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The Song of the Hoop

Dissident Voice Article

By Gary Corseri

(To the Original Peoples of North America, the hoop was a sacred symbol. They believed that order and civilization were within the great hoop of the world, and all chaos was without. Their tribal councils were held in circles; their tipis were round; their mandalas, winding images of dreams.)

Part 1. The Vision

Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …
Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …

            (to be chanted until the Spirit is with one)

Where the horses dance like mad on Paha Sapa;
Where the mountains flow like rivers in the sun,
Turning watery golden under the reddening sky;
Where the clouds assume a human, spectral form,
Flowering with faces of the still unborn:
There the Grandfathers of our people called me,
Smiling behind their wild cloud beards.
Their eyes were holes where the sky entered in,
And their hands were the ashes of hands.
Opening their mouths, hawks soared from them,
Fluttering, turning in the glistening air.
A reed they smoked from bade me have no fear.
To each the reed was handed as a friend.

Then the Grandfathers bade me follow.
They grew young before me like boys.
And we hooted and shouted and rode on the wind,
Our hair like black fire behind us.
The hooves of our ponies kissed the sweet prairie grass,
And the air all around us rumbled with storm.
As far as eyes saw, the bison stampeded.
Hoka-hey!” cried the Grandfathers.
Locusts of arrows rained on the prairie.
Hoka-hey!” cried the women.
Red meat hung in the cottonwood branches.

Over the Greasy Grass we rode,
Over the tipis of nations:
The fires of the tribes lit up the hills,
The tipis of Minneconjous flapped in the wind.

Oglala and Shyela, Hunkpapa and Lakota,
Santee and Yanktonai camped by the icy stream.
The stars burned bright in the hair of the Great Father.
The blue river ran swiftly past the tribes.

All night the Bear Men dance round the fires,
All night their shadows dance on the tipis
Where the children dream; white smoke drifts in the sky.

Morning, red sun peeks through grey clouds.
Higher and higher, rising in the air,
The horses neigh wildly, the Grandfathers shout,
And the women dance round and round and round, clapping.
Hundreds of bluecoats bloom in their blood
Like hundreds of violets scattered on the hills.

All this I saw before my springs were ten.
And after, many times, flew with the spirits
To the other world, shedding the skin of shadows.
The people showed me honor with their eyes.
Great feasts we had, and battles,
With many victories over our enemies,
The rumbling thunder-beings making the bad ones crazy.

Then we were the first men of the Earth:
The faces of our children shone with morning;
Summer and winter the world was rich with heroes.
But now, all’s past; the hoop of the world lies broken.
Whirlwind and hailstone pummel the prairie.
Hungering dogs howl in the bitter air.
The wandering spirits hide.

Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …
Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …

            (let the silence linger)

Part 2. The Hope

Where are you now, Tashtunka Witco?
The sacred buffalo wallows in his grave.
Washita maggots swarm on the prairies.
Where are you now, Tashtunka Witco?
Tongueless carcasses rot in the red sun.
Human vermin murder holy land.

Now let us moan, my brothers!
The long-wailing coyotes will not out-grieve us.
The prairie dogs will look at us in pity.
All over the Earth the beasts will tell our story.
Gather now in the long grass, ghosts of my people.
Let your heart-felt cries rend heaven!
The Great Spirit weeps and culls us to His bosom.
We must leave this Earth we loved.
Never shall we walk these hills again.

Where are you now, Tashtunka Witco?
The clouds blot out the sun; the morning wanes.
The prairie flowers die while still in bud;
The cries of tortured bison scorch the air.

You saw your children hunted down like dogs,
Your women butchered, whittled into bone.
You could not bear the fire-watered eyes
Of braves who rode against the Long Hair foe.
You walked into the woods and lived alone.

You whom the Spirit loved as His own son,
Whose eyes, they say, held fire in their core,
Who saw the horses dancing in the clouds,
Who danced above the rattling Gatling guns
Now you are gone; no more will you walk before us,
And the long night of our land comes on.

Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …
Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …

Part 3. The Sabers

The bluecoat sabers come! The thunderous drum
Of horses beats the plains!
The wagon guns are coughing at the hills!
Look! It is just meat here which had a name.
The lips that kissed a lover’s kiss the flies.
The innocent die with music,
Cruel music of the Gatling guns,
While snow shuts closed forever mouths that sang to God.

O, Sun that endures forever, men must die!
O, Earth that endures forever, men must die!
Great Spirit, spread Your wings above us,
Hover, Falcon, over Your lost children.

The snow falls in the valley of our graves.
Bones stiffen; dumb mouths sing with wind.
The long night of our land comes on.

Where are you now, Tashtunka Witco?
At night, in the disemboweled bodies of horses,
Of bison, you slept in howling caves
While bluecoats fell with the snow.

Never would you be free again.
Never would you walk above the clouds.
Staring at embers with your brittle eyes,
You saw the bison skeletons stampede.
Dancing, you fell; dreaming, you could not rise.
At last, your own tears froze you to the ground.

O, Sun that endures forever, men must die!
O, Earth that endures forever, men must die!

The innocent die with music, cruel music,
And the long night of our land comes on.

Where are you now, Tashtunka Witco?
Cuffed and shackled, a beast with human eyes–
They shoved you to the prison door, they beat you down.
You watched them throw raw beef
To chiefs who ate off floors.

The vision gnawed; you reeled and cried;
You danced and groaned;
The hot steel flashed inside of you;
You fell like empty sackcloth to the ground.

Which of them knew you, warrior, spirit–
Raging with politics, God, greed and guns?
Which of them saw the poet inside you,
Brutal and lusting, with their teeth full of gold?
The old chiefs wept, and sang,
And shook their heads, remembering, when told.
The sky fell down and cracked the shoulders of the young.

Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …
Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …

Part 4. The Song

A man who lived beneath the hot sun’s thumb
Said that if we danced the rains would come
And white men would grow small and drown.
In every tribe we heard the throbbing drum
And saw men dance until their feet were numb,
And heard the crackle of the white man’s gun.

Now let us make the long march home, my brothers.
The river is frozen with the blood of our warriors.
Our chiefs are slain, our daughters have the eyes
Of old women, our sons have forgotten who we were.

While the twilight comes, pull down the tipi poles!
Let the ponies step quietly
Over the puddles of the moonlit snow.
Let the infants make no crying in their nested sleep.
Only the prairie wind will be talking.
Let each one linger in his thoughts.

Great Spirit of the Wind and Waters,
Thunder and roses dwell within Your arms!

We have heard the prairie groan beneath the iron rail.
We have seen the engine streak the clear blue sky.
Buffalo is gone, and, now, we, too, must go.

Let the prairie dogs trace our footsteps.
Never again will Earth be young for us,
Never again hold out her warm, green arms.
Never again will Sky throw back his head
And laugh until the stars are shaken down.
Men’s lives are warm breath mingled with the cold.
Men’s lives are footsteps in the snow.

Now let us make the long march home, my brothers.
Never shall we find rest among these mountains.
Our Great Grandmother waits in the Valley of Skulls.
Only she will embrace us hereafter.
Never shall we roam from her again.
With her only shall we find peace.

Now brothers, do not weep;
Your tears will never melt the snow.
Now ponies, step quietly through this dark land.
The branches of the saplings hold the moon
As in a spider’s silvery web.
Our Grandfather’s chant to us beyond this snow.
Listen… listen… listen… listen. …
See where the moon spills from the trees on them?
O, they are white upon the whiteness of the snow.

Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …
Hai-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya,
Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya, Hey-ya ya-ya-ya-ya. …

(“The Song of the Hoop” won the Stephen Vincent Benet Narrative Poem Prize in 1972. It was published in Poet Lore in 1973.)

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