Strength Through Our Stories

MINNESOTA POET LAUREATE GWEN NELL WESTERMANSo much is going on in the world around us today that it can be overwhelming. Devastating climate change, wars and rumors of wars, civil unrest, pandemic surge and resurgence, difference and indifference, poverty and corporate greed. It may be easy to forget that absolute multitudes of people made decisions—some good and some, as my grandma would say, that just don’t make a lick of sense—that got us to where we are today. Generations upon generations of good choices and mistakes, gains and losses, joy and pain.

It was an honor and a much-needed respite from the weariness of the world to be the guest editor for this year’s issue of TCJ Student. The poetry submissions painted evocative images with strong words in our Indigenous languages and in English. We don’t have to be fluent to use our heritage languages every day in conversations, in poetry, or in song. Use the words you know and use them well, much like some of the writers published here have done. The land misses hearing our beautiful languages.

There is a strength in the poetry and visual works in this issue. Strength built through struggle, through failure and success. Strength built from getting up again and again when we have been knocked down. Strength built with the stories told to us by our grandparents who heard them from their grandparents who heard them from their grandparents before them. Words whispered in our baby ears, words thrown in anger, words signed with excited hands, all telling the world that we are here. We are here. Listen to our stories.

In sharing our stories with friends and relatives we know, with friends and relatives we have yet to meet, it is through our words that we come to understand each other. Let the stories of these poets and artists swirl in your minds and settle in your hearts, the two places—regardless of who we are or what we believe—where we are most like one another.

Henana epe kte.

From Linda Hogan’s essay, “Walking”:

John Hay, in The Immortal Wilderness, has written: “There are occasions when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth, in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the undercurrents of the soil, but you have to be willing to wait and receive.”

Sometimes I hear it talking. The light of the sunflower was one language, but there are others, more audible. once, in the redwood forest, I heard a beat, something like a drum or heart coming from the ground and trees and wind. That underground current stirred a kind of knowing inside me, a kinship and longing, a dream barely remembered that disappeared back to the body.

Another time, there was the booming voice of an ocean storm thundering from far out at sea, telling about what lived in the distance, about the rough water that would arrive, wave after wave revealing the disturbance at the center.

Tonight I walk. I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above them.

Walking, I can almost hear the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds, heavy and dark, considering snow. on the dry, red road, I pass the place of the sunflower, that dark and secret location where creation took place. I wonder if it will return this summer, if it will multiply and move up to the other stand of flowers in a territorial struggle.

It’s winter and there is smoke from the fires. The square, lighted windows of houses are fogging over. It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.

Gwen Nell Westerman, PhD (Dakota/Cherokee) is an award-winning author, artist, and Minnesota’s poet laureate.

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