“Orthindis (Blue Jay),” a poem
Stephanie Lenox is a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, The Business, winner of the 2015 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and Congress of Strange People. With H. K. Hummel, she co-authored Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. She lives in Salem, Oregon, where she works for Chemeketa Community College.
Your poem “Othindis (Blue Jay)” combines English, and Bodwéwadmimwen. How did you choose which words to use from these two languages?
SL:When I write, I aim to pack as much sonic texture and complexity as I can into a tiny poem. I want words to relate to each other and reflect each other and resonate with each other. I chose the words “othindis” (that blue jay) and “bnéshi” (bird) because they are among the handful of Bodwéwadmimwen words I know as a beginning student of the language. These words are the hooks through which the rest of the poem’s lines are strung.
I’m fascinated with this loud, smart bird that in English is named, uncreatively, after its grating “jay-jay” call. I borrowed the word “raucous” directly from The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds because the word looks and feels so perfectly noisy and also because I wanted a word to pair with “racket” that appears earlier in the poem. I italicized the two utterances in the poem, the bird’s call (which itself is a translation of sorts) and the speaker’s assertion of “here I am,” but I chose to blend English and Bodwéwadmimwen together on each line without any typographical distinction to show how they live side by side in the speaker’s mind.
MR:The ending of “Othindis” references the speaker as being a “great grandchild of broken silence / repeating these words for the first time”. Can poetry be a tool for reclaiming language?
SL:I write of the “great grandchild of a broken silence” in reference to a specific kind of inheritance, an anti-estate, bequeathed to Indigenous people whose language and culture were persistently targeted by U.S. policies around land allotment, forced removal and assimilation, and termination of tribal recognition. The story, both past and present, of Native people is filled with broken promises and coerced silences.
Reports came out this summer about the hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who attended government-run schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, news that is heartbreaking but not unknown, especially to tribal members and descendants of tribal members who attended these schools. These residential boarding schools were modeled after U.S. institutions built to “civilize the savage,” and one method of achieving this was to prevent Native children from speaking their languages.
I am the descendant of at least two generations of students who survived residential boarding schools, including the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School. I am the product of assimilation. I am both White and Bodwéwadmi (Potawatomi). I am the great grandchild of a tribal leader, a survivor, and an urban Indian who drove taxi in Chicago. I am also the great grandchild of immigrants who changed their name when they arrived in the U.S. and learned to speak English. Incorporating just a few words of Bodwéwadmimwen into my poem was a small act of cultural preservation and self-preservation. Though much has been broken, breaking the silence can be an empowering act, and poetry is a part of that.
Poetry is one way for us to belong to a language or languages, to claim our voice in the history of voices. Through poetry, we can restore and retrieve words from the edges of meaninglessness. Poetry is a valve that relieves language from the built-up pressure of restrained chit-chat and transactional conversation. Poetry is one way to bewilder language, untame it, and find it again.
MR:Anything else that you want readers to know as they interact with this piece?
SL:I began studying Bodwéwadmimwen, the language of my tribe, in earnest in 2020 in part because COVID-19 restrictions made remote classes more available. I live 2,000 miles from my tribe’s ancestral lands, but I was able to meet weekly with tribal citizens like myself and learn from the fabulous Carla Collins, a language specialist with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
In November 2020, my grandfather, an elder in the tribe, died from complications of COVID-19. The loss hit me hard in a year marked by so many other losses, both personally and around the world. During the pandemic, three of the five remaining first language speakers of Bodwéwadmimwen died from COVID-19. Studying Bodwéwadmimwen has become a way of processing my grief, which at first was personal but that now I recognize as historical. Through online classes and through the lines of this poem, I’m learning to introduce myself in a new language.
The words I’ve used in this poem have alternate spellings. I’ve seen “bnéshi” as “pnéshi” and “othindis” as “ojindis.” This is a result of the variations in writing systems used by tribes that extend from Canada to Oklahoma. As someone who has dedicated most of my life to working with the written word as a writer, teacher, and editor, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my heritage by studying a language for which the written form is secondary.
MR:What are some books or writers you’ve read this year that excited you?
SL:I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer for anyone interested in learning more about the Potawatomi language. I read this book several years ago, but I returned to this book again this year (both in print and the audio version read by the author) to experience the Potawatomi language and appreciate how Kimmerer expresses the reciprocal relationship between people and plants.
This year I’ve also been absorbed by the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve read The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Word for World Is Forest. I’m fascinated by the way Le Guin has projected into the future the failings and flaws of the present day and creates alien worlds that reflect our human preoccupations with the acquisition of power, prestige, and wealth.
For teachers and writers, I recommend The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Writing Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez. The book questions the traditional model of writing workshops and examines it as a vehicle for dominance and control. What is great is that her critique is not the entire book; Chavez offers alternatives to promote an inclusive and welcoming learning community for all writers.
And finally, a book that’s brought me comfort this year is Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. His compact collection of lyric essays chronicles his search for everyday joy. Reading this book was like meeting up with a good friend for coffee.
MR:Do you have upcoming publications that you’d like readers to know about?
SL:I have several poems coming out in the Essential Voices: A COVID-19 Anthology from Western Virginia University Press. One of these poems has a Bodwéwadmimwen phrase as its title: “i zhë anwé,” which means I’m just fine, in spite of everything.
1.All Kinds of Birds (in Potawatomi)
2.“I Am Potawatomi” (video)
3.Losing Languages, Losing Worlds, an interactive audio essay from CNN.