Tributaries, the first book-length collection by Shawnee poet Laura Da’, begins with a scene of childbirth by Caesarean section. With an “abrasion that draws the past glistening into the present,” this commanding debut opens with a reflection on openings—the ruptures in our histories, geographies, and bodies that, following Da’s attentive gaze, demand we take a closer look. In poems that intertwine personal memoir, familial past, traditional Shawnee storytelling, and the history of Indian Removal, Da’ sifts through the painful records of Shawnee life under U.S. colonial power to remind us that archives, too, can come “glistening into the present.”
But archives also deceive, and while Tributaries brings forth new sites of identification for Shawnee history, it simultaneously exposes the ways that artifacts can obstruct real understanding. To this end, “Basement Storage at the Museum of the American Indian” hones the language of Enlightenment-era categorical knowledge, as a curator huffs at a pair of beaded leggings, “distinctly Plains / and two people bicker about the Comanche influence in northern New Mexico.” The security we feel in our knowledge about “the Indian” takes on an increasingly insidious tone within the walls of the middle school where Da’ teaches. When the myth of the Raven, who is both trickster and creator to many peoples of the Pacific Northwest, is misattributed to an anthropologist in the pages of a textbook, the filled-in Scantron bubbles of standardized learning distort into “fish-scale dents / on the show-and-tell arrowhead.” Tributaries doesn’t abandon the “show-and-tell arrowhead,” though. Instead, Da’ stares down these two-dimensional representations of Native identity to show us how poetic reflection can reinvigorate the histories they conceal. In Da’s sharp verse, even the “featured skull” of nineteenth-century scientific racism can “break free / of the anthropologist’s saline myth” to tell a different story.
While these poems stun with a deep historical hurt, they also manage to endear the reader with their wry humor. Take “The Tecumseh Motel,” a poem that plays on the dangerous slippages between reverence and ridicule in America’s treatment of Native identity. As the poet’s family watches a performance of Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s death at the hands of American forces, Da’s poetic remembrance transforms into a series of how-tos that permit the reader to farcically replicate colonial violence for herself. In order to “approximate a scalping,” benign kitchen staples (egg, Karo syrup, mineral oil, and Kool-Aid) transform into a gruesome scene of playful ignorance. This didactic verse inherits the wit and frustration of Sherman Alexie’s “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” to pose a question that reverberates through Tributaries: “Are we mocked or honored with such a display?” The voice of Da’s husband interrupts the poem to affirm that even staged representations of violence can inflict real, bodily pain. As Da’ rallies in anger against the supposed “honor” of the play, he quietly observes, “You sound like you’ve been crying.”
By its dizzying conclusion, Tributaries has become its own kind of archive, one capable of speaking back to the Euro-American voices that tend to overwhelm our conventional histories. Just as Da’ resurrects Tecumseh on stage to remind us that the very name of the historical figure we seem to know so well is only a “phonetic approximation of an Algonquian name,” so too she excavates the journals of Indian officials to cast doubt on this “approximation” of events. One series begins with an epigraph from the journal of a Superintendent of Indian Removal in order to reimagine the conditions of his writing. “The Indians (as yesterday) remained as quiet as hived bees in the winter,” reports Daniel R. Dunihue after observing a traditional death feast, and from this observation unravels a complex story of Shawnee survival and remembrance on the forced journey from their Ohio homelands. Dunihue’s journal isn’t the only source from which Da’s poetry draws, however. As she considers the museum plaques and historical markers that litter these sites, Da’ insists that truer records are alive in the landscape itself: “the horizon is a memory palace. / A verse is woven / into the curve of the river.” Like the collection as a whole, the poem concludes with the birth of a new generation of Shawnee, unearthing a Native futurity in these documents of the past. Da’ shrewdly contests the authority of the superintendent’s framing observation by letting a Shawnee headman have the last word:
He reminds us
in the old times
babble of the smallest children
was most auspicious.
This is, perhaps, the book’s greatest gift: it uncovers an “auspicious babble” within a history we thought mute to the needs of a Native present.
“A map is not a neutral document,” says Da’s young student, parroting her teacher’s lesson on the prejudiced construction of official knowledge. As Tributaries guides us through unchartered Shawnee geographies, it is certainly no exception. But poetry makes no claims for neutrality, and this is necessary guidance.
Alanna Hickey is a PhD candidate in English at Northwestern University and a current Mellon/ACLS dissertation fellow. Her research and teaching focuses on Native American and Indigenous studies, poetry and poetics, and U.S. political history. She is currently working on a genealogy of nineteenth-century Native American poetry as it addresses and challenges the evolving terms of U.S. civic inclusion.
by Laura Da’
The University of Arizona Press (Sun Tracks), 2015
$16.95, ISBN 978-8165-3155-4