02 December 2009

The Real Bird

On behalf of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. and to help celebrate Native American Heritage Month I was asked to speak at the International School of Geneva, Campus des Nations, on an aspect of Native Americana. My audience was a room full of eleven and twelve year-olds and my subjects for them were the words and wisdom of Henry Real Bird from the Crow Nation in southeastern Montana.

Henry is a bit difficult to pin down. He is an ex-Bronc rider in the rodeo circuit, a professor, a cowboy, the newly appointed Poet Laureate of Montana, a rancher, and, above all, a member of the Crow Nation. Because of this I thought Henry would be the perfect person to introduce to a bunch of preteens who might be in search of their own sense of self.

The Crow are peaceful people who, under the leadership of Chief Plenty Coups, aligned themselves with the whites in order to protect and preserve their native land. On 26 June 1876, one-hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, the native land of the Crow was forever mythologized when General George Custer and the 7th Calvary regiment were decimated by a Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne war party. Other than a few scouts hired by the 7th Calvary the Crow played no part in the battle. Yet today the Crow live within eyesight of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. A heavy burden to bear and, in my opinion, a reason Henry's poetry is laced with themes of drifting, restlessness, dreaming, and searching.

The image of the driftwood is a significant metaphor for the Crow. A single piece of driftwood is likely to be crushed or drowned in a river's torrent while a bundle of driftwood protects itself with its buoyancy and combined strength. More than the strength in numbers idea, the driftwood metaphor also includes themes of interconnectedness between nature, humanity, and the spirit world. The Crow word for clan is ashammaleaxia, which translates as "driftwood lodges" and implies that the members of the eight Crow clans must stick together to withstand dangers and hazards from straying too far out alone. Integrity, then, is maintained through a tightly bound driftwood bundle, a commitment to the community rather than the self.

The life of Henry Real Bird also demonstrates strength through diversity. In every sense, Henry is a giant of a man and his wide-ranging interests and experiences - separate and unique pieces of a unified driftwood bundle - only contribute to his competence. Henry has been down several of life's roads and he has returned each time with a reawakened sense of purpose and belonging. Each trip has reconnected him in someway with something else: memories, myths, rhythms and songs, words, silence, the darkness, and the light. Interconnectedness with family, community, history, and memory, along with the ability to express oneself is the path to what Henry calls "unlimitlessness." This was the message I wanted to convey to these young people and Henry's image, words, and life-story made the task easier. To quote Henry, "a spark of thought knows no end."

Thanks to Meg and Hal from the Western Folklife Center for allowing me to use their materials. The CDs Stories From Native America and Henry's Rivers of Horse provided audio segments while Why the Cowboy Sings introduced the students to Henry's home. All the photos were taken by Peter de Lory. Thanks, most importantly, to Henry, who after having met and worked with only one time five years ago continues to welcome me into his words.

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