Leave those bones alone, says Heid Erdrich.
A 25,000-year-old skull is still someone’s ancestor, after all. Maybe yours. So don’t use it as a paperweight.
The Ojibwe poet notes that writers aren’t often called in to determine policy, but the cavalier treatment of human artifacts — often under the guise of scientific study — led her to issue her own statement on the subject, in the form of poems.
In her third book of poetry, “National Monuments,” which has been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Erdrich reminds us of the humanity of those old bones in stories about human artifacts going up for sale on eBay, an exhibit of children’s bodies taken from a Peruvian sacrificial site, and other incidents in which native artifacts stolen from graves are marketed to collectors and museums.
The poems are haunting, and sometimes humorous. In “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects,” she writes, “Never, at any time, sing ‘Dem Bones,’ ” and:
Avoid using the bones as drumsticks
Or paperweights, no matter
The actions of previous Directors or Vice
Directors or your institution.
Questions vs. pronouncements
“[Poets] can aim for the meditative center of things because we want to bring our readers there. I like to bring up questions, rather than make pronouncements with my poems,” she says. Ultimately, though, it’s pretty clear where Erdrich stands: “I think bones should be allowed to go home.”
“Mostly I want people to think about the line: When is a body sacred and sovereign, and when is it scientifically significant and what happened in between? Is it more about whose bodies remain sacred? How does relationship to the body define our larger culture, our scientific belief system?”
Or consider this: Instead of trying to connect with people from the past by studying their bodies, get to know them much more deeply by studying their souls, via their artwork. “I love any place with ancient picture writing visible,” Erdrich says. She’s also intrigued by the stories of Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft), an early Native writer whose work inspired Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” — though she doesn’t often get the credit she deserves. Erdrich corrects that with a poem.
When she isn’t writing or teaching, Erdrich curates exhibits of Native art for the Ancient Traders Gallery in Minneapolis. “The shows I’ve curated have felt a lot like editing an anthology or building a course. Working with visual artists is something I’ve always loved, but it is a tremendous commitment, since we are such a small program and always seeking funding. Still, the artists I work with have lit up my imagination and made it easier for me to write,” she says.
Heid will read at 7 p.m. Friday, March 13, at a book release party for “National Monuments,” held at her sister Louise’s bookstore, Birchbark Books, 2115 W. 21st St., Minneapolis.