Sacred sites: Heid Erdrich’s new poetry book, ‘National Monuments,’ explores the landscapes of spiritual places

Listen to Heid Erdrich reading from "Mahto Paha, Bear Butte"

Listen to Heid Erdrich reading from "The Thief Outright"

"Who wouldn’t want to pray here?"’ Heid Erdrich asks in "’Mahto Paha, Bear Butte,"’ her poem about a South Dakota site sacred to the region’s American Indian tribes.

Discussing that poem — which appears early in her new book, "’National Monuments"’ — Erdrich described Bear Butte as "’just a small hill in a small group of hills."’

"’For a lot of the tribes around there — Cheyenne, Lakota, other people — that was sort of a place you could come to pray and fast, and people were supposed to have a truce around there,"’ she explained.

Not just a hill, really, but a laccolith, an ancient scab of frozen magma, Bear Butte continues to exert a kind of spiritual magnetism.

The Harley-Davidson riders who pass by Bear Butte on their way to Sturgis, S.D., apparently feel its pull. A proposal for a "’biker chapel"’ in the area heightened existing tensions with American Indian groups, Erdrich said.

Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway, found the title for her third collection of poetry when she began to think about the sacred places of native peoples, sites that were hallowed ground before they were ever considered for the National Register.

"’I wanted to write the book about place, and about sacred places that were under threat … but very quickly it turned to the body,"’ she said.

Erdrich sat down to talk about "’National Monuments"’ in a corner of Birchbark Books, a small bookstore owned by her sister, Louise Erdrich, a prolific author of novels, poetry and children’s books. The store is in Kenwood, not far from where Heid lives with her husband and two children.

When Erdrich said her poems addressed bodies, she meant bodies both living and dead. In a series of what she called "’persona poems,"’ Erdrich gives voice to child mummies, Marie Antoinette and the 9,200-year-old Kennewick man, all of whom have had their resting places disturbed.

"’I want people to rethink their political view of the body,"’ she said. "’When is it ours? When is it no longer ours?"’

She approaches these questions with both reverence and wit. In "’Kennewick Man Attempts a Cyber-date,"’ bones four times older than Christianity pine: "’But to smell a woman’s neck again!"’

"’National Monuments,"’ which is up for a Minnesota Book Award in April, began as different type of book.

Erdrich said she first wrote six or eight poems that were responses to monuments of American literature. She revisited works by Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams from the perspective of an American Indian.

"’I was sort of revising them and writing them from a native perspective, or to remind people there might be a real person who might of read this and saw [herself],"’ she said. "’I think the assumption when those were written was Indian people will never read these."’

As the collection grew, though, Erdrich discovered the threads connecting those pieces to her writing on places and bodies, as well as poems about her personal history. One of six siblings born to her German-American father and Ojibway mother, she grew up in Wahpeton, N.D., in the
Red River Valley.

"’I think one of the blurbers called [the book] ‘quietly activist,’ which I was happy with,"’ Erdrich said.

"’I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a loud activist, but I see my role better as being subtle,"’ she continued. "’… But that’s a poet’s job, isn’t it?"’

An exerpt from “National Monuments”

The Theft Outright after Frost
We were the land’s before we were.
Or the land was ours before you were a land.
Or this land was our land, it was not your land.
We were the land before we were people,
loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,
or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul —
What’s America, but the legend of Rock ‘n’ Roll?
Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands
swimming being from women’s hands, we originate,
originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.
Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,
possessed by what we now no more possess.
We were the land before we were people,
dreamy sunbeams where sun don’t shine, so the stories go,
or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots —
Dineh in documentaries scoff DNA evidence off.
They landed late, but canyons spoke them home.
Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don’t know.
What’s America, but the legend of Stop ‘n’ Go?
Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,
contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.
In any case we’d claim them, give them some place to stay.
Such as we were we gave most things outright
(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes
and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)
We were the land before we were a people,
earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,
or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth —
The land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,
still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.
Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

Go see it

Heid Erdrich will read from her third collection of poems at the release party for “National Monuments” 7 p.m. March 13 at Birchbark Books, 2115 W. 21st St. 374-4023.