White Pine ($14)
by Mark Anthony Rolo
For most of his life, Maurice Kenny has been a "Mohawk poet on the road." Leaving his homeland, the foothills of northern New York state, the young mixed-blood Kenny grew up traversing the country—city to city, writing and teaching. Now, he wants to go home.
Backward to Forward marks the poet's retirement from that journey, and his return to the land of his Native ancestors. This collection of essays is in many ways a memoir for Kenny. But it's not a reflection on his personal struggle for identity and place. It is a memoir of observations. Sifting through a lifetime of political and social ideas, Kenny has chosen to write about those his imagination has refused to abandon.
In his first essay, "Tinseled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality," Kenny approaches a subject rarely discussed in Native American history. Certainly the most provocative of his essays, "Tinseled Bucks" argues that pre-colonized indigenous tribes often embraced homosexuality. "Every American Indian tribe had its fetishes and taboos, but no tribe had ironclad laws that said a young man need take this or that path; he made up his own mind and followed the direction of his 'puberty vision' and his natural inclination, though the tribal mores prodded him toward the warrior-hunter career." Kenny informs us that as Native people reclaim their original language and cultures, so too, are many gay Indians recovering those traditional views on homosexuality.
Other essays that make up the first section of "Backward to Forward trace the lives of individual Native heroes and victims who have been left out of the pages of history books. In "The Murder of Jack Smith" Kenny uncovers the hidden tale of half-breed gold miner. After panning out $222 worth of gold that would have given him a land claim to what is today the city
of Denver, Smith was accused of beating his Indian wife and banished from the community of greedy gold rushers. Kenny asserts that such an accusation leveled against Smith was probably not only fabricated, but also an aberration, considering that beating Indian wives was usually an acceptable pastime for miners.
In the second section, Kenny addresses, among other issues, Native storytelling traditions. Drawing a connection to oral storytelling traditions is one of the most endearing notions, perhaps even fantasies, for too many Native writers. Kenny is no exception. While the impulse of an oral storyteller may flow through the creative veins of modern Indian authors, theirs is no extension of this ancient art of storytelling. Those writers who fancy themselves as modern Native carriers of culture, may only be seeking validation. It's perfectly harmless, but misguided.
In any event, such an identification makes for wonderful literary notions, as Kenny demonstrates quite well with the following passage: "There is nothing more stirring than an oral poem or prayer, especially when it is accompanied by a water drum and the sound of a hundred or more feet dancing, touching earth, the mother of us all; exciting the participatory listener to near frenzy, then further to a visionary state of being."
But what is not "perfectly harmless" is Kenny's subversive critique of the life and work of "America's Homer," Walt Whitman. Reminding us of Whitman's stint as an employee of the Indian Affairs bureau in Washington, DC, Kenny gives us the historical context as it relates to federal and Indian relations of that day. He cannot fathom how the era of Indian wars seemed not to have pricked the conscience of the poet who would almost single-handedly create the landscape of this country's imagination. Whitman, like Longfellow, imagined Indians as only noble savages.
Yet Kenny is hopeful. "Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-face, Black Kettle, Roman Nose, and their brothers and sisters still await a courageous poet to recreate their lives and deeds, their monumental strengths and successes, and their suffering in verse, for the eyes and ears of the world. Perhaps their own living sons and daughters will take up the pen. Whitman's indifference failed them."
Maurice Kenny has been a quiet writer through the years, but with Backward to Forward, Kenny should at the very least receive recognition for offering a Native view on our past.
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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998