With Weighty Grief
Seminole Chief Osceola (1804–1838), George Catlin, 1838
The earliest recorded written poem by a native person was composed by “Eleazer” who was a senior at Harvard College in 1678. He most likely died before graduating. We do not know anything about Eleazer’s life. All we have is his poem, “On the death of that truly venerable man D. Thomas Thatcher, who moved on to the Lord from this life, 18 of August, 1678,” which is written in Greek and Latin. Three English translated lines read:
…With righteous tears, and with weighty grief.
The mind is senseless, the mind is silent, now the hand refuses this just
The Boston minister Cotton Mather published the elegy in his most famous book, Magnalia Cristi Americana (1702). Mather commented on Eleazer’s contribution: “And because the Nation and Quality of the Author, will make the Composure to become a Curiosity, I will here, for an Epitaph, insert an Elegy, which was composed upon this Occasion (Thatcher’s death) by an Indian Youth, who was then a Student of Harvard College.”
It was essentially illegal to write or perform poetry in our native languages until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. The act was passed 278 years after Eleazer’s poem was published and was an edict “to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians.”
Our traditional indigenous poetry is expressed predominately in songs, speeches, and formal announcements with a great attention to metaphor. Until this law was passed, our cultures went underground to keep them safe. I am grateful that the song makers of my tribe kept the fire going despite being ostracized and shamed by the churches and state for keeping the language, the culture. Those who took care of our Mvskoke culture taught me that our arts carry the spirit of a people. It is through art that we know ourselves.
For indigenous people in this country the English language is a kind of trade language. We are over five hundred federally recognized nations. There are over 220 living indigenous languages. This whole hemisphere is Indian country, from North to South, rich in many cultures, in many languages. English, Spanish, and French allow us to move about and communicate more globally. But it is our tribal languages that allow us to know ourselves intimately. I have sat out at the ceremonial grounds and listened for hours about the meaning of one word: vsse, how it connects to the falling leaves, to the Seminole warrior Osceola whose mother was Mvskoke Creek and his story, to the origin—one metaphor unfolded and revealed another. We were connected absolutely with the ancestors of a people and a place. We need that, as much as a child has a need for a mother and a father.
English language was a colonization tool meant to supplant, overtake, and even destroy our tribal languages. Our usual avenues of poetry production were blocked, and some even lost and destroyed.
“Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets”, Joy Harjo, Poets.org