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A Native Ponders The Irony Of 'Go Back Where You Came From'

Lois Red Elk, 500-generation Dakota/Lakota, writes about getting her 'Cobell check' and 500 years of injustice

Painter John Vanderlyn's portrayal of Christopher Columbus and other immigrants making landfall in the West Indies in 1492. Note the native people, who had been on the continent for 500 generations, know not what to make of the invaders but probably hoping they go back to where they came from.  The painting is one of the featured works adorning the US Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.
Painter John Vanderlyn's portrayal of Christopher Columbus and other immigrants making landfall in the West Indies in 1492. Note the native people, who had been on the continent for 500 generations, know not what to make of the invaders but probably hoping they go back to where they came from. The painting is one of the featured works adorning the US Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.
"It has been a very busy time for me, tending my garden and welcoming summer visitors," Lois Red Elk (Dakota/Lakota) writes from Fort Peck.

Lately, she's been pondering this statement spoken by the holder of the highest elected office in the land: "go back where you came from."

President Donald Trump's words would find resonance among the 562 recognized indigenous tribes in the US, representing more than three million native people. It is estimated that between 50 and 200 million people inhabited the Western Hemisphere, top to bottom, prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

How would Mr. Trump justify the irony had he the courage to give a speech before the National Congress of American Indians and say the same thing to people whose roots predate any non-native immigrant's by 10,000 years and 500 generations? 

Trump's grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, immigrated to the US from Germany in 1885. His mother came from Scotland in 1929.

Read what U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) of New Mexico said about the President's attacks on women of color in Congress, and his administration's policy of separating families at the southern border in a story that appeared in Indian Country Today.  

"The politics of division is how this Administration works. We are here to serve our country. Our families are here. Our kids are here. We are here. I stand with my sisters,"  Haaland said.

Poet Red Elk, who writes the column, Words From Open Earth, for Mountain Journal, has been listening closely to the President's language but she's heard it before from others, too, and she doubts it will be the last. Racism abounds on the national political scene and it emanates all the way down to the local level.

Red Elk has been working on some poems that she set aside for a couple of years, "mainly because of the subject matter, but with the encouragement of family and poet friends I've decided the subject of racism and prejudice can and should be shared at this time," she says. "I'm thinking of how people heal from this kinds of treatment, and one of the ways is to write about the subject."

In the poem "Bearing Witness," Red Elk references the "Cobell check," a payment  indigenous plaintiffs received from the federal government following decades of fiscal mismanagement and corruption involving property owned by individuals and families supposedly managed in trust by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs. The late Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet banker, brought suit and it turned into a class-action case after discovering that generations of tribal members across the country never received billions of dollars owed to them.

"Bearing Witness," is from Red Elk's volume, Dragonfly Weather, published by Lost Horse Press. "Mile Marker 608" is new.  —Mountain Journal eds
John Collier, reforming commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the oldest agency in the US Interior Department, meets with members of the Blackfeet Nation in 1934.  Collier, a controversial figure, tried to reverse centuries of racist and genocidal policies toward native people through the "Indian New Deal" which was itself flawed and met with hostility from indigenous people who felt he perpetuated his own patriarchal, racist stereotypes. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
John Collier, reforming commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the oldest agency in the US Interior Department, meets with members of the Blackfeet Nation in 1934. Collier, a controversial figure, tried to reverse centuries of racist and genocidal policies toward native people through the "Indian New Deal" which was itself flawed and met with hostility from indigenous people who felt he perpetuated his own patriarchal, racist stereotypes. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Poems, below, by Lois Red Elk
Bearing Witness
 for my sister, Iris

Upon receiving the *Cobell check, I’m taken back to
my youth on the flats of the Chelsea Community where
20 Sioux families lived on the Ft. Peck Reservation.  

My sister, Iris and I, only 3 and 4 years old in our long,
brown, cotton stockings and woolen bonnets withstood 
the cold of a November ground wind as we walked across 

the prairie to our auntie’s house for an emergency visit. 
We, to play with our first cousins, our parents, distressed.
These adult eyes become the eyes of a child looking at all

the love and togetherness and faith in our dear tiospaye*.
But, this time, Father and mother were very upset over some-
thing that happened.  They and the uncles and grandpas

had a meeting to talk and work out something together.
Later in my life, as an adult, I would be educated about all
the efforts of the adults back then, how hard they tried.  

And, I would eventually piece together the puzzle and
learn of the crooked deals made by the BIA. Our land 
was stolen, our livestock rustled or killed, our leases

unfair or no lease even existing.  The land was farmed
without tribal people knowing.  Someone was getting rich.
Today I received a 1,000 dollar check, and ask myself, 

can this money take away all the stress, sadness and 
anger executed upon my parents and family. They have all
since passed away and know nothing of this settlement. 

But I remember.  I remember them in my heart and I 
send prayer smoke to the spirits in honor of their lives.  
They survived despite the schemes to cheat them of what 

was rightfully theirs.  I am here today as evidence of our 
survival and I thank them for taking care of us in the best 
way they could.  I am here to bear witness to their lives.

©Lois Red Elk
December, 2012
* Tiospaye – immediate and extended family

Mile Marker 608

These wheels under my spirit are speeding 
Me into rising East where Elk bugles the first 
rays and lays my road a dripping red, full of 
uneven heart beats, stories that have survived 
because of their death songs.  I’m in no hurry, 
injured stories need time, time to tell, time to
heal, and these times are marked for unfolding
in this deserted place.  Following railroad ties 
will help me count out all the heart pain, black
and blue knees and lost voices filling prairie
suns and moons.  It wasn’t easy remembering
the first mile, the ride that turned into a rope 
that dragged my koda around and around among
sage brush where only hawks heard a pleading 
voice, where only dust devils cheered for the 
noose that was meant for a sun burnt neck but 
settled for fragile knots of bone connecting to 
feet that couldn’t carry the damaged brain toward 
saving decisions, toward escaping directions.  
So I leave the first scarred turnoff where stagnate,
unhealed air shuts down any further inquiry.
©Lois Red Elk

* Koda – friend

Lois Red Elk-Reed
About Lois Red Elk-Reed

Lois Red Elk-Reed is a poet who calls the high plains home. She is Mountain Journal's poet in residence.
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