“We were the free in freedom. My spirit danced around your spirit. Compatible opposites, we were here, we were there; a pure life before greed became the only truth…” the poet Avoctja read from her poem, “Matter is and we were Always Part of it.” Avoctja is Taino and African Carribean and just one of five poets who read recently at ‘The Continuous Thread,’ month long event sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission and held at the San Francisco Library.
The poetry reading was organized by Kim Shuck, Cherokee and Sauk and Fox tribal member from Oklahoma. Shuck is the first Native American to be honored as the Poet Laureate of San Francisco.
“When I became the first ever Native American Poet Laureate so many people were shocked to discover that there were even Indians still living in San Francisco.” she said. “That took me completely by surprise. Even with all of our history of health centers, a cultural center once upon a time, professors who teach at all the universities, students and families here due to the Relocation Act, non-Natives were still looking for the stereotypes. They were still looking for ‘Dances with Wolves,’ or ‘Iron Eyes Cody.’”
The ‘Continuous Thread’ exhibit aims to showcase the work of contemporary American Indian artists.
“What we are trying to do with all of the November events around ‘The Continuous Thread’ is to educate the city that we are still here, we have always been here, and we aren’t going away. They don’t expect to see and hear an indigenous rapper, poets, singers, actors, who are Native American contemporary people. We want to show the city that native people are a core group, and we are creating Indigenous contemporary reality,” said Shuck.
Poet Gail Mitchel contrasts city life with life on a southwest reservation each time she returns home, written by the late Carol Lee Sanchez, a Laguna pueblo poet. “The call of the neon lights, window shopping, the taste, the smell, the feel of the night filled with dancing, music, attaching, endlessly searching. Back home, reservations, small town life, cicadas sing, coyotes call, peas to plant, squash to plant, horses for when you’re hurtin’...”
Linda Noel is of Koyoonk’auw descent and grew up in Mendocino County, California.She is the Poet Laureate Emeritus of Sonoma County, Calif. Noel read a poem written by Carol Lee Sanchez, the late poet from Laguna Pueblo and in whose memory the reading honored. Entitled, Snapshots for Al Young; From Mexico to Bakersfield “Me, I’m proud to be indio. I love to see my people wherever I go. Yet on one of my journeys into Mexico I was warned by a very middle class Mexican woman to “please don’t buy things from those dirty Indians selling their wares on the street. You only encourage them to leave their pueblos and dirty our cities. I want to keep my streets bonita”
Sanchez was also the sister of the prolific poet/writer Paula Gunn Allen. Sanchez founded the Bay Area Poets Coalition.
Shuck also chose to read a poem written by Sanchez, “...my hands are withered. Hands mark the journey, as I watch dominoes slide across tables. I have found the curve of my own space. My hands look like my grandma’s. Strong hands, marked by the journey never lie...freedom spans consciousness, as atoms cry, and flocks fly south for the winter…”
Shuck has continued the work of Sanchez and her poetry of resistance by working with youth and conducting numerous workshops in creative writing, beadwork, and traditional Cherokee cultural arts so that a new generation of Native and non-Native youth will recognize and respect the Indigenous presence in San Francisco.
Nanette Deetz is a Dakota and Cherokee journalist and poet whose work appears in numerous anthologies. She was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the city of Berkeley, CA at the 17th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival, 2019.