Reaching Yellow River

By Roberta Hill Whiteman b. 1947
“It isn’t a game for girls,”   
he said, grabbing a fifth   
with his right hand,
the wind with his left.

“For six days
I raced Jack Daniels.
He cheated, told jokes.   
Some weren’t even funny.

That’s how come he won.   
It took a long time
to reach this Yellow River.   
I’m not yet thirty,

or is it thirty-one?
Figured all my years
carried the same hard thaw.   
Out here, houselights hid

deep inside the trees.
For awhile I believed this road   
cut across to Spring Creek   
and I was trucking home.

I could kid you now,   
say I ran it clean,
gasping on one lung,   
loaded by a knapsack

of distrust and hesitation.   
I never got the tone
in all the talk of cure.
I sang Honor Songs, crawled

the railroad bridge to Canada.   
Dizzy from the ties,
I hung between both worlds.   
Clans of blackbirds circled

the nearby maple trees.
The dark heart of me said
no days more than these.
As sundown kindled the sumacs,

stunned by the river’s smile,   
I had no need for heat,
no need to feel ashamed.   
Inside me then the sound

of burning leaves. Tell them
I tumbled through a gap on the horizon.   
No, say I stumbled through a hummock   
and fell in a pit of stars.

When rain weakened my stride,   
I heard them singing
in a burl of white ash,
took a few more days to rave

at them in this wood.
Then their appaloosas nickered   
in the dawn and they came   
riding down a close ravine.

Though the bottle was empty,   
I still hung on. Foxtails beat   
the grimace from my brow   
until I took off my pain

like a pair of old boots.
I became a hollow horn filled   
with rain, reflecting everything.   
The wind in my hand

burned cold as hoarfrost
when my grandfather nudged me   
and called out
my Lakota name.”

               In memory of Mato Heholgeca’s grandson

Roberta Hill Whiteman, “Reaching Yellow River” from Star Quilt. Copyright © 1984 by Roberta Hill Whiteman. Used by permission of Holy Cow! Press,

Source: Star Quilt (Holy Cow! Press, 1984)


Roberta Hill Whiteman, a poet of Wisconsin Oneida heritage, is the author of Star Quilt, a poetry collection which integrates her ancestral culture with European-based approaches to verse. Whiteman grew up in Wisconsin among the Oneida community and also in Green Bay; the family moved between the two locales several times. In previous centuries the Oneida were forced to make a series of moves that displaced them from their . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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