Poetry – Musings

June 28, 2012

Bare Bones

For April ~in loving memory of Chief Homer St. Francis
Bare Bones
©2009 by S. Abena Songbird

in rain, snow
a contemporary Metacomb Alliance
to stop your suburban sprawl
your colonial encroachment…

Let’s get down to the bare bones
the brass tacks of the matter

Disturbed, desecrated
you covered over 2,500 years
San Pablo Creek
hundreds of burials
Muwekma Ohlone relatives
first for a paint factory then
in 2002
for a Bay Street Center shopping mall

Remember year 2000
on the frontlines – Chief April Rushlow
us non-status Abenaki
in rain, snow
a contemporary Metacomb Alliance
to stop your suburban sprawl
your colonial encroachment

Putting her life on the line
deadlocking with bulldozers, caterpillars
while they were driving piles through our bodies
10,000 years, 80,000 burials
on Monument Road in Swanton
and in Highgate

Unearthed skulls,
you once used for doorstoppers, candleholders, dust collectors
small, fragments, arrowheads
a bleached tibia
so frail
the people are sick
the elders are projectile vomiting
the cancers, the fevers

Remember the year 2001
first in April is was Grandmother Keating
then in May it was Stephen Laurent
in July Chief Homer St. Francis
and November, Chief Walter Watso
like a string of red heart beads
gone from us….

And still you dig
private landowners, state governments
those housing condos, those stores, those golf courses
we were not an “ancient village and mission”
we are here – a living cemetery
those are our great-great-great grandparents
over 4,000 strong we are talking about

Our women barren, unable to conceive
forced sterilization
in the 20’s and 30’s – H. Perkin’s agenda of racial cleansing
you labeled us “river rats,” as we followed the river
Gypsy = Indian, “French-Canadian,” “fake Indians,” “wannabees”
“weak,” “alcoholic,” “undesirables”
ripped apart from families, institutionalized in the “poor house”,
and insane asylums

no peaceful sleep
joining over the star bridge

We stay and sift
through our families

June 21, 2012

3 Poems (excerpts from Bitterroot)

Bitterroot (Freedom Voices Press 2001) – excerpts






We use our hands
© Abena Songbird

Oceans and rivers
Great lakes and streams
We are the dreamers
Weaving the dream

Oceans and rivers
Great flow and ebb
We are the weavers
weaving the web…

When the Dawnland people are songbirds
They set out their snares
like tiny snowshoes
wrapped with sinew
hooked with the thinnest
of horsehair nooses
a bird leg would catch
the black hair pulled taut
ten and twenty birds
gave their songs to feed the people

when the Dawnland people
wove baskets
standing knee-deep in pulp
shavings of ash
lacings of spruce root, incense of sweetgrass
art took on a new meaning

how many baskets does it take
to feed a family
half a dozen in trade
for a week’s worth of flour, molasses, tea and cloth
from the settler’s stores

when my people made baskets
for over two hundred years to survive
you rarely saw their collections
proudly displayed in their wigwams, their homes, or Longhouses
they sat on white ladies mantles
filled with threads of silk and lace
or later
with the cheap indigo dye
from the storekeeper’s stock
their lips swollen from
flattening the porcupine quills
for the fancy quill and splint boxes

they worked so hard
with antler-handled knives
draw shaves, axes
for so little…
pennies were pitched
for baskets
woven water tight
holding our songs, dreams and stories
that held lives
healed with their sweetgrass scent

to sell meant to move
to uproot
downriver in birchbark canoe
later by sled, train and steamship
setting up camp
stripping the spruce poles
forming the circle
shawling them in birchbark laced tight
like our baskets
with the spruce root
or later with cloth tarpaper
that wouldn’t
keep out the rain

traveling and selling to coastal summer resorts
in Canada, Boston Commons, all over N’dakinna (our land)
New England
Picking fiddleheads, potatoes, blueberries
clamming and cleaning
white people’s houses

The Dawnland people
Live a life by their hands
and today some get museum prices
for their baskets
they are “valued”
but sometimes they still sit in dusty swap meets
antique dealer’s stores
only collectors can afford

acid rain is killing
the trees
they are dying
from the tops down
the pesticides on the grasses, roots, the sedge
burn sores on grandmother’s lips
from Odanak
to the California coast….

Oceans and rivers
Great lakes and streams
we are the dreamers
weaving the dreams

Oceans and rivers
great flow and ebb
we are the weavers
weaving the web

The roots, the bark, the sap of the heart
© Abena Songbird

A snap of branch, of twig
a crunch of frost-laden leaf
my winter walk
I pull and tug
The root
that surfaces at the foot of the spruce

searching a people
a passage
from Odanak
gliding down the St. Lawrence
last name
ties to a people
unsmiling photos
of dark women
Victorian buns
of coiled braid
lay like snakes, long sleeping
on their heads

Loose breathings
of soft supple skins
of fringe traded
for corsets of calico in
flowered print
a piece of dried tobacco
sweetgrass woven around a basket
a braid wrapped
in smoked skins

grieving a dead relative
my snowshoes scout
in spiral direction
mimicking grouse
from her nest

I pull
rake the roots
that snap
and curl in my hands
dried umbilical cords
stiff reigns pulling
in all my relations – Lôgodamwôgan
lacing the birch basket
that hold a great-great grandmother
traveling up from
near permafrost
up from dead leaf mulch

around bones of deer
fallen to harsh winter’s hunger
acorn caches of squirrel
through groves of pine
aspen and birch
around mushroom rings or faerie
past rabbit hutch
and fox burrow

I rake and pull
rake and pull
from cities
far removed

My mother is a painter
© Abena Songbird

My mother is a painter
She painted
three masterpieces
sparrow’s hair
tufts of nutty brown
noses that are broad
strong and peaked
chins that dimple
and jut

my mother is a painter
she painted three canvases
eyes of hazel
fawn, sable
bodies sloped
and rounded
curved snaked
like rivers
with mountainous
hollows and rolls

my mother is a painter
from her womb
she squeezed
an ocean of color
a splatter and bleed
of ochre
cinnamon and teal
chaparral, brick
terra cotta
azure, coral , burnt sienna

sturdy trees
that whistle in the wind
deft and water tight
flutes with reeds of willow
that bend
but do not break

my mother is a painter
who paints
her mother
elder down, snow goose hair
of wit, of vinegar
sweet as maple sap

my mother is a painter
who paints
Mother Earth’s gift of every day
hummingbird feed
From her tubers
summer’s shadow
across her lawn

My mother is a painter
Now she paints her
Greatest work
She dips her brush
In her spring
of dreams
she paints thoughts
of new beginnings
never ending in a circle
of seventy four

May 7, 2012

The Sap is Rising



The Sap is Rising

There is a season

in my years

where spring thaws

create the

silver flecks

hatched amid the brown

glints of lightning


the sap is rising

where springs

flow deep in untended wood

and the mysteries

of dreams

color waking breath

the sap is rising


April 12, 2012


Poet Abena Songbird, webmaster Derek Wilson *collaborated with the Native American Cultural Center of San Francisco to produce “Round Dance,” a group poem instigated on the Web among Native American poets, visual artists and writers. Abena, as lead poet, crafted the final 21 page poem. Their process synthesized with a live poetry jam. At the project’s culmination, they published a CD-ROM incorporating more than 50 different Native artists and poets’ images, including paintings, recorded music tracks, and video clips of the live performances, along with the finished written poem. Media artist Derek Wilson collaborated with the poet and Center on design and technical aspects of the project. Derek also contributed a piece to the poem.

“Round Dance” was created through a “round robin” of poetry on an on-line bulletin board was initially housed on the Native American Cultural Center’s web site. Initially 15 Native American writers of varying background and experience were invited to participate: as the project progressed, Songbird contacted 300 Native artists by e-mail. Through the spontaneous, improvisational nature of the process, others were able (and welcome) to contribute. The series of poems began with inspiration from Abena Songbird’s collection Bitterroot, (Freedom Voices Press 2001) which is dedicated “to indigenous people of Mother Earth living in recovery.” As the project web site was launched on September 10, 2001, the poem’s theme became a Native expression of sadness and frustration at the onset of war. Its structure developed around the theme of the four directions.

While the process began in the Bay Area, the round robin quickly traveled around the country: The Web enabled Native artists to participate whether they lived in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, or in a remote Minnesota reservation, even if they were confined in prison or in a hospital. The lead artist writes, [I’ve] never been part of a larger, group work where multi-submissions by a diverse tribal representation from across Indian country lent their heart/voice (cross-generation) to a group poem—a dance so to speak—that became as a prayer during extremely challenging times…. (With a generous grant from the Creative Work Fund,S.F.


RoundDance is:
Your voice – Native youth – both urban and reservation
A chance to sing, cry, chant, shout your life to the larger world through this electric web
Native brothers and sisters: Two-stepping
Twelve-stepping, Red Roading. From beyond these imaginary or imposed borders: behind iron bars, in recovery from addictions ( First Nations, Central & South American, metis, mestizo, everybody dance!)
Native poets and songwriters – your experience and strength of craft
Native artists – let the poem inspire your image

RoundDance is:
Dealing with daily challenges of spirit – from the urban streets – the reservation roads and powwow trails
A chance to dance together in word, rhythm, rap and rhythm
a song in poetry to weave a greater voice – a tighter braid

My voice is theirs
comes in whispers
One Wail Rising

Northern drum
traditional swelling song
hair-raising tremors
lifting over groves of birch and pine
A flutter of wings
The heart flies dreaming*.

-excerpt from “Bitterroot”
s © 2000 Abena Songbird