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When Raptors Visit

Two poems by Lois Red Elk remind that neither we, nor animals, are "others" in the natural world

Golden eagle hunting, part of a diorama at the Field Museum in Chicago. Photo courtesy Steve Richmond/Wikimedia Commons
Golden eagle hunting, part of a diorama at the Field Museum in Chicago. Photo courtesy Steve Richmond/Wikimedia Commons
Mountain Journal's friend, Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham (Nez Perce) is an ethnographer. He's shared many observations, including something that frames the way we think about the true Old West.  Places, he said, were not named after people the way buildings, highways and landmarks often commemorate wealthy philanthropists, politically-connected individuals, war heroes, celebrities and beloved citizens.

With many nations, reference points in the map of oral tradition are descriptive terms of the land does, ecologically what happens there, or what wildlife might be common. In Montana, for instance, the Crows, whose homeland extended across a huge southwest sweep of the state, including today's Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, referred to the Yellowstone River as E-chee-dick-karsh-ah-shay or "Elk River." It's a reminder of how wapiti were a prolific species on the plains and high prairie.

Lois Red Elk returns here with more animal stories. She refrains from calling non-human sentient beings "wildlife;" instead, they're neighbors.  They are not "others;" they are community members inseparable;  often, their appearances and communiques carry meaning. With this edition of Red Elk's column, Words From Open Earth, she shares a brand new poem and another from her critically-acclaimed volume, Why I Return To Makoce that was nominated for a High Plains Book Award. —Mountain Journal eds

Eagle Kill

Driving up north one weekend I came over a hill and saw huge 
dark wings waving and slapping the ground.  As I was at the wheel 
I didn’t want to take my eyes off the road, so I slowed, did a u-turn 
and headed back to the base of the hill, the site, but I didn’t see 
anything so I did another u-turn and focused on getting to my 
destination.  Again as I descended the hill, in the rear view mirror, 
giant wings of some great bird looked to be struggling, dust
rising in little clouds.  I slammed on my brakes and jumped out of 
the car without knowing what I would be facing. There, under a 
huge shadow of sage brush was a large eagle. It looked at me like 
it wondered what I wanted then seemingly snapped its yellow eyes, 
turned around, bent it’s large curved beak and jerked up a string of flesh.  
I remember looking past the claws and saw a large jack rabbit held 
tightly in a death grip while blood seeped from the light fur just under 
the talons.  The look in the rabbit eyes was terrifying—a wide circular 
stare that seemed to sense the coming of something horrible.  Its 
body was stiff from fright and as I watched it turned an unsteady gaze
my way.  The jack rabbit was huge and almost ran away with the eagle 
attached to its back, but the wings provided lift and balance.  Again in 
a flash I saw another strip of fur being ripped from its neck, then I heard 
the rabbit scream.  Petrified I watched as its entire body went limp.  
The large wings that I had seen floundering earlier was the beginning 
of a struggle between food for life and a life sacrificed for food.  When 
the eagle paused to look at me I watched what I was so curious to see -
a play of life and death on the high plains of my reservation.  I was 
given an example of the reality of life among the weak and strong.  
©Lois Red Elk
Image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service
Image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service
The Eagle and Hawks Catch a Ride

Grandma Lois was outside shaking out her car rug when a flock 
of birds flew over.  They looked down and said, I bet she’s going 
somewhere.  She always cleans her car when she’s getting ready 
to go shopping.  Grandma looked up and watched the birds head 
toward the river.  She thought she better hurry and get going.

She and grandpa got ready, loaded the car with water and a blanket 
to sit on. The sky was clearing.  It would be a good day to travel.  
Grandma called her sisters and told them she and grandpa would be 
on the road all day in case they were wondering. They went to the 
gas station first, then headed east, down the highway.
Just as they reached the top of the ridge they saw a large bird sitting 
on a telephone pole.  All of a sudden it took flight and landed right 
in the middle of the road in front of them. Grandma said, “Look at 
the size of that bird, it looks like a little child.”  Grandpa slowed 
down, then came to a full stop.  The bird, a large Eagle, just sat there 
then motioned grandpa to pull the car over.  By this time, Grandma 
Lois was getting upset, because this was the fourth time they were 
stopped by this Eagle.  The Eagle waddled to the side of the car and 
asked grandma if he could catch a ride to the next town.  Grandma 
said, “Why?” Eagle put his head down in embarrassment and said, 
“I hear Jar-Mart has some real tasty salmon for sale.”  Grandma 
shook her head then agreed and let Eagle get in the car.  As they 
went on down the road, grandma was thinking how silly it was to 
have an Eagle sitting in the backseat.  What would people think?  

As they approached the next valley, they were surprised to see two 
hawks flying alongside the car.  “Oh no, what next!” said Grandma.  
She didn’t want to look, but finally gave in and rolled down the 
window an inch.  One of the hawks said, “Stop the car!”  Grandma 
angrily rolled the window all the way down and asked, “Why?”  
“We need a ride to Jar-Mart, we hear they have some real thin strips 
of wood there.”  Grandpa started to laugh and said, “See, I told you, 
once you give them rides, they will keep wanting to go with you!”
So, there they went, grandpa and grandma, with Eagle and the two 
hawks sitting in the back seat of the car.  All the way over there, 
the birds kept whispering.  Finally, Grandma turned around and 
asked what they were whispering about.  The hawks said they were 
trying to figure out how they were going to get into the store without 
everyone causing a panic.  Finally, Eagle said he had a solution.

When they arrived at Jar-Mart, Grandma and Grandpa got out and 
went into the store.  They shopped for about half an hour when all 
of a sudden Grandma noticed a short person walk by with a blanket 
over their shoulders that looked just like hers. She thought that was 
strange.  After they finished shopping, Grandma and Grandpa took 
all their shopping bags to the car, but the birds were nowhere in sight.  
Just then she heard a squawking behind her, so she turned around 
and there were the birds, under her blanket. She pulled the blanket 
off and saw that one hawk was sitting on the other hawk's shoulders 
and that hawk was sitting on the shoulders of Eagle.  All of them 
had their bags, and the bags were full of salmon and strips of wood.

Grandma looked at them for a moment, sighed, and said, “Get in the 
car!”  All the way home she wondered how they paid for all their 
stuff, but she was to weary to even ask them.

©Lois Red Elk

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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