Monday, October 09, 2006

Jimmy Durham's "Columbus Day" poem

[Note: this is an edited version of the post I made earlier today. In that earlier version, I linked to two different websites that have this poem available, but both had spelling errors and both failed to cite the source for the poem. I am posting the entire poem below, along with two print sources for it.]

Below is a poem about Columbus Day, by Cherokee poet, Jimmy Durham. The poem was originally printed in Durham's book Columbus Day, published in 1983 by West End Press, and it was reprinted in Slapin and Seale's Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children from Oyate.
You may want to print the poem and put it in your files for use next year. 

I know some will object to the third line “A dozen other filthy murderers” but each year, students in my undergraduate classes talk about what they were not taught in high school, how things like the impact of Columbus were glossed over or presented in a mythical, heroic way.
Columbus Day 
by Jimmy Durham

In school I was taught the names
Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro and
A dozen other filthy murderers.
A bloodline all the way to General Miles,
Daniel Boone and General Eisenhower.

No one mentioned the names
Of even a few of the victims.
But don't you remember Chaske, whose spine
Was crushed so quickly by Mr. Pizarro's boot?
What words did he cry into the dust?
What was the familiar name
Of that young girl who danced so gracefully
That everyone in the village sang with her--
Before Cortez' sword hacked off her arms
As she protested the burning of her sweetheart?
That young man's name was Many Deeds,
And he had been a leader of a band of fighters
Called the Redstick Hummingbirds, who slowed
The march of Cortez' army with only a few
Spears and stones which now lay still
In the mountains and remember.
Greenrock Woman was the name
Of that old lady who walked right up
And spat in Columbus' face. We
Must remember that, and remember
Laughing Otter the Taino who tried to stop
Columbus and was taken away as a slave.
We never saw him again.
In school I learned of heroic discoveries
Made by liars and crooks. The courage
Of millions of sweet and true people
Was not commemorated.
Let us then declare a holiday
For ourselves, and make a parade that begins
With Columbus' victims and continues
Even to our grandchildren who will be named
In their honor.
Because isn't it true that even the summer
Grass here in this land whispers those names,
And every creek has accepted the responsibility
Of singing those names? And nothing can stop
The wind from howling those names around
The corners of the school.
Why else would the birds sing
So much sweeter here than in other lands?
--Copyright 1993 by Jimmie Durham. Published in "Columbus Day," West End Press, 1993. Used by permission. (West End Press, P.O. Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125)


Karen Stearns said...

Debbie, I can't access this FUUSE website...and I would like to...can you help? Karen Stearns (prof. SUNY Cortland)

Anonymous said...

Columbus Day seems to me to be at a pivotal point in 2006. There are fewer and fewer students these days who aren't aware of the varied opinions which arise in discussion of Columbus' voyages to the Western Hemisphere.

The poem is very simplistic in its message; I feel like a far greater discussion of the era of exploration and colonization is warranted than is covered in this poem fragment. Columbus was one of the "filthy murderers", perhaps. Or, he was simply the first one of his era to arrive in this hemisphere. In using polemical language, no one benefits, and ignorance compounds ignorance.

Karen Saunders said...

I think the concern of anonymous may be partly based on a conflation of poetry with essays. A poem is not generally written for the purpose of discussion of an era.

For that matter, factually-based discussion of the "era of exploration of exploration and colonization" is, to my mind, far more grim and unpleasant than the most polemical language of Jummie Durham's poem. "Filthy murderers" seems mild language when I've just read of the dogs of war used by Columbus, Cortez, or De Soto. Words usually fail me when I try to discuss the practices of so many of the "explorers".

It is good of anonymous to remind us, though, that Columbus was "simply the first" of those filthy murderers to arrive in this hemisphere.

Jimmie Durham's poem brings breathes life into those who died so long ago (and those who continue to die as a result of the ongoing invasion/colonization of indigenous nations), reminding us that they were people, as real, as full of life as anyone alive now, and reminding us that they are still here with us, in each murmuring field of grass, each singing stream.

Anonymous said...

I hate to break it to you, but there were a lot of filthy murderers on this continent before Columbus came. The only difference is that he was white, so I guess we expect him to behave better than the indigenous people.

Elissa said...

speaking of typos--I'm just checking: "every creek HAS accepted the responsibility"?

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for the heads up on the typo ("as" instead of "has"). I've fixed that error.

Anonymous said...

What actually happens, in my experience, is that Columbus Day simply isn't taught about anymore. Certainly not in high school and I don't think much in elementary. What is in the school history texts I've seen is Columbus wrapped into the story of a dozen other explorers. History is taught in such a compressed way that I'd be surprised if many kids could pick Columbus out of a lineup.

Leslie said...

Also speaking of typos, is the "t" in "Laughting Otter" really supposed to be there?

Interesting poem, though. Thanks for posting it. As Karen said, poems are not for discussing an era, though they can certainly generate discussion. I would be interested in knowing more about some of the people he mentions in the poem.

Ruth said...

Thank you for this poem. I shared two with my seventh graders on Friday in honor of Columbus Day. One was "Columbus," by Joaquin Miller, where Columbus is presented as a hero. The other was "Lament of an Arawak Child," by Pamela Mordecai. We talked about different ways of looking at the same person. Now I want to share this one with them. My favorite part is, "And nothing can stop the wind from howling those names around the corners of the school."