Thursday, April 7, 2011

Share Art: Indian Names

A Native American dugout canoe that was on display at the Steuben House in River Edge, New Jersey, thanks to the Bergen County Historical Society. George Washington watches over it, in a room he stayed in while headquartered with the army. With a new nation begun, an ancient civilization would soon be forgotten, or perhaps, seemingly just erased.

"Our injustice and hard-hearted policy with regard to the original owners of the soil has seemed to me one of our greatest national sins," Lydia Huntley Sigourney lamented. A singer from upstate New York, Natalie Merchant (the former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs), transformed poems into sonic shape for Leave Your Sleep. One of them (on the double album) was Indian Names by Sigourney, "who was once the most popular American female writer of the nineteenth century, with an astounding seven thousand articles and eighty books published in her lifetime [born 1791, died 1865]", according to Merchant. Isn't it amazing how household names fall into obscurity? Merchant has talked about the project being about the past pulling her back and her pulling the past forward. On my own path, including the writing process, I very much relate to those sentiments.

"In 1822, at a time when most good Christian women in New England joined the temperance movement or advocated for the rights of slaves, Siguorney paid tribute to the Native Americans in an epic poem, 180 pages in length, Traits of the Aborigines of America," Merchant writes.

Artifacts from the past remain at exhibits, but think of how many names are of Indian descent. Lydia reminds us their spirit is very much with us, and rightfully so as the namesake of the lands, rivers, and mountains they revered and protected.

Reflect on these haunting words, in the moving poem (watch a live version of Merchant here).

Ye shall say they all have passed away,
That noble race and brave,
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave.

That 'mid the forests where they roamed
There rings no hunter's shout;
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.

'Tis where Ontario's billow
Like Ocean's surge is curled;
Where strong Niagara's thunders wake
The echo of the world;

Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tributes from the west,
And Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia's breast.

Ye say, their cone-like cabins,
That clustered o'er the vale,
Have fled away like withered leaves
Before the autumn gale:

But their memory lives on in your hills,
Their baptism on your shore;
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.

Old Massachusetts wears it
Within her lordly crown,
And broad Ohio bears it
'mid all her young renown;

Connecticut hath wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And bold Kentucky breathed it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.

Wachuset hides its lingering voice
Within its rocky heart,
And Alleghany graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart:

Monadnock on his forehead hoar
Doth seal the sacred trust;
Your mountains build their monument,
Though ye destroy their dust

Learn more about Lydia Huntley Sigourney.

Learn more about Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep, including a video on the project, which has very much stirred my own newfound interest in learning about poetry.

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