When We Were Savages

When We Were Savages
a collaborative poem in five parts by the Jeff City Poets:
Michael H. Brownstein
Bob Boldt
Dick Dalton
& Michael E. Strosahl

I—Ota Benga (c.1883-March 20,1916)
Michael H. Brownstein

I was the hunter of elephants—
I fed my village for weeks at a time—
but I made two mistakes:
I welcomed the men with no skin
and I did not die a warrior’s death
when they killed everyone in my clan.
I fought hard and took many of them
before they captured me whole.
Why did they not kill me?
They told about lessons to be learned,
but they underestimated a hunter of elephants.

Strangely,
it was a man without skin
who bought my freedom,
took me to his world
away from forests and glades
to a place of noise and metal.

Yes, I returned home,
but there was no one to return to.
Yes, they put me on exhibit when I came back,
these strange people gawked,
wanting to sit at the same table as me
and, yes, my teeth,
sharpened into canines,
frightened and thrilled them.

It’s just that I missed the forest.
I was an elephant hunter,
a great man of my people,
a provider and warrior—
how sad I could not return when I wanted.
In my soft unnatural bed
I dreamt of going home,
finding a mate,
beginning a new clan—
wasn’t I the hunter of elephants?
The Great War got in the way,
men with no skin fighting men with no skin
and I did not understand.

I could not die a warrior’s death
I with capped teeth
living in a room without trees,
without brush.
This was no way to live—
the glory of teeth hidden from view,
dressed in clothing that chafed
skin and soul,
working in a large building,
making things of no intrinsic value.
So I let myself die—
the gun a weapon of my enemies
and in the battle to death,
I died a warrior,
the hunter of elephants.

There are many myths about me,
many more lies.
Remember me not
as the caged man in St Louis,
not as an exhibit in Washington DC,
nor as a man behind metal in the Bronx,
but as a man.

I was on view,
I was an exhibit,
but I was never a slave.
Yes, I gorged on bananas,
yes, I bragged about my teeth,
yes, I snarled better than the lion nearby
yes, I knew how to put on a show.

I was the first performance artist,
but never a prisoner in a cage for long—
just enough to look into the faces
of men who could never outdo me.

II-Ishi (c.1861-March 25, 1916)
Maik StrosahlI

In your lust for the sparkle,
you slaughtered my people,
in your desire to possess the land,
you scattered the last of us—
Mother, too sick to run,
was hiding in the blankets
as you tore through our camp,
left to the spirits soon after my return.

Those years,
I hid in the trees of the high ground,
foraged the land and
called myself to the holy ones.
When I could no longer live alone
with only the company of spirits,
great Yahi people long gone
but to my memories,
I embraced the death
descending to your camps might bring.

You found me starving,
this hungry old man,
but bound me for fear
of what a “wild man” might do,
even one of my age.

And you wondered why I just grinned.

You put me on display,
gathered crowds
to see “the last wild Indian”,
only then did it occur anyone
to save the words of Yana,
to record the stories of Yahi,
to listen to the ramblings
of this old man you let
clean your school.

You wanted me to learn your ways,
but I am too old,
I preferred my native clothing to your stiff suits,
though I posed for your photographs
and I would tell you anything you wanted—
except my name.

You took that from me when you
took those who would speak for me,
the ones who are just stories now,
unbelievable tales of an old man
who grew weary of the constant sick
that comes from living among
those who killed my people,
those who left me nameless,
coughing anonymously to the nurses,
calling in a fever
to the spirits that would soon gather me—
by name,
free from the consumption.

III-Minik Wallace (c.1890-October 29, 1918)
Bob Boldt

I lie here, one in a sea
of cots and coughing bodies,
heaving our last.
I lie, Minik, the first and last,
Inuit son of a mighty hunter.

Icebergs float past my bed
in this municipal gymnasium,
now a field hospital.
Sometimes the icebergs
become starched nurses
making rounds,
followed by pallbearers.
All around, the smell of antiseptic
and the breath of death
no delirium can staunch.

Yesterday, I smelled fresh seal blubber
hung in the cold air to dry.
Why did I come back here if not to die
in the bad air of this new world?
Now I will ride the smoke to see
this Jesus or my mighty hunter father,
whichever can get to me first across
the icy wastes of Paradise.
I still remember
when Robert Peary took us off
to where the giant icicles
pierce the grey sky.
Manhattan they called it
and they called me Wallace,
Minik Wallace.

Why did they carry me to this cursed land
of fouled air and fish in cans?
This land I cannot understand
and cannot leave;
this land of the psychopaths.
In my childhood,
I only met one of these kunlangetese.
On my island these issues were resolved:
thirteen went hunting that day,
twelve returned.
I thank Mr. Peary and the Museum for my education,
and I understand perjury.
I would give all the Bibles in the world
for a good kayak and a whalebone harpoon.

IV-I Transform…
Dick Dalton

Black
as moonless nights
without stars
I glisten
with diamonds of sweat.
Caged
in the land of the free
I transform…
coming soon
to the home of the hypocrite.

Dad
was an outspoken Garveyite.
Our house was burned.
They said
“He fell
under a streetcar.”
Dead
in the land of the liars.
I transform…
freed with knowledge
taught by
caged
Black
elders.

Black absorbs
centuries of subjugation.
White repels
the heat of truth
his soul enslaved
his culture his cage.
I transform…
“By any means necessary”
striking fear in their hearts.

Justice demands,
“People of color take
power!”
The Hajj
erases color
for the few who see the soul.
I am Malcolm X
an outspoken messenger of Allah.
Our house is bombed.
I transform…

Stop.
Look inside.
Listen
for the bell of the streetcar.

V-Who Really Were the Savages?
Michael E. Strosahl

At Circus World in Baraboo,
we played the freaks,
we were the baboons,
the ferocious feline
stalking the bars of a cart,
back and forth,
while mom laughed,
snapping pictures
of her captured monsters.

At Niabi and
even Lincoln Park in Chicago,
we wandered between enclosures,
amazed by beasts on display,
making faces at the animals until
smacked on the back of the head,
herded on to the next display.

I was still riding in grocery carts
when I asked my mom
why that man by the carrots
did not take a bath.
I remember her turning red,
embarrassed as he looked up
and we quietly moved away
while she explained
we come in many shades

and that was all it took for me.
Yet I can claim no innocence
to other differences:
pointing at the woman with no legs,
laughing at the man in his dress,
whispering about those girls
dolled up and standing on street corners.

I read somewhere
that once a zoo in the Bronx
put a man on display—
a distant savage out of place
for visitors to watch
as he paced his enclosure,
watching us
watch him,
making faces as we
twisted ours,
holding back a snarl
as we roared

and I stopped to think,
remembering the circus,
the zoos,
gawking at those on display
as if they were ours to judge.
Were they so strange
in those distant days,
in those recent yesters,
when we would stare
and they would shrink in fear?
Though they were our captives,
the thought occurs now that
we were the savages.

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