United Tribes NewsMakwa poetry resonating with Native People
2 April 2008
BISMARCK (UTN) – When Niizh Makwa finished a talk with students in a Native American literature class at United Tribes Technical College, he got a hug from one young woman and firm handshakes of appreciation from others. Another young woman from his own tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, lingered until all had drifted out of the classroom to tell him what she thought about his poetry.
"A lot of Natives have poems inside of us but most of it doesn't get written down. They don't share them with anybody. They never get heard," said Theresa Wilkie, a student in the college's Computer Information Technology program. "But yours – people are reading these. They're going to hear and understand the pain we go through. I appreciate what you've done. I can't wait to get the book and show my family."
Makwa's book is "Red Man's Diaries," a slim paperback that came out late last year containing 50 of the more than 5,000 poems he has written over the past 15 years or so. The verses contain powerfully worded, unvarnished depictions of historic and contemporary relations Indians have with mainstream society.
Don't tell me you can relate to my troubles
or that you know me now that you rented dances with wolves
don't tell me that we could get along if we could just forget yesterday
& don't give me your pointers on how an Indian should live today.
Don't stand there & tell me to reach for opportunity
don't talk about the ‘programs' out there for people like me
don't act like you know me – my life is not a movie
you could never fathom what it's like to be me.
– from DON'T TELL ME
The work resonates with tribal people. Theresa Wilkie described it as "comforting" to know that you're not the only one who is feeling the pain.
On a cold Saturday in February at a Bismarck bookstore all copies sold out before his book signing was over. He said a woman elder from Standing Rock was so excited that she nearly "busted down the door" to get in to meet him.
"I've had people cry when I read them," Makwa said. "And I've had non-Indians get up and leave."
In short, the response is bigger than he expected.
Niizh Makwa is the poet's Ojibwe name, which means Two Bears. Also known as L. Joseph Belgarde Jr., he was born in 1978 and raised in North Dakota on the Turtle Mountain reservation. He is a single parent and now lives in Bismarck.
Makwa allows that his poetry is harsh and that it will offend some people. He describes it as fierce and strong – in keeping with his mission as a warrior poet – to "remind people of the reality that's out there" for Indians.
At United Tribes, he read softly from his poems and answered questions. He said he continues to compose new works that he handwrites into notebooks and tries to keep up with the almost overwhelming amount of e-mail he now receives. He commended the students on their commitment to getting an education and thanked them for listening and asking questions. And he said he is planning a tour that will kick off in North Dakota.
Theresa Wilkie's closing advice to Makwa: "I'm really glad this book is out there. Keep writing. Keep pushing ‘em out. Cause you're doing a lot of good."
"Red Man's Diaries" is published by Publish America, Baltimore, MD. It is available through the publisher (www.publishamerica.com), Amazon Books, Target, and the Bismarck Barnes & Noble.
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