Never reaching the promised land in Canada,
the fugitive chief sits in a corner
of the prison car headed for Oklahoma,
chained to his warriors,
a featherless hawk in exile.
He sees out the window
geese rise from the storm’s center
and knows more men died
by snow blizzard
than by cavalry shot.
Still his father’s shield
of Wallowa Valley deer and elk
flashes in his eyes
and coyote runs the circles
and a cricket swallows the dark.
How many songs this elder
sang to break the cycle
of cold weather and disease
his people coughed and breathed
in this land of drifting ice.
Now sleepless as the door-guard,
the train rattles like dirt in his teeth,
straw in his eyes.
Holding rage in the palm of his fist,
his people’s future spirals to red-forest dust,
leaves his bones on the track,
his soul in the whistle.
Duane Niatum, “A Tribute to Chief Joseph (1840?-1904)” from Drawings of the Song Animals: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 1991 by Duane Niatum. Reprinted by permission of Holy Cow! Press.
Source: Drawings of the Song Animals: New and Collected Poems (Holy Cow! Press, 1991)