Dances With Words & Images
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Eric Gansworth’s poems “Eel” and “... Bee” appear in the June 2018 issue, along with his visual series “Elemental Gratitude.” Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
The June 2018 issue of Poetry dovetails with Heid E. Erdrich’s Graywolf anthology, New Poets of Native Nations. I am delighted my work appears in both, after years of active aspiration. My poems and paintings in Poetry are concerned with Indigenous identity, clan affiliation, and naming—belonging. I did this work aware of the ridiculous number of non-Indians who write about going through naming ceremonies, like in the punchline-ready Dances with Wolves, and others who invent “Indian-sounding names” to reflect their fantasies.
Identification is a funny thing.
Uninformed people frequently say my work “doesn’t seem Indian.” True enough by some benchmarks. I don’t use pan-Indian images. I employ self-portraits, people meaningful to me, and popular culture. My work is also saturated with concrete Indian imagery: from the community where I was raised, and my community of Indian artists. Even something as questionable as Sweet’s prog-rock ode “Love Is like Oxygen” has made it into my work. It bridges my reservation childhood, spent communally listening to 45s, with a residency week I spent in Santa Fe with Ojibwe poets Erdrich and Mark Turcotte, where, in the thin mountain air, I jokingly sang the song’s chorus about being deprived of love and oxygen. To make these aesthetic choices is to enact survival.
I am an enrolled Onondaga, born and raised at Tuscarora Nation. Among the Haudenosaunee, Onondaga maintains the central fire, while Tuscarora was the last to join, with members arriving at their current location around 1797. Vulnerable from migration, Tuscarora was hit hard by American experiments in solving “the Indian problem.” Christians actively suppressed the longhouse culture. Government Indian agents coerced Indian parents to send their children to boarding schools, where the prime directive was to “kill the Indian: save the man.” My paternal grandfather had been sent to the Industrial School at Carlisle, the first federally-funded, off-reservation Indian boarding school, and my grandmother was placed in their “Outings” program, where Indian children were delivered to white households, to serve as live-in domestic help, under the pretense of learning American culture. My maternal grandfather went to Hampton Institute, a historically black college that had pioneered the assimilationist American Indian program Carlisle eventually formalized as its mission. That grandfather largely raised me until his death, when I was five.
I only began to understand my heavy boarding school legacy in adulthood. I discovered, over and over, all we had lost, often tied to images and words, and this evanescence drives my work. My maternal grandparents tried to discourage their children from learning Tuscarora and stripped our family home of most objects connected to Haudenosaunee traditions. When our family house burned to the ground in 1994, we found a damaged piece of beadwork in the ruin. Some unknown person had made a gift for my grandfather: a 1914 New Year’s beaded greeting to him, mounted on a strip of treaty cloth. No one in my surviving family has any idea where this object came from or even where it had been hidden away for eighty years in our now-vanished home. Apparently, my grandfather couldn’t bear to get rid of this traditional art, but he’d also hidden it away where we’d likely never find it. My grandmother even protested a reservation schoolteacher’s use of class time to instruct my mother’s generation in the art of beadwork. My grandparents’ fear was so palpable, they believed that knowledge of beadwork would doom their children.
A generation before, in 1870, the white reservation schoolteacher decided to Americanize my surname, which had originated with my one white ancestor. Johannes Gansevoort left his Dutch settler family for a Tuscarora woman, and was disowned as a result. My European ancestry ties me to a town in New York, a trendy hotel chain in Manhattan, and Herman Melville’s grandfather, who is also my great (x7) grandfather.
No one in my family has ever asked to be called Ishmael. We have our own naming rituals, and you never get to choose.
My poem “Eel” concerns our clan systems, and the other in the June issue, “... Bee,” is about reservation nicknames. Absent a longhouse, Tuscarora did not practice Naming Ceremonies, but we do give nicknames that stick. There are Rez people whose legal names I don’t know, and for some people, I am only Batman. “Bumblebee” is the nickname I’ve given my partner. Neither of us remembers its origin. Like my grandparents’ traumatic childhoods, it too is lost to time.
I eventually went through a naming ceremony, at Onondaga Nation. Until I die, I’ll be the only person with that name. The naming ceremony should happen in your birth year; I was exactly fifty years older than I should have been. A niece encouraged me, and for once, my work life, personal life, and ceremonial life aligned, like the celestial bodies and the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, visually echoed in the last painting here.
I hoped, as my friend in the poem “... Bee” did, that my Clan Mother would give me a name reflecting who I am. My name, Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ, does not translate to “Batman.” Roughly, it identifies me as a man who creates words, adding to the ongoing message. I wondered who had the name before me. During the same ceremony, a baby was given a simple variation: Word (but, of course, in Onondaga). I admired its openness.
For the naming ceremony, I was required to dance—once before I was named and once after. I am a terrible traditional dancer and when I attend Socials, I mostly sit, unless I am invited onto the floor. The night before the ceremony, I drove on icy mountain roads so my niece could teach me the rudimentary steps I’d need to know. The next day, the only wolves I danced with were those Wolf Clan members in attendance.
My name is a little hard for non-Indians to pronounce, but it’s easy for me. I’m from the first reservation generation involved in language restoration. We relearned as a community, one careful word at a time—preparation for my life in poetry. My grandparents and parents, all fluent in Tuscarora, refused to teach us, because they’d been threatened and punished for using the language. Considering their sacrifice for our survival, I honor the actual lived Indigenous experience, as they lived it, and as I continue to.
Occasionally, I write poems in both Tuscarora and English, not merely using a stray Tuscarora word as seasoning. As in dancing, I mostly come up with something less than I’d hoped, because Tuscarora fluency is lost to me, and lost to those working on restoration. These are poems where the gap of memory and history are obvious. In my head, they sometimes seem like those white-out poems popular a while back, poems formed of redactions made to other documents. I actively choose not to jam those spaces with feathers, or honor songs, or powwows. There are feathers and honor songs and powwows in my life occasionally. To minimize that emptiness, I write the Indian life I know, the one about living in a survivor community, maintaining the ceremonies, and the real experiences we have. I acknowledge the void and honor the remains, engaging the dead and embracing the living.