I am a citizen of two nations: Shawnee and American. I have one son who is a citizen of three. Before he was born, I learned that like all infants, he would need to experience a change of heart at birth in order to survive. When a baby successfully breathes in through the lungs, the heart changes from parallel flow to serial flow and the shunt between the right and left atriums closes. Our new bodies obliterate old frontiers. North America is mistakenly called nascent. The Shawnee nation is mistakenly called moribund. America established a mathematical beginning point in 1785 in what was then called the Northwest Territory. Before that, it was known in many languages as the eastern range of the Shawnee, Miami, and Huron homelands. I do not have the Shawnee words to describe this place; the notation that is available to me is 40°38’32.61’’N80°31’9.76’’W.
Timber Scribe Between the membrane of fur and muscle, blades brokering hunger dimpled the prairie with denuded bison. Anachronistic velum; abandoned maps slatted on the shelf— bereavement in the merger of the warp. The pick’s sharp interruption of the ground’s moss and prairie grass union uncoupled Kansas soil. A timber scribe small enough to hide in the curve of the palm; portable instrument of the Great Reconnaissance, subtle gouge for the lonely mind.
Eating the Turtle These men grow thick, breathing a smooth brine of buttered meat, stone-fruit sweet. Creased and shining like time-greased wool, a few see their appendages change— hands grow hooked around split rail fences, flatten and spatulate over the curve of a quill. Treaty papers pull moisture from the whorls of index fingers. There are others, sleeping in rain nests of stolen India rubber cloaks, who stay dry for the skittish moments of gloaming and then learn to rise in sodden clothes. Riding deep into the south along the marsh river thick with swans, 38°36’43’’N 95°15’59’’W—Starved Rock, Lazarus wakes wet and cold in the open field and rides past a small band. Little girls kneel in the cane breaks, gigging for small fish and frogs at the ends of rusted nails. The men stand hunched, faces large on attenuated bodies as they pull an ancient turtle from the river once called Grasshopper, now named Delaware. They rip into its underside with picks and cook a slow stew in the animal’s shell.
Note: all 3 of these poems originally appeared in the International Writing Program’s Narrative Witness, Indigenous Peoples: Australia-United States portfolio.
Laura Da’ is a poet and public school teacher. A lifetime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Da’ studied creative writing at the University of Washington and the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her first book, Tributaries [UA Press], won a 2016 American Book Award.