda Sky People” sometimes takes us back to compromised traditional lifeways and failed endeavors, it is not a sad, regretful or angry book. Indeed, it celebrates adaptability. “Pow-wow Fever” glows with life and good humor: “Contest man, $700 bucks to win, / Two more days. / Wow, another pow-wow!”
Similarly, the storyteller in “Grandmother” looks to the future even as she preserves the past, smoking her pipe filled with “the magic leaves” and waving her young listeners “off until tomorrow!”
That the Assiniboine nation has resourcefully withstood cultural disintegration is embodied in Allen’s knowledge of and willingness to share her language and traditions as well as her “good words” with any reader “somewhere” who might pick up “Nakoda Sky People.”
Cara Chamberlain is the author of “Hidden Things,” a collection of poetry. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College.