Thursday, May 12, 2005

Adrian Louis: Native American Odysseus

Adrian Louis’s book of poetry Among the Dog Eaters published by West End Press in 1992 is one of the best, most moving books of poetry I’ve read in years. I was asked to write an essay about working class poets of the western United States. Since most of the self-defined working class poets I knew lived in California, I searched for poets from other western states and stumbled on Louis who a member of the Lovelock Paiute tribe born and raised in Nevada. I’d read a couple of his poems in the anthology Modern American Poetry and was very impressed. The University of Nevada Reno press in 1999 has included him in Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

Reading Dog Eaters I was more than impressed: I felt had had just read a major American poet. But I wouldn’t say he’s working class. After working as a journalist for Native American papers, he taught English for a decade at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. He writes many poems in Among the Dog Eaters about Lakota at Pine Ridge but I wouldn’t define Lakota as working class either, but I’ll get to that later.

Louis begins his first poem “Notes from Indian Country” with a quote from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus boasts of his wiles, his fame, and his home. Louis in this poem is also boasting of his wiles in teaching; his pot gut; his can of Bud; his suffering of the “wannabees, squamen and white liberals/who pretend to save Indians by daylight;” and his home on Pine Ridge with its K-mart folding chairs. In this poem he is rewriting The Odyssey. Louis is very funny with dark humor , honesty, and audacity that make these poems a great read. Think Bukowski’s honesty combined with Whitman’s audacity.

Louis has given Nevada fine poetry. Actually, Louis is the first Nevada writer I’ve ever read. I don’t know much about Nevada, and my strongest Nevada memory is that afternoon I was o horrified by Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas praying for an escape. But Louis’s Nevada is very different, evoking that time in Northern Nevada a hundred years ago the Paiute prophet Wovoka started the Ghost Dance religion. In Louis’ poem “A Visit to My Mother’s Grave” he sees his skeletons the Ghost Dancers “dance/in the burnished morning.” and in this amazing, lyric poem he ends it with his singing and praying for “this soil of Nevada/this soil of Wovoka/this song of love/for my people.” He does look to the dance for heroes and moments of redemption and hope in the past of his home.

This book doesn't only look backward but is a book drenched in love and honesty about the present. The honesty sears in the next poem “At the Knight’s Inn in Reno,” an Indian bar, where he and the other Indians seems imprisoned wanting to go home to their mother earth which has murdered but “we helped the white man/do the dirty deed.” Louis is unsparingly honest both about himself and his struggles with alcoholism as well as self-destructiveness of some of his people he loves so dearly. In the Afterword Lakota journalist Tim Giago says, “the poetry of Adrian Louis is a must for all serious students of Indian literature because it grabs the liberal dreamers by the nape of the neck and forces them to look at reality.”

In ar brilliant moving poem “Breakfast at Conoco Convenience Store in Pine Ridge” Louis describes Pine Ridge as a town mixing up desire and defeat: “It is the town I grew up in/and left only to return, forever tethered./I will not scorn it as a world governed by grandmothers, welfare, and wine./It has been my sanctuary. It has been my home.” For Louis Northern Nevada Indian country is the same as Pine Ridge, so in a way these are all Nevada poems because Louis is writing about his “home, his sanctuary” where he constantly struggles with his demons. He can't live there sober but he can't leave Pine Ridge either. Like the Odyssey this book is dominated by the idea of "home."

The poet does talk about leaving home. In the poem “At a Grave in an Eastern City” he’s visiting Kerouac’s grave but one stanza etches out a impoverished childhood in Northern Nevada with a outhouse, a shack with no water, the oldest of twelve kids and then hitchhiking America six times in the cities searching for Kerouac’s catharsis and open roads but those roads always lead back to the Indian territory--home. The poems careen between “Unholy Redemptions" about striving for those moments of redemptions and then “Tombstones” sad funny elegies for friends who ha died. Redemption, tombstones, love, home, drunkenness—Among the Dog Eaters includes it all.

Years ago leaders of the American Indian movement told an audience of white leftists that Marx was another European whose ideas are oppressive to the Indians. Marx like most 19 century European thinkers adopted the idea that humanity has progressed, but for Marx progress was from primitive tribes like the Iroquois to feudalism to capitalism and eventually to communism.

Canadian Peter Kulchyski in his article “Socialism and Native Americans” says that Marx did have some positive insights about Native Americans. Kulchyskis argues that Marx describes ”forcefully in Capital that the dissolution of the bonds between working people and their land was a central moment in the history of capitalism. However, such dissolutions did not take place in a vacuum: they were hotly contested in the old world as in the new.”

Futher, Kulchyski says that many Native Americans, forced into the cities, are exploited as workers and fought back with strikes and unions. But Native Americans are not, particularly those in rural reservations, working class. Many tribes still have the land, which provides subsistence. Native Americans provide another track of resistance to capitalism in their centuries long battles to retain and protect their land, their cultural identity, and their nationhood. Louis is a tremendous voice of this other track of resistance heading straight back to Paiute, Wovoka, the Lakota and Wounded Knee.

In Louis's poems he describes his work as a college teacher/writer alienated by the “white UFOs” who dominate his college. He writes very little about the work done by the Lakota since his focus isn't work. Instead he's a moralist, wanting himself as well as the people around him to improve. He puts himself on the same level as those around him: engaged in the same struggle as the people around him to survive, to resist, and to hope. He tells his stories of his long battles to make his home a better place.

If one reason we look at working class poetry is to see those who the economic system has exploited and how they survived, resisted, and hope--the majority of the North American population-- then it makes to me perfect sense to include those, like Louis and other Native American writers, while not working class, are a parallel resistance tradition. For Louis' story--how he tries to survive, resist, and hope is all our stories.


Tonto's Cousin said...

Talk to me Julia.

California Writer said...

Hi Chug Williger,
I really like the photo. What do you want to talk about? I'm supposed to write a long article about working class poetry in Western America, and the piece on Adrian Louis is my beginning struggle with the idea of "working class poetry" and the relationship between Native Americans and the concept of "working class."Any comments on this subject would be appreciated as I'm only in a process of working out my ideas