Poem of the Week | June 17, 2019

This week we are delighted to present our new Poem of the Week “The Conversion of He Goes First” by Diane Glancy!

Diane Glancy is professor emerita at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she taught Native American Literature and Creative Writing. Currently she teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Glancy’s new books are It Was Over There by That Place, The Atlas Review Chapbook Series, and The Book of Bearings, Wipf & Stock, Cascade Imprint, Poiema Series. Glancy has published several books with Wipf & Stock: The Collector of Bodies, Concern for Syria in the Middle East (poetry), The Servitude of Love (short stories), No Word for the Sea and Mary Queen of Bees ( novels). Glancy is a member of the First Families of the Cherokee Nation. Her other books and awards are on her website www.dianeglancy.com. Glancy was also a finalist for Missouri Review’s 2018 Editors’ Prize Contest.


The Conversion of He Goes First, David Pendleton Oakerhater, Cheyenne [1]

1. Fort Marion Prison, St. Augustine, Florida, 1875-78 [2]

Notes to the Living Father you brought us this.
You showed them the water to cross. They kept coming. We resisted.
We should fold up our teepees? Leave the Great Plains?
They pushed until we had nowhere to go.

Holy Lord, the buffalo roam now in the other world.
You have them with you there. You gather the dead from the earth.
You have it your way.

We rode to Fort Sill with a white flag. We came to captivity by your hand.

The flag flopped before our eyes. We eat the surrender you give us.

We wore leg irons. We rode the train. The boat.
After a long journey we walked into Fort Marion on the ocean.
They cut our hair. Covered our legs with trousers.
Our chests with blue coats. We were made to look like them.
Fervent Lord hear our prayer. We are not them.


2. If I had a horse I would ride into the sea.

Notes to the horse keep moving your legs. To be carried by the waves.
Surely the boats are horses to these men.

We stand in our soldier suits.
We march around the courtyard of the fort in their military maneuvers.
Our fathers would not know us.

There were stories of the land stopping at the water that walked where it went.

I had seen the water. I felt it moving in my dreams. We have an ocean within us.


3. Notes to Mrs. Mather at the fort to teach us English.

Your words pull threads from the water.
Your words make leg irons for our words to wear.

Your words are a thicket. A little copse of trees.

A buffalo calf stepped on a snake. I felt the bite of it. The calf run driven from the snake until it saw the sky droven from its herd. The next world near. It was a blessing it droven to the world into which to step.

SNAKE BITE ME. [the actual words he wrote]

Mrs. Mathers asked what I was writing I said the bite of the snake in my leg though it bit the buffalo calf there was sameness of land of sky of buffalo I was trying to find the sameness of writing.

If I was on the Plains I would not write. I would hide in the thicket. I would become buffalo. My hide left for the hide hunters to take. That is not correct she said shesaidshesaid. Notes to Mrs. Mather I hiden in the thicket I make with your language. Therein a snake that would bite. That would transform the buffalo calf into a being The Maker would lift in his hands to his New World. The calf with the Plains for a back the thicket for a tail an ocean for its head.


4. After the Red River Indian Wars of the 1870’s—

We sit in your prison at Fort Marion, Lord.

Bishop Whipple stands before us speaking not knowing where we came from.

If he had seen a scalped head.
If he had seen the skinned buffalo.
If he had seen the piles of hides.
If he had heard our cries—

Sometimes I see Whipple as a Holy Man when he turns white as a blizzard.
His words are buffalo on the Plains. They are a blur of whirlwind.

He is fighting for your kingdom, Lord.
His words are a thin trail of water in the Red River in dry weather.
I hear the transfer they make.

Sometimes I see Bishop Whipple in a breech-clot.
His face painted red and black with a stripe across his forehead.

I am lost in the wind, Lord. I am come apart. Take my life.
The ocean is another sky.


5. The Serpent Lesson

We sat in the casement at the fort.
We read mostly the Bible.

Bishop Whipple said the swirling stars moved like a serpent—
Did our Great Father not make the snake as well as the coiling stars?
By his spirit he garnished the heavens— his hand formed the crooked serpent—
Job 26:13.

We had come to imprisonment to learn the lessons we already knew.

We were to see The Maker from their way.
They would not hear us, but we were to hear them.

It was their world now.


6. The Easement of Dream

One night I flew above the clouds.
I thought at first I was over the water.
I often watched the waves roll into shore after their long journey.
But it was the clouds that were rippled and not the water.

The dream moved away from the clouds until I saw them from a distance.
The clouds were ragged on top as a line of trees.

I had flown back all night over the Red River.

There was another world. That was what I knew.
I had known it on the Plains.

We sat at a table at the fort. We learned some English Writing and speaking.
We war danced for tourists. We made souvenirs.
We sold our ledger book drawings.

Still it was not another day. Still. Still.

Notes to the stills. The drawings we made. Of fort. Of horse.
Of boat in the bay. Of trundle. The vacant sea.
Was blowing. Would not stop.

Notes to the buffalo. There was nothing we could do.
I tell you we could not stop the soldiers and hide hunters from killing.

Notice. Notice. To the soldiers.
There is above you a line of tress waiting.


7. After Fort Marion

I studied English. I studied scripture. [3]
The enemy came at night to question. To ridicule.
I was a Bow String Warrior now I wore a suit minus breech-clot minus long hair minus buffalo minus teepee minus Sun Dance minus the wolf howling minus prairie grass minus whirlwind minus bow and arrow minus wives and children minus the horse that was the same as myself. Minus. Minus. Minusminusminusminusminus. The battle now was in the small bladder bag of the head above the feet the arms the neck coiled with snakes if you’d seen a head struck open in battle.

I heard the Old World speak. I would return to the Plains minus the Medicine Shield. I had to give up the Old World push aside the fear of the new. It was the same as my first war against the Otoes and Missouries on the Little Blue River.


8. Notes to Darlington Agency Indian Territory.

I stood before my people with an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
I had been a war leader.
Now I was an Episcopal Deacon.

I told them of a new road. They could know the journey.

The people winced. They looked away.

The Prayer Book was my Dream Shield my Red Shield Bowstring Headdress
I wore now with a Standing Feather and Yellow Porcupine Quills with Black Ends.

I had been broken yet I stood as if I was not.

The soldiers came as prairie fire. They left a blackened field.

The ones who followed taught us the world had more than one road.
They taught the Maker had more than one name.


9. The names I have—

Noksowist— Bear Going Straight— He Goes Straight— He Goes First [4]
Sun Dancer— Making Medicine
Oakahaton— O-kuh-ha-tuh
David Pendleton Oakerhater

Surely you brought the Europeans to overrun us.


10. How Could I Say What Has No Word for It

The Medicine Lodge Treaty and other negotiations had not worked.
And would not work because they were not meant to work there would be no shared land they do not sit down to tea to discuss ideas to ratify more treaties and more treatiestreatiestreaties until they were running from our ears as so many gophers from their holes.
The quarter moon a stirrup to ride the Plains.
I could flag-fly in the blowing air that summer a plane with two wings buzzed the field the pasture actually a man stood on the wings as a winged being of old visions. The memory of crossed lodge-poles that left only memory.
I was at Whirlwind Mission Indian School in Indian Territory the field matron reported trachoma in the students the land allotments the Indians let fall through their hands the government regulations against Indians camping on mission ground the baptisms yes but confirmations lacking.
We knew the outcome of our wars was too much to bear at one time fightfight but defeat was this kingdom this glory in the world to come.

Oakerhater Window, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oklahoma City, by Tlingit glass artist, Preston Singletary


[1] First Native American Anglican to be included in the book of Lesser Feasts and Facts of the Episcopal Church.

[2] An abandoned fort where 72 warriors were taken at the end of the Plains Indian Wars and attempts were made to educate and evangelize.

[3] Mary Douglass Burnham, an Episcopal deaconess, arranged for He Goes First to continue his education at St. Paul’s Church in Paris Hill, New York where Reverend J.B. Wicks baptized and confirmed him as David Pendleton Oakerhater. Oakerhater was baptized again at Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse and ordained as a deacon in 1881. He chose his name after the Biblical David, and Pendleton after the family that provided funding for his education.

[4] Born c.1848 Indian Territory – died August 31, 1931 Watonga, Oklahoma


Author’s Note

In 2014, the University of Nebraska published Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, the story of the last of the Plains Indian warriors taken to St. Augustine, Florida, 1875-78. As happens sometimes, the story continued after the book. The 72 prisoners kept moving in my imagination— especially David Pendleton Oakerhater, whose name had been He Goes First. I knew there was a stained-glass window commemorating him in Oklahoma City where he had been an Episcopal priest. I visited the church on one of my frequent trips between Kansas and Texas. It is in travel, I often pick up voices of the land. Afterwards, the difficulty of native thought translated into the English language.