United for Peace of Pierce County

For Friends Living along the Walla Walla River

       Yes, you witnessed a war inside my head.
       Thank the gods friendship has a story of its own.
       Since birth I have been a carrier
       of the Klallams broken shields, always the fear
       of closing my eyes and seeing the severing of bloodlines.
       Yet, upon reaching your home,
       so near to the old villages of the Little River People,
       I wanted to call to the snowy mountains.
       The blue spruce undulating in the wind
       lit by the Moon of Deep Snow
       nearly brought me to tears.

       I am the nightmare's escaped beggar,
       a blind wolf howling for breath;
       it can't be helped.
       Those villages with mothers and daughters,
       fathers and sons, aunts, uncles, and grandparents
       we bomb in Vietnam have hair,
       eyes, lips that mirror my son's.
       Their faces are as familiar as my ancestors,
       their red eyes have been as deep with dream as Shona's,
       your daughter born of this river of many waters.
       I return to your door to ask forgiveness.
       For years I dug for roots,
       songs that would not accuse me of cowardice,
       break my wolf's journey to blood tracks.
       But this animal with the art of the nomad in the genes
       learned to dodge my arrows.

       So friends, I'm here to see trout leap to be the sun's brood;
       hold your hands as we follow the stars
       for the river's gold-leaf branch.
       We can take this path because your home
       is like a Klallam longhouse,
       a lodge pole for the canyon's heart.

       You heard me chant until dawn
       to call back my run-away spirit and the spirits
       weaving a rainbow in red moon flames.
       I want to find the way to keep this flame
       burning in the city. Often, story after story,
       my family and country crumble within me.
       One day will I be found stumbling down
       an unnamed street, lost without song or elder
       to show the way to eat ashes?
       Who is the hunter tracking my youth,
       the leader shouting orders to my troops
       charging through my sleep?
       Why are the women in the field fleeing me?
       Must I, to believe I am a son of Seattle,
       have the courage to jump through death's vacancy?

       And friends, don't be alarmed at my mind
       in retreat, its zigzag fall to the crab apple earth.
       Because you love the river, the salmon,
       the nest full of stars, I sing all night to reach
       your calmness and valley roots,
       step through the mud for Crow
       and the grandfather who gave me words
       to balance my grief with joy.
       This elder is the dream owl who fans the flame;
       gets me close to moss and fern
       so I can taste their dew on my lips.
       Now to skip like the wind in circles through the valley
       until the Walla Walla's laugh at our fear, ghosts.
       Maybe then, Trickster, the blood's drummer,
       will mock no more my dead selves shedding skin.

              -- Duane Niatum

              Revised March 2003
              From Ascending Red Cedar Moon
              Reprinted in The Collected Poems

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Last updated: March 13, 2003