Nine Poems

Selected by Peggy Shumaker



God of the Prairies
What do we call the god of the prairies
in this place so large and humble, so filled with medicine
and the tunneling creatures of earth being
the ones who call down rain.
Beneath this richness are rivers, a lake.
Children, that water was what I wished for you,
more than remains.
And that you will know not one of us is superior
to the minions of insects, the butterflies
coming to spring-blooming plants,
the richness of wings,
a flash of red at the green marsh.
I was born for this,
to sing or tell you a story, and one to the grasses
or listen to those of the horses,
even to the shapes of living clouds
just now as I hear the dark thunder
of the bison run back down the distance.
To speak with land is honest, at least,
and in this place no creatures ever lie,
and you, many gods of the prairie,
you are with me,
you and the stand of trees
near the river, on prairie, in the trees not yet cut.

About Myself
We come from a land once plenty.
We came out of caves to this world
of tall grasses
where earth rises and falls
as the ribs of a body,
bones all in their hiding,
but also the waters,
their own breath with tides
following the moon.
The human signs are here
in this two-legged animal,
imperfectly woven
but twined well enough
to be a burden basket
filled with the gatherings
of a day’s work,
returning home
with common hunger.
But about myself,
I am merely one
brief living shine.


The Names of Creeks
Old Woman Creek.
One Dog Creek.
Dead Horse Creek.
It makes a person wonder what happened there,
but Sand Creek we remember
and we’d like to go back
long before it happened
and turn time around
instead of people.
Before I was born
the plans for killing were made
down the hill from where I live
at Bear Creek.
Chivington* was present
with other humans
with no compassion
in their hearts
and they made plans against nations
they called Friends.
It haunts me now to know
from here came that ominous plan
of blood and fallen bodies
from dark hate and hunger,
desire for the land or gold
when the old ones knew
each plant, each stone,
each story of what was before them
in every place,
but not what happened next.


[*Chivington: One planner of Sand Creek Massacre]

The Mountain Between
Down at Bear Creek
that runs through our town
like something is chasing,
that’s where the Massacre
was planned.
From down there, up a mountain
and down to a valley
is the little cabin where I live.
Old mother closed her eyes
when I learned this story,
then said, Good thing there is a mountain
between you and their words.

When the Body
When the body wishes to speak, she will
reach into the night and pull back the rapture of this growing root
which has little faith in the other planets of the universe, knowing
only one, by the bulbs of the feet, their branching of toes. But the feet
have walked with the bones of their ancestors over long trails
leaving behind the roots of forests. They walk on the ghosts
of all that has gone before them, not just plant, but animal, human,
even the bones of the ones who left their horses to drink
at the spring running through earth’s mortal body
which still has much to tell about what happened one day.
When the body wishes to speak from the hands, it tells
how it pulled children back from death,
washing the children’s bodies, legs, bellies, the delicate lips of the girl,
the vulnerable testicles of the son,
the future of my people who brought themselves out of the river
in a spring freeze. That is only part of the story of hands
that touched the future.
This all started so simply, just a body with so much to say,
one with the hum of her own life from inside a quiet room,
one with the root growing, finding a way through stone,
one not remembering nights with men and guns
nor the ragged clothing and broken bones of a body.
Let me go back to the hands, the thumb that makes us human,
but then don’t other creatures use tools and lift what they need,
intelligent all, like the crows, the one making a cast of earth clay
for the broken wing of another, remaining
until it healed before it broke the clay and they flew away together.
A human can make no special claims
better than any other, especially with no wings, only hands
that don’t know these lessons.
And think of the willows
made into a fence that one season began to root and leaf,
then tore off the wires as they grew.
A human does throw off the bonds if she can, it’s possible,
the body so finely a miracle of its own, created of the elements
and anything that lived on earth where everything that was,
still is.


Eagle Feather Prayer
I thank the eagle and Old Mother for this prayer
I send to earth and sky
and the sacred waters. I thank Old Mother
and the golden eagle, the two who taught me to pray
without words. They instilled one part of me
unnamed by anatomy books.
They gave to that part
their own perfect names
so I stand here now
facing you and the rest of creation
each with its own secret name.
I send this prayer of gratitude to those who risk their lives
for clean, sweet water,
and once again there is the great silence
of what happened to the buffalo enclosed one night,
as if by some dark magic.
And so hard it is to pray for the shooters
who laughed about hitting the girl with one good shot
but that is what they said to do.
We love our horses. We love the dogs. They have helped us.
We love the wildness of buffalo herds. That is the labor of humans,
to love, but I don’t know what happened to the shooters,
their purpose for being, although with no words,
just with the part of my named self
I hold this fan from Old Mother and the eagle
and with all I have, send a prayer
so very silent.


[Standing Rock Prayer]

The Other Voices
There are things we do not tell
when we tell about weather
and being fine.
Our other voices take sanctuary
while police with their shepherds
stand guard
at the borders of breath
lest our stories escape
this holy building
of ourselves.
How did we come to be
so unlike the chickens
clucking their hearts out
openly in the rain,
the horses just being horses
on the hillside,
and coyotes howling
their real life at the moon?
We don’t tell our inner truth
and no one believes it anyway.
No wonder I am lying
in the sagging bed,
this body with the bad ankle
and fifteen scars showing,
and in the heart, my god,
the horrors of living.
And in the veins, dear mother,
the beauties of my joyous life,
the ribs and skull and being,
the eyes with real smiles
despite the sockets they live in
that know where they are going.
Outside, the other voices are speaking,
pine needles sing with rain
and a night crawler
with its five hearts
beats it
across the road.
In silence
the other voices speak
and they are mine
and they are not mine
and I hear them
and I don’t,
and even police can’t stop earth telling.
The Unseen
If you think I am going to write about someone’s god,
that’s a mistake. I am sitting by wild strawberries
not yet blooming. An emerald-green frog believes it can’t be seen
under the leaf. The insects it wants sing, also unseen,
and mourning doves in the distance
think I am not here with a silent song,
not even to interrupt morning’s eye wide open.
In the very near water, even with open eyes
I missed the leap. Fish, I didn’t see you, either.
The reeds grow and I am missing that, as well,
and the animal that just broke a fallen twig.
On the large stone is a petroglyph
of a mountain goat. It is covered with lichen
and barely visible like the moth that appears to be stone,
in its refuge.
I see so little and know so little.
Perhaps this is a kind of wisdom,
but, if nothing else, at the very least
I am not alone in the world
of the unseen.
The Way In
Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding, and beauty.
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant
desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.
The first six poems are new. They are used by permission of the author.
“The Other Voices,” “The Unseen” and “The Way In” are from Dark. Sweet.: New & Selected Poems. Used by permission of the author.


  1. Rather than commenting in general on the poems, I’d like to mention some of your use of language I found especially striking:
    “It haunts me now to know
    from here came that ominous plan
    of blood and fallen bodies
    from dark hate and hunger,
    desire for the land or gold
    when the old ones knew
    each plant, each stone,
    each story of what was before them
    in every place,
    but not what happened next.”
    “old mother closed her eyes when I learned this story/she said, good thing there is a mountain between you and their words”
    all of “When the Body”
    My mother was married to a full Cherokee and lived with the Cherokees for many years before running away. My half sister and her daughter share their Native American cultural ideas with me. While an undergraduate at Ohio University, I completed an independent study of native American literature. I so enjoyed the resonances in your poetry that I recognize from these experiences.

  2. Thank-you for sharing these amazing poems….. the depth and beauty and pain and anger remind us of what it means to be a truly human being and also to use so well the power of the poetic.

  3. Thank you for these deep poems that resonate so deeply this time of year when the trees and grasses and animals are so close to us – wanting to come in, almost.

    The reverberations of indigenous living is everywhere in your poetry.


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