Sometimes people can surprise you. The depths of their thoughts of feelings may not have an outlet through which to be expressed, but if you give them an outlet, there is no telling what you might learn. At the Red Cloud Indian School, poet and teacher Timothy P. McLaughlin took the writings of his young Lakota students and collecting them into Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at the Red Cloud Indian School.
Collecting the works of middle school aged students from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky reveals the thoughts and emotions of a variety of students through their writings. Sometimes prose paragraphs and sometimes various forms of poetry, these works are very powerful. They reveal feelings about death, racism and poverty, as well as identity, religion and living with and in the Lakota heritage.
This collection opens with a section features works about the natural world. “Ocean” by Duncan Deon says, “The ocean is the flow of the world/ as we are the flow of nature/ and its elements.” Similar poems follow about the sun and stars. Different students employ different poetic and literary devices. Dustin Star Comes Out writes a haiku about nature (“It blooms without fear.”) and Clementine Bourdeaux employs metaphor:
“When you laugh, it’s an echo of your past.
The moon is a round diamond.
The stars are pieces of memory.
The ocean is a blanket of dreams that last forever.
A rainbow is a bridge to your future.”
Some of the poems and prose created by the students reveal dark thoughts from a hard and troubling life. In a poem entitled “Misery,” Andrew Herman writes, “Indian misery is when somebody takes your land./ Indian misery is when somebody kills your friends.” While sometimes heartbreaking to read, these writings must have been essential to these students in order to express themselves. Sometimes thoughts can never be heard until they are written down.
This book is arranged into different segments with an overall theme, such as “Natural World,” “Native Thoughts,” and “Language.” Each segment opens with a small introduction by McLaughlin and a painting by S.D. Nelson. This introduction puts the reader into the correct mindset to then experience the students’ writings. McLaughlin also wrote a general introduction to the whole collection that gives the reader an overview of the history of the Red Cloud Indian School and some context for understanding the students’ lives. McLaughlin also included an author’s note in which he wrote about his personal experiences with the school and its students.
There is a lot to enjoy, experience and digest in this collection, and there is much that can be learned and built upon. One poem I thought would make for a good patron exercise is called “Seven Ways of Looking at Eagles” by Tonia Scabby Face.
“One way is how he soars high above the clouds.
The second way is when the eagle sits on a tree branch
looking over the countryside.
The third way is when he grabs his prey on the prairie.
The fourth way is when his protective eyes are keeping you safe at all times.
The fifth way is when the eagle lets us borrow his feathers.
The sixth way is when he talks to the rest of the sacred animals
so they can also keep you protected.
The seventh way is how the eagle sits waiting for your own flight to the sky.”
This poem chose to write about something from the natural world that had a specific significance to her. The idea behind this poem, however, could be adapted into almost anything. Students and patrons could be invited to write a poem about seven ways to look at something or someone important to them, like a family member or a pet, or even something mundane, like a fork. The results could be quite interesting.
McLaughlin, Timothy P., ed. Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School. Paintings by S.D. Nelson. Foreward by Joseph M. Marshall III. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012. ISBN: 9781419701795