Category Archives: Essays

In Memory of Richard “Snuffy” Dodge

Poem by Ethel Mortenson Davis, essay by Tom Davis

Reserved

Look at

the cedar grove

near the edge

of the lake.

It looks like

a bed between

tree trunks.

Soon I must

take my rest

on the soft coverlet

of leaf litter,

a place reserved

in my name.

I woke up this morning, after a somewhat restless night, realizing what a blessed life I have been privileged to live.  Richard, Snuffy, Dodge, a Menominee code talker who helped Navajo code talkers get from place to place in China and Southeast Asia during World War II as they found Japanese forces, traveled behind the blanket earlier this week, and his passing at the age of 94 has caused me to think about how many truly extraordinary people I have known.

I met Snuffy in 1973 when I was working as an English and History teacher at the Menominee County Community School on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin.  One of the first of the Indian controlled schools that later morphed into the Bureau of Indian Education’s contract school system that funded tribes to operate their own school systems, the Community School was a seat-of-the-pants effort that I suspect both Snuffy and his highly intelligent wife Paula did not fully see as the history of Menominee education.

When the Menominee County Education Committee, however, led the effort to create the Indian controlled school district that came to be known as the Menominee Indian School District, Snuffy got elected to the first school board.  Although I wanted to work at the new high school, the Superintendent, whom I had helped get the job, did not hire me.  Ironically, that led to me getting to know Snuffy better than would have happened otherwise and helped enrich my life.

The job I got after failing to get a teaching job at the school district was as the first Director of Planning for the Menominee Restoration Committee that was restoring the Menominee Nation after the disastrous termination policy that had decimated the tribe’s fortunes during the Dwight Eisenhower presidency.  In that job I started working extensively with Gordon Burr, a Stockbridge tribal member, who was also working closely on Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) efforts with all of Wisconsin’s thirteen tribes.  Snuffy was also working closely with Gordon, and the three of us started an effort to help first Menominee, then all of Wisconsin’s tribes, for the next several years.

After a year working for Menominee, I joined Gordon to work at the Great Lakes Indian Tribal Consortium, and Snuffy, I, and Gordon raised millions of dollars in CETA, Economic Development Administration (EDA), State of Wisconsin, and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for tribal projects.  We traveled together a lot, working at the state legislature in Madison, developing projects on various Reservations, and writing what seemed to be an endless stream of proposals.  The truth is that Snuffy and Gordon were both gifts to Wisconsin Indian tribes during those years, and the three of us, and our families, developed close bonds.

The stories I can tell about Snuffy are pretty close to endless.  One of my favorites was when he was in Chicago working with the Regional EDA Administrator who was also named Dick Dodge.  He was in EDA Dick Dodge’s office talking to him about a project he and I were working on when the administrator got an “urgent phone call.”  With Snuffy sitting in his office, the EDA Dick Dodge’s eyes got really big, and he bellowed out, “They did what?”  It turned out that a Michigan tribe had developed a hog operation as an economic development project, and one of the project’s administrators had got the idea to fund a tribal feast, and he’d managed to provide the breeding hogs for the feast, destroying the project.

If that wasn’t an unfortunate time for a representative trying to get funding for an economic development project for a Wisconsin tribe to be in that office, I don’t know what unfortunate means, but Snuffy always knew how to smile and laugh and get people off their high horse into a serious negotiation, and the upshot of the story is that we got that grant funded.  EDA Dick Dodge was not pleased, but he was working with Snuffy Dick Dodge, and surely that meant that things would work out okay.

The most important project Snuffy and I tackled together was when the Ho Chunk in Lake Delton wanted to take control over the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial where they had performed for decades so that they could get the economic benefit for what they had made possible.  We worked with Dells Boat Company and other business leaders in the Dells, as well as the American Legion that had originally started up the Ceremonial, and helped to make that happen.  The Neesh-La Indian Development Corporation that we worked with Alberta Day, the President of the Corporation, and other Ho Chunk people from the area to create, is still operating successfully today.

There are simply so many stories.  During our travels Snuffy would always want to eat out at higher class restaurants where he could have a glass of Chablis, and Gordon preferred down-home cooking at what were in essence greasy spoons.  The battles always put me in the middle, although neither one of them ever got angry at the other one or me when they didn’t get their way that day.  Snuffy always read the Wall Street Journal every day, stopping at a news stand when we were on the road so that he could check on the stock he was invested in and check up on the news of the day.  These are the small things that loom big when you look back and contemplate what has long passed by.

One of the most memorable times of my life was when Ethel, Paula, Snuffy, and I took a trip to Atlanta, GA one year over the Smoky Mountains, enjoying each other’s company.  We were doing the Neesh-La project at that point and trying to learn more about the tourist industry and how it worked.  We learned a lot at the convention we attended, but we enriched all our lives by making a magical trip together.

No short essay is going to illuminate any extraordinary individual’s life, of course.  Richard Snuffy Dodge was a delightful human being who was complex and intelligent and forward-thinking all at the same time.  When Ethel and I visited him and Paula for the last time, we talked about the past, and he gave me a long hug, even though he was already having trouble eating at that point, as we left their house in Keshena for our home in Sturgeon Bay.

As I said, this morning I woke up after a troubled night and realized just how blessed a life I have lived with Ethel, my children, and all the extraordinary people I have been privileged to have known.

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Major Anthology Released by Four Windows Press

Publisher:                   Four Windows Press, 231 N Hudson Ave., Sturgeon Bay, WI  54235

Distributor:                Ingram

Number of pages:      370

Price:                          20.95 Retail

Available:                   Through bookstores and online venues worldwide, including https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0999007777?pf_rd_r=QNSVAP9MMMBZFHENZZEP&pf_rd_p=9d9090dd-8b99-4ac3-b4a9-90a1db2ef53b or https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/no-more-can-fit-into-the-evening-thomas-davis/1138335652?ean=9780999007778

Web site:                    www.fourwindowspress1.com

Four Windows Press has released a major anthology of English-speaking poets, No More Can Fit Into the Evening, A Diversity of Voices.  The volume contains a healthy sampling of work from 39 poets from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. 

In the “Introduction” to the volume, the Editors, Thomas Davis and Standing Feather, both poets, say that “an early decision was made to invite poets either they knew about” from their years participating in multiple poetic communities “to submit ‘the ten best poems they had ever written.’” From the hundreds of poems submitted over 250 poems were included in the final publication.

Among the notable poets in the volume include Terence Winch, winner of the American Book and other awards; John Looker, an important British poet; Kimberly Blaeser, an Anishinabe poet with an international reputation who is a former State of Wisconsin Poet Laureate; Michael Kriesel, former President of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and James Janko, winner of the AWP Novel of the Year and other awards.

According to Davis and Feather, what they are hoping “as they bring this project to press is that readers might find themselves on a mesa top where grandmother junipers spread their branches out beneath a full moon, remembering poems that stuck in their spirit after this volume has been read. We are hoping they might have that experience in Door County, Wisconsin where Lake Michigan is tossing wild, white capped waves at the dark dolomite escarpment that runs through Door Peninsula, or maybe in the timeless moment when they are communing with Taliesin, the ancient Celtic bard, in a time before time as he chants beauty and the world’s beauty into the deep starlight of a Celtic night.”

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Tribal College History Podcasts Continue, No. 10

The latest podcast from the Tribal College Journal and Christine Reidhead about the tribal college movement has just been put up at https://tribalcollegejournal.org/our-history-memories-of-the-tribal-college-movement-podcast-10 In this podcast about the tribal college movement I talk about two legendary figures, Lionel Bordeaux, the Dean of Tribal College Presidents, and Martha McLeod, the founding President of Bay Mills Community College in Northern Michigan.

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Review of Under the Tail of the Milky Way Galaxy

Carolyn Kane, the author of an award winning novel, Taking Jenny Home, a Professor Emeritus of English at Culvert-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, just reviewed Ethel’s book, Under the Tail of the Milky Way Galaxy, for the Peninsula Pulse.  The review can be read here:

https://doorcountypulse.com/review-under-the-tail-of-the-milky-way-galaxy-by-ethel-mortenson-davis.

In the review Kane says that “Davis’ poems might be described as extended haiku because their images are sharp and spare, and because they contain the element of contrast that a reader should expect in a well-crafted haiku.”  It is a wonderful review.

Underthewaycover.jpg

 

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Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings

I just signed a contract with Tribal College Press (TCP) for the publication of a book of poetry titled, Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings.  In 1972 I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and found a teaching position at an alternative school, Menominee County Community School, which was one of the first seven school of the Indian controlled schools movement in this country.  It was through my association with Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, the greatest American Indian leader in Indian education during my lifetime, that I found out about the tribal colleges.

When Dr. Verna Fowler asked me to help her found what became College of the Menominee Nation in 1993, I started writing poems about the tribal college movement and its founding.  I have written a substantial number of poems over the decades, celebrating, mourning, living the tribal college dream of creating a new form of higher education driven by American Indian cultures and languages throughout the United States.

Most of the early poems were written during American Indian Higher Education conferences, or later, World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium conferences, in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia.  I usually wrote them on scrap paper or napkins and then promptly gave them to whomever I was with at the time.  Luckily for me, Marjane Ambler, then Editor of the Tribal College Journal, prevailed upon person after person to save them and send them to her.  Later on, once a handful of the poems appeared in print, I stated saving them myself.

The poems tell a different kind of history about the tribal college and university and World Indigenous controlled institutions of higher education movements in the United States and worldwide.  I am grateful that Bradley Shreve and Rachael Marchbanks at TCP unexpectedly offered to publish the book.

This has been quite a year!  In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams, my Washington Island historical novel about the black fisherman community that settled on the island before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the Civil War, should be coming out in the near future.  Now Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings.  I’m really going to have to do some marketing work.  I hope some of you might consider buying either one or both works.  I’ve certainly worked hard enough on both of them.

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Review in Wisconsin People and Ideas

My review of Thomas Peacock’s first novel, Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny, is in the latest issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.  Peacock is one of the most important writers and thinkers about American Indian education in the country, and his wonderful novel, published by Holy Cow! Press (one of my favorite publishers), has “the resonance of truth telling” in its pages.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the deepness of native culture and how that deepness draws people into and back to the place where the universe began.

I am also pleased to be published in Wisconsin People & Ideas, the most important publication containing the best of Wisconsin culture and thought in the state.  The publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters explores Wisconsin’s intellectual and natural environment with a substance that helps define the state’s true spirit.

My daughter, Sonja Bingen, tried to get the Academy to name me a Fellow, but that didn’t happen, so this publication made me especially feel good.  The magazine and the Academy is one of the best things about Wisconsin.

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Tribal College Movement Podcasts

When Ethel and I traveled to New Mexico in February, I worked at Navajo Technical Univerity’s (NTU) campus three days a week while Ethel stayed in our small RV at the Ancient Way Cafe near the El Morro National Monument.  At NTU Christine Reidhead, who is the head of the baccalaureate program in Business, and April Chischilly, an Assistant Professor and long-term NTU employee, got me to agree to do podcasts about the tribal college movement.

I was totally unprepared even though Christine has, for some time, threatened to write my biography.  She refuses to understand that I am not important enough to have a biography written and is absolutely persistent.  When she dragged out and set up this array of equipment she had purchased out of a tribal college salary to do the podcast, I was not only shocked, but felt like I should cooperate.

The introduction that Christine did to the series is more than a little exaggerated.  I am in no way a legend, and though I was around the TCU movement early in its formation, primarily through my association with Helen Scheirbeck, my claim to fame would not be as a pioneer, or founder of the movement, but as someone who was lucky enough in life to walk with the giants that created what I would consider one of the most significant educational movements of the 20th and early 21st century.  I tried to get Christine to change the introduction to the series, but she just laughed at me and said she loved it.

I thought I’d post all of the podcasts here, one at a time.  I am hopeful, even though they are off the cuff and a little rambling, they might have some historical value.  I am, in the end, grateful to Christine and April for tying me down to a project that I would never have contemplated on my own.

Since I know nothing about podcasts, I should note that the first one seems to have been sped up in some way while the second one is not that way at all.  Still, this has been interesting.  The link to Christine’s work is below:

https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/christine-reidhead/episode-1-tribal-college-x19zIm07_jl

Others will follow over the next month or so.

Thomas Davis

 

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A Review of John Looker’s New Book

Poetry, like all the arts, can be put into boxes, labeled, and then held up in the light as genius or foolery or something so old it is hoary with tradition. Still, the truth is that poetry is a multi-headed beast. Unlike Medusa with snakes hissing out of her hair, poets different heads can be glorious, beautiful, ugly, repellant, powerful, sad, enraged, dangerous, joyous, or any flavor in between all that is possible within the human spirit or mind.

I have to admit I am as guilty of constructing boxes for poems and labeling them as any other inveterate reader of verse. For every book of poetry I devour from Wendell Berry, or Mary Oliver, or Federick Turner, the epic poet, I purchase and read two or three books by more obscure poets. Still, I often have trouble appreciating what I call the poetry of a moment’s experience where a sunset or a minor incident is described inside feelings or ideas experience generates. I tend to subscribe to a more ancient definition of great poetry where the poem has to achieve a universality sense where Robert Lowell’s powerful details dredged from specific people and places are not the stuff of greatness.

Yet, I understand when I read Lowell or Sylvia Plath of any of the confessional poets, or John Berryman, a poet I struggled to appreciate for years, that my suspicion of the box of poetry as a moment’s experience does not hold water, not really. Poetry should not be put in a box labeled and shelved in the library of old dead poets. Not every poet who writes poetry has the ability to reach beyond self into significance, but sneering at any effort to write a poem is doomed to miss one of the beast-heads of poetry that grows, over time, into a meaning that is properly celebrated.

I suspect that those who see the title of John Looker’s new book, Poems for my Family (Bennison Books) will immediately begin constructing a poetry box. Oh no, how do you build any true poetry out of the sentimentality attached to our reactions to the specificity of our family members? Is that not a little trite? Just a little overworn?

Looker’s last book, The Human Hive (Bennison Books), as I pointed out in my review of the book, uses human labor as a theme while avoiding “the evolution of humanity toward the frenetic pace of the contemporary world, but instead shows the ley lines of relationship of humans over time.” It is a stunning book of poetry, original, ranging over the sweep of time into meanings about contemporary life and work that provide the ore of true poetry.

Poems for my Family has poems that achieve the same originality of purpose and song found in The Human Hive. “Marco Polo on the Silk Road” puts us “along Augean shores, Byzantine domes . . . even the Holy Land/where Christendom expires. . .” But more often the poems have a gentleness that wraps us into the blanket of Looker’s love for wife, children, grandchildren, and parents.

In the book’s first poem, “Bela’s Party,” we find ourselves in a much different place than we travel to when reading Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes”:

When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.

The scene of “Bela’s Party” could be in the memory of almost any contemporary individual, man or woman:

A warm summer evening, as I recall,
and not a whisper of breeze.
There in the garden the party-goers
were talking and laughing, their voices rising,
there was music playing
and coloured lights in the trees.

The final stanza is even more universal than the first. It could apply to any time or place even though it is clearly addressed, perhaps a little like Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Sonnets from the Portuguese addressed Robert Browning, to a singular woman:

I know I abandoned those I had come with,
moving to you in a dream
and scarcely aware of the cancers parting.
There would have been shooting stars in the sky
and a nightingale
if I had directed the scene.

There is love woven into every poem in this slender volume, but inside love there is always: life shattering tragedy as expressed in “Old Age Becomes Him,” the wonder of new birth found in “Newborn,” or the blending of science, observation, and wisdom conveyed to a young man in “Galileo’s Telescope.” The prism of emotions ranges across the span of a life where poems rise up as if they were plants in fertile soils and sing, thrash, celebrate the poet that John Looker is.

Courage can be found in a poet that titles a book, Poems for my Family. There is mundaneness hinted at in the title, an everydayness, a specificity that seems like it could have existed inside millions of lives that have flowed through all the generations since humankind became sentient. This is poetry that could be put into a box and labeled and placed among the library of humans that have loved and written about their family over all generations.

But, of course, poetry is a multi-headed beast with a range greater than criticism can penetrate with any intelligence. Poems for my Family exists inside a box that is not contained by the box it would be so easy to construct around it, and in that sense, readers should drop pretensions and enjoy a gentle draught of poetry sure to touch into who they as individual human beings are.

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Navajo Technical University Project

One of the projects I have been working on, along with a lot of other people, has been a new educational model centered on the Bond Wilson Technical Center in Kirtland, NM.  Kathy Isaacson, who has been key to helping put the project together, created this video of the project.  I appear in it toward the end of the video.

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Tribal Colleges and STEM

by Thomas Davis

I thought some of the readers of Four Windows Press might enjoy this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XyqwWR3_d4, which describes the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math work being done in tribal colleges across the United States.

This is obviously not about poetry, art, or photography, but I have worked in American Indian Education from 1972 up to the present time. I helped establish the National Science Foundation’s Tribal College and University’s Program (TCUP), working closely with Carrie Billy, then the Director of President Bill Clinton’s White Initiative of Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), that this video explores. My role was not that important really, but I am proud of the work I did throughout my career in the tribal college movement nevertheless. Carty Monette and Carol Davis, both featured in the video, are not only good friends, but played a major role in helping establish the TCUs nationwide.

What the TCUs are achieving throughout the United States is, at least in my opinion, some of the most important educational work being done in the world today. This video just gives a small glimpse of that work and might introduce to at least some of you the TCUs.

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