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Native American author chronicles struggle to survive

VERMILLION, S.D. - Finding a voice empowered a child laborer to become an award-winning poet. Growing up was bittersweet for Sioux Falls poet Allison Hedge Coke.

She recently read some of her works about her family's struggles to stay alive in the midst of severe poverty and her journey as a child laborer in an endless series of jobs helping her family survive.

The American Indian author captivated her audience with poignant portrayals in the poem, "The Change", which details the divorce of a farm couple, the loss of connection to the land and a failed marriage.

Other poems described the images of a family unaided by tribal entities because their mixed heritage didn't allow for enrollment. With little in the way of help, they were forced to live in poverty working alongside migrant workers and unskilled laborers in the Southern and Plains regions.

Her racial background is a somewhat unusual mixture of Canadian Native Huron, Eastern Tsalagi, French Canadian and Portuguese and she grew up in North Carolina, Canada and on the Great Plains.

Hedge Coke, whose mother suffered from mental illness, found herself with her siblings trying to build a better life with their father who was often forced to place his children with relatives to prevent social service agencies from separating them in foster care.

The author recalled that all through her childhood her mother, who had been subjected to shock treatments, struggled with her own nightmares while moving in and out of mental health care facilities.

Now in her early 40s, Hedge Coke dropped out of school when she was in eighth grade to work full time to help her family put food on the table. Classmates ostracized and teased her about being the child of a woman suffering from mental illness.

"We were mixed racially from two different countries and not enough blood from either one to be fully enrolled. We were kind of stuck and we really didn't fit in anywhere."

Continually on the move, she lived in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and Alberta, Canada.

She found herself working in many laborer's jobs - in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, training horses, picking beans for a living in Nebraska and working in a factory which produced livestock feed.

Her first job was cleaning up horse manure with a shovel in a trainer's barn when she was 8. By the time she was 12, she was working in the fields and at 14, she was working in a factory.

"I was the only person who wasn't black and the only mixed-blood, blonde Indian worker around."

"My dad was working in the (Texas) oil fields. We didn't stay there very long," she said.

Her gritty portrayal of a migrating family, perpetually fighting to survive, left her audience captivated in a journey of manual labor and disheartening circumstances, punctuated by a family falling through the cracks.

Hedge Coke shared a poem about an event involving a brother who doused himself with gasoline and ignited his clothing with a cigarette. She took the audience through the experience of peeling burned denim off his body and his skin coming off with it. The story reflected the very real feeling of depression that set in for she and her siblings whose battles with depression led to suicide attempts.

"Like me, he tried to take his life and like me, he survived."

Hedge Coke reserves a special place in her heart for trouble young people who have been incarcerated. She has spent more than 21 years working with young people, helping them hone their writing talents. She has worked as a poetry and writing instructor at the juvenile correctional facilities in Plankinton and Custer.

She spent much of the past year lobbying for a mentoring program pairing writers with the young inmates.

"I think what we're doing is teaching dignity, giving them permission to use their own voice and to speak from their own experiences, encouraging them to speak to a greater purpose so they can look at their experience as a vehicle to for them to learn from, grow from and move from point A to point B.

"The more of these voices people hear, the more they can relate and understand their circumstances. Ultimately my goal is to give these kids possibilities ... take something we live through, turn it into something new and beautiful that we can learn from ... empowering them in that way as well as helping them get credit to finish school."

Hedge Coke said she knows what it is like to be placed in such facilities. She, too, found herself incarcerated as teen in North Carolina. Her crime was running away from home when she was 16.

Fleeing family violence and a community that lacked support for young people coming to grips with social problems, Hedge Coke was looking for an escape.

"The community was totally against us and I was tired of it. They put me behind a wall and that was my punishment."

She said as a child, she and her two siblings often felt like "Baggage," the title of a poem she read to the students.

She started writing as a means of expressing herself about issues too difficult to talk about and it became her refuge.

"We were victimized enough publicly and in the community so writing was a refuge for me. I always thought somebody would find these lectures and things I did after I was dead," she said.

"I didn't think I would get an upper level education."

The mother of two grown children returned to school when she was 31. She said she was frightened by the prospect of walking into classes.

"I went to the institute for a degree in American Indian arts to give myself a buffer. I didn't feel I was prepared to step into a university situation and I was pathetically shy," she said.

"When I first did a public reading I shook the podium. I was so scared ... terrified because we had grown up with so much societal pressure and so speaking out loud was something we were never given."

After obtaining her associate of fine arts degree, she advanced straight into a master's program skipping the requirements for bachelor's degree based on her publications. She held a 4.0 grade point average during her college career and scored in the top 3 percent of students in the nation on her GRE, the standardized exam for entrance into a graduate program.

"I could have done it long ago, but nobody told me I could learn. They were too busy telling me what was wrong with me," Hedge Coke said.

Her two boys are in college and one is following her footsteps as a writer.

"Do what makes you happy is all that counts. Follow your dreams," she said she tells her children.

Hedge Coke, who lived in Rapid City for a time, said she prefers living in Sioux Falls because she has the luxury of anonymity of escaping into the crowd.

Her most recent book, "Dog Road Woman," received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was a finalist for the 1998 Patterson Prize, given by the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. She has others listed on an assortment of Web sites and her work also appears in numerous anthologies.