The Works of 10 Contemporary Native American Poets

November is Native American Heritage Month — and we’re celebrating with a selection of poems from contemporary Native American writers. Joy Harjo, whose writing is featured below, once wrote: “The literature of the aboriginal people of North America defines America. It is not exotic. The concerns are particular, yet often universal.” These poets explore these universalities, as well as historical concerns and the issues facing Native Americans in the contemporary world.

Photo credit: Chase Jarvis
Photo credit: Chase Jarvis

Sherman Alexie, “Pachyderm”

Until he became an elephant, Sheldon referred to his left hand as “my hand” and to his right hand as “my brother’s hand.”
Sheldon’s father, Arnold, was paraplegic.
His wheelchair was alive with eagle feathers and beads and otter pelts.
In Vietnam, in 1971, Arnold’s lower spine was shattered by a sniper’s bullet.
Above the wound, he was a fancy dancer.
Below the wound, he was not.
His wife became pregnant with Sheldon and Pete while Arnold was away at war.
Biologically speaking, the twins were not Arnold’s.
Biologically speaking, Arnold was a different Arnold than he’d been before.
But, without ever acknowledging the truth, Arnold raised the boys as if they shared his biology.
Above the wound, Arnold is a good man.
Below the wound, he is also a good man.
Sometimes, out of love for Sheldon and Sheldon’s grief, Arnold pretended that his wheelchair was an elephant.

From The Best American Poetry about the writing of “Pachyderm”:

Lying in a university town hotel, unable to sleep, I watched a National Geographic documentary about elephants. There was a scene if a mother elephant coming upon a dead elephant’s bones. The mother elephant carefully touched the bones with her trunk. She seemed to be mourning the loss of another elephant. It was devastating. Then, a few days later, I watched a CNN story about an Iraqi War veteran who’d lost both of his legs to an improvised explosive device. He was confident in his ability to rehab successfully, but I also detected an undercurrent of anger. So, while I was working on a novel the mourning elephant and wounded soldier merged in my mind. And that’s where “Pachyderm” had its origins.

Read the poem.
Visit Sherman Alexie’s website.