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'How to Succeed as an Indian Poet,' a Poem by Steve Russell

A poem by Steve Russell about the challenges and choices involved in being an American Indian poet

In what we intend to be a regular weekly feature, we bring you a poem by ICTMN contributor Steve Russell -- a poem about being a poet. It is also a poem about being a predictable and inoffensive parody of a poet. The choice is yours. 

This poem was taken from Russell's recent collection Wicked Dew, available for purchase via his page.


Don’t say “hunger.”

Write of the plump red strawberries

grown by Cherokees

in the Cookson Hills,

rather than rodents fried in lard,

garnished with herbs from the bar ditch,

government commodities on the side.

Don’t say “homeless.”

Write of the red wildflowers and stark beauty

of the Black Hills in South Dakota

rather than the gutted mobile homes and appliance cartons

on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Don’t say “disease.”

Tell us of the red sand

slipping through the hand

of a Navajo medicine man

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rather than reminding us

that hantavirus is spread by rats.

Don’t say “genocide.”

Tell us of Red Cloud and Rolling Thunder,

Crazy Horse and Tecumseh,

safe dead Indians

--Pontiac as a hood ornament--

rather than reminding us

of a Cheyenne child at Sand Creek

exploding like an overripe watermelon,

red within and red without,

from the business end

of a .50 caliber Sharps.

Do tell,

do write,

O wise and noble red man,

Native American shaman,

share your hard won wisdom

---but not too much of it.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.