History is where you dream and find out for yourself, history is where you begin to build that world you inhabit and from which you launch outwards into so many other worlds.

I'm tired of being a ghost.

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.

~ [redacted]

A few years ago I went onto Twitter to find out if anyone could recommend something that conveyed a similar idea so that I could talk about how we are made invisible while somehow still being present without having to cite a problematic man. A number of people recommended the poem graduate school first semester: so here I am writing about Indians again by Abenaki/French Canadian poet Cheryl Savageau. It's published in her book Mother/Land which is filled with beautiful if sharply observant poetry. The best poetry is sharply observant after all.

She writes, and I used this as an epigraph for Becoming Kin:

stop writing about Indians
she told me again
only louder as if
I was hard of hearing
you have to allow authors
their subjects, she said
stop writing about
what isn’t in the text

which is just our entire history

Stop writing about what isn't in the text. We are so rarely in the text, present as ghosts or shadows haunting the pages from within the gaps of things unsaid and I'm tired of being a ghost. Tired of being somebody who needs to be either appeased or laid to rest. Tired of being a passive presence that colonialism acted on as if we had no agency. At least criminal courts saw us as having agency, if only to punish us. Imagine what that must have been like, legally not being a person unless you were a criminal. We are criminal people, inherently traitorous and untrustworthy. Haunting history books and artwork. No wonder people loved Hamilton so much, finally seen as something other than criminals, except colonists can only be seen as "not criminals" by those who made the laws that decide which kinds of theft are legal and which kinds are not, which kind of murder is legal and which kind is not. Context is everything.

Then I came across Rant, by Diane diPrima, published in Pieces of a Song. I heard it in an episode of Movement Memos in which Kelly references reading it on her way to an event to keep her mind focused and manage her anxiety.

history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what it can be, it is
the relation between things in a continuum

of imagination
what you find out for yourself is what you select
out of an infinite sea of possibility
no one can inhabit yr world

DiPrima is coming at history from a different angle than Savageau. For DiPrima history is a weapon to be wielded against the war on our imagination. Without imagination, she says, there is no memory, no sensation, no will, no desire and then she offers history as a place to begin. History is where you dream and find out for yourself, history is where you begin to build that world you inhabit and from which you launch outwards into so many other worlds.

Maybe it's not different at all. Savageau is looking for that unspoken history. For the people she knew were present in fact if not in the stories being told about those facts and as she lifts these stories out from the places they have been hidden they are seen as living weapons in her hands. Nowhere in her poem does she wield them as such, but she is repeatedly scolded for bringing knives to a gun fight, for trespassing.

Being a criminal is one way to be present.

I bought two books because of Savageau's poem. Changes in the Land by William Cronon and A Midwife's Tale by Laura Thatcher Ulrich, both of which Savageau referenced in a panel discussion as having contributed in some way to this poem. Cronon writes about the changes that colonists wrought on the New England landscape. He has a lot to say about the differences between how the colonists and local tribes envisioned and enacted their relationships with the land, and the consequences of those differences. One thing that I really liked about Cronon's book is that he recognizes our agency, not only in how we shaped with environment before the colonists settled like dust, but the ways in which we adapted to the new world imposed on us and the harmful things we did as part of that adaptation. There's no noble savages in his book, although early on he notes that the colonists' transformation of the landscape was so pervasive that it became the only set of relations which were permissible or possible. That set of relations still guides how land is used and made available although there are many organizations and land trusts pushing back against these legislated ideologies.

We are very much a part of the history Cronon is writing, not so with A Midwife's Tale. In that book we're just ghosts who don't even need to be appeased, just dropping knowledge and drifting off. The diary that the book studies makes mention of "a young squaw" and an "African American slave woman" who taught the midwife about how to use local plants, but they slip in and out of the book without much trace. In the same panel discussion, African American historian Tiya Miles talks about that African American slave woman and her dream of writing a book about her. Finding out more about the enslaved people in Maine while the 18th century was becoming the 19th and imagining what that interaction had been like. Learning about the Abenaki and others who lived in northern New England. There's a whole complex web of relations that are barely gestured to in Ulrich's work.

History is the dream of what can be, and Savageau's teacher is wrong. We are in the text. You just have to know where to look.

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