Wednesday Sep 20

Bordeaux SeegerSammie Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger is a Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, South Dakota. She writes and teaches at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation.
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It is my luck to share four poems written by Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger, a Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, South Dakota, a recent graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program, as well as a teacher at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. This is her first publication of poetry.

As we talk about Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger’s work, it is important to distinguish between linearity and narrative. Many non-western narratives, including the narratives of many tribes indigenous to what is now America, do not unfold in “linear” movements. In my own Mojave culture of story-telling, some story and song cycles take days to complete—this type of time structure allows for repetitions, diversions, and leaps which create momentums, energies, and intimacies not common to western structures of story and poetry. Bordeaux-Seeger has many strong moments of straightforward linearity within her poems—she understands the craft of narrative—and she has also found ways to break and redefine a more typical linear structure so that her narratives are more emotionally overwhelming and less streamlined. The history of indigenous peoples in the Americas is not streamlined. In fact, the history of indigenous peoples in the Americas is not even over. 

The way Bordeaux-Seeger writes history, how she tethers it to the present, is a powerful and necessary way to question it. Like the work of Joy Harjo and Louise Erdich, part of the power in Bordeaux-Seeger’s narratives is that they obliterate the structure of an American calendar or timeline. In these poems, such as in “The Report from Cankpe Opi Wakpala (Wounded Knee, October 18, 2014),” the speaker is at a burial ground which is owned by white people and might potentially be purchased by Johnny Depp, while plastic bags from grocery stores blow over the graves of Lakota women and children massacred by the U.S. government, at least one of whom is the speaker’s relative. Time in these poems needs to be more than it has ever been—a complicated knot of what has happened and what might happen, of tradition and modernity, of memorial and future, of our ancestors and our own lives, as it has always been for indigenous peoples. A reader will not be able to come to these poems for a fast and healing dose of historical facts or nostalgia (yes, often America’s griefs and outrages over its crimes against humanity can feel nostalgic)—instead, these poems require readers to face their own lives, memories, gestures, and ultimately their complicities. 

As well as being a poet and teacher, Bordeaux-Seeger is also a quilt maker, and the influence of this lexicon is evident throughout her work. In “1900,” the poem springs from a photograph of a great grandmother in her youth, holding the quilt she would eventually be buried in. The poem “Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur,” dialogues with O’Keefe and finds a quilt hidden in the “black petals of hollyhock” and the “center star that bleeds” from O’Keefe’s painting. In the poem “Buying Thread,” we watch her explore the precarious American relationship between nativeness and whiteness, following along the path of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. While these three poems directly reference quilts, Bordeaux-Seeger’s knowledge of quilt-making has also helped her craft a unique balance of color and shape, of shadow and light, of image and emotion in her work. In “The Report from Cankpe Opi Wakpala (Wounded Knee, October 18, 2014)” in a drink of coffee the speaker holds in their mouth the dark liquid of mourning, of death, and also what is burned sweetly and in prayer:

            Sip my coffee and it tastes like greasy soup, wahumpi.
            It tastes like all the food at the end
            of the night. It tastes like dead animals
            and braided grass and ashy leaves
            and tobacco smoke.

It is too much for the speaker, to imbibe and enjoy a drink in this place, so the coffee is poured out.

           I pour it out slowly, letting the ground absorb it.
            It’s the Moon of the Leaves Falling and the ‘Knee is fading.            

Just as the reader is lulled into the too-easy role of witness and empathy, Bordeaux-Seeger jolts them awake and alert with the following lines fueled by humor, anger, and ache—each handled carefully and intentionally: 

            Johnny Depp wants to buy this place,
            the white owner wants to sell it.
            Two million dollars to purchase a hill full of bodies,
            and only half those who didn’t survive.
            Can you own the dead?

            Does he know the women and children
            are finally hidden and safe?
            Someone has to tell Johnny Depp
            you can’t buy ghosts. 

It has been my pleasure to share with you a small corner of Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger’s poetic landscape. It has made my own work, as a reader, a storyteller, a poet, and a teacher better. Perhaps the best thing to be said about her work is something a poet-friend said to me when I read her Sammie’s poems out loud: I’d read that book.
                                                                                                                    
--Natalie Diaz


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The Report from Cankpe Opi Wakpala (Wounded Knee, October 18, 2014)

We tell stories of people who ended up here.
Black Elk’s wagon went by two days later.
Charles Eastman was asked to come here.
Joe Marshall’s grandpa came by a week later.
Big Foot’s wife, shot seven times, survived,
escaped from here. She made it to Rosebud.

I find the one grave that holds a relative of mine.
His name in Lakota would be Cikala.
Sip my coffee and it tastes like greasy soup, wahumpi.
It tastes like all the food at the end
of the night. It tastes like dead animals
and braided grass and ashy leaves
and tobacco smoke.

I pour it out slowly, letting the ground absorb it.
It’s the Moon of Leaves Falling and the ‘Knee is fading.
Grass that was green a week ago is dying.
Plastic grocery bags filled with empty water bottles,
used toilet paper, candy bar wrappers,
blow around this grave.

Oglalas come up from the housing area
ask us where we’re from.
I tell them, “Rosebud,” and they move on.
Faintly I hear them tell the tourists stories
of massacre and occupation.

Three good roads converge below this hill.
This is one of those places where people end up.
They’re lost in Oglala land and end up here.
Survivors end up here, in a valley between these hills,
near water.

Standing on this grave reading Lakota names
written on white concrete plinth, in English,
thinking we still have classrooms half-full of people
whose names are carved into this concrete.
All the white people begin to cry.
Four dry-eyed Natives just stare at them.

Johnny Depp wants to buy this place,
the white owner wants to sell it.
Two million dollars to purchase a hill full of bodies,
and only half those who didn’t survive.
Can you own the dead?

Does he know the women and children
are finally hidden and safe?
Someone has to tell Johnny Depp
you can’t buy ghosts.

Without them it is only
a fence made of prayers,
some stones,
a long story on a map,
a place where humans and spirits converge,
where water still tastes tainted.

“She came back and she was all STD’d up,”
Joe, the impromptu tour guide tells us,
pointing at Lost Bird’s grave stone.
She died in California,
another one who ended up here.

We would wrap them in hides, rested on scaffolds.
Years would pass while their bodies broke down.
Each bier leaning crookedly as, one by one,
the legs rotted, fell.

Their remains would last to this century,
longer than anyone could remember their faces.
But their faces would still be on the heads
of the relatives who came to visit them.
Their bodies would still be lying
scattered on the ground.

Tiny, baby-sized bundles of bones
rattling inside rain-hardened deer hides.

 
1900

Great grandma as a little girl holds the quilt in which she is buried.
They had only had fabric for dresses and quilts a few years at that point,
only ten years past the ‘Knee.
Little girls knew then any wildness could be punished with bullets,
the way we knew fear of spanking or The Big Owl,
who would come and take us in our sleep
to the top of the water tower, shove us off.
Grandma warned us every night before bed,
The Big Owl is going to come and take your bottles.
And five year old me would come home from Headstart,
make a double batch of chocolate milk for my little brother
in the cheap plastic bottles. Screw on the tops,
put ourselves down for a nap.
In 1900 there was only the breast, the milk,
the dead mother the child slipped next to for suckle.
That sigh.

 
Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur

Hollyhocks growing along tall weathered wood fence,
            a stockade that protected our view.
Behind the fence an empty parking lot
            surrounded by Lysol drinkers dying
in the shade of ash trees.
            Her hollyhocks were a blue and pink shield.
Seeing those warriors so unmoving,
            dissolving like ink out of the sun,
were there secret stars hiding in their centers?
 
In Georgia O’Keefe’s star quilt, black petals of hollyhock
            cloud around center star that bleeds
fuchsia, green, white, gold. A five pointed star.
            The blue larkspur crowds the hollyhock.
Pink tendrils trail blood tentacles out of the flower centers.

I want to make a quilt like this.
I tell my clients black quilts are for death.

When I make a quilt I reach for light and shade
            one ugly color, one glowing color.
This is how I recognize the quilt
            inside O’Keefe’s canvas, her secret known.

Black petals like a fence, those larkspur
            people dying in plain sight.
Plain sight hidden by fence,
            by more beautiful flowers.
Would the star crack and break open
            if those larkspur tentacles reached past the
hollyhock and invaded?
 
Blue bleeding into pink, into green, into white.
 
 
Buying Thread

The white lady at the cash register
does not know whether to watch you, follow you, ignore you.
It’s been this way in every store in Rapid City—Racist City.
You don’t know whether to continue
to browse, to buy the thread you came here to buy.

Other people come in behind you,
white ladies who are greeted, welcome.
Maybe they are regular customers,
or strangers? You don’t know. White greets white.

You don’t know whether to spend your money here
or walk out.
Maybe they have followed other Indians through the store
watching a spool of thread disappear in a pocket.
You consider leaving the store,
thinking of your students and if they were here
would they consider the stolen thread an act of resistance?

Do you set an example by calmly finding the thread and buying it?
Do you set an example by stealing the thread?
Do you set an example by turning around,
walking out, going to an Indian-friendly store?
How do you proceed?
How much do you want the thread?