At our granddaughter Sophia's wedding, Ethel wrote one poem for the wedding that she read out loud during the ceremony. A friend of our daughter Mary read another poem by Ethel that was written 55 years ago during our courtship. Then, at the reception I sat down and wrote a poem commemorating the event as the mariachi band played and people people danced as sunlight streamed out of the clouds for the first time all day. The poem Ethel read: Hope Dear Grandmother, today your great, great granddaughter is getting married to a fine, young man, and they promise their love is greater than their parents’ love and their grandparents’ love. They promise they will be happier than their parents were or their grandparents. And they promise their children will be loved more than all the ancestors put together. Dear Grandmother, this is their promise, and this is our hope. The poem from 55 years ago: How Could I Know? It looks to me as though you’ve been around, perhaps, since time began— and I have lived at least as long. Oh? Only that much time? I’m sure there was no life before for you or me. How could I know your face so well? As well as some old rock I’ve seen hang, clinging to a mountain wall, and I know what wave of brightness, or of darkness, to expect there waiting for me. You step and make some rounded move. I know beforehand which way to go. How could I know? Unless. . . You’ve been around, perhaps, since time began. I know I’ve lived at least as long. The poem I wrote: At My Granddaughter’s Wedding First the bald eagle above the bay, water dancing light on lines of waves, then cranes in the greening field, Babies and parents communicating with legs, moving necks, and wings in the sun, and then the rumor of storms brewing black clouds in the north, stirring with big winds. But then, after a night of worry, the ceremony was to be outside, the wedding day came, cloudy, a fifty percent chance of rain. But then the rain didn’t come. Wedding roses lined paths to the small wooden church. Then, the words as ancient as human spirits, were spoken by the bride and groom, and then the sun came out as the mariachi celebration began, as clouds thinned, and my granddaughter and her love danced as music rose into an evening sky— and love was everywhere. Everywhere.
Category Archives: Thomas Davis
Poem by Ethel Mortenson Davis, essay by Tom Davis
the cedar grove
near the edge
of the lake.
It looks like
a bed between
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.
I wrote Apples for the Wild Stallion after Joey’s mother, Sonja Bingen, while starting to read the first book in the Harry Potter series while we were visiting one day, looked at me and said, wistfully, I’ve been trying to find books that has a character Joey can relate to, but I’ve only been able to find one. After getting home to Sturgeon Bay, I sat down and started writing this novel. After all, Joey loves horses, and here he is with the novel.
Sonja tells me that she is going to start reading it with him after she finished teaching in early June. She ordered the book from amazon, though, not willing to wait for the copies I’ve got coming in from All Things That Matter Press, and here is the photo she sent of Joey with his copy of the book written for him.
I just received some unexpected news! All Things That Matter Press has just published my newest novel, Apples for the Wild Stallion. Written for my grandson, Joey Bingen, after his mother Sonja looked up at me one day while starting to read the first Harry Potter book to him and told me that she had been looking for books that he could relate to but couldn’t find any, the novel features a hero that cannot talk because of his autism, but is a hero anyway. He, along with his family living on Wrangler Road just outside Continental Divide, NM where Ethel used to take her daily walks into wilderness, face up to a gang of thugs that threaten them and their neighbors and a magical wild stallion that keeps coming for apples that Austin, the hero, keeps placing between a grandmother juniper tree in the Zuni Mountains where their ranch is located.
Sonja Bingen, our daughter, contributed the photograph that is on the cover and wrote a small piece about Joey in the book. His grandfather is hoping that when Joey listens to the novel it not only gives a character that he can relate to but also gives him an experience he never forgets. I expected the book to come out in June, but now it can be ordered from bookstores, from amazon.com, and other places where young adult books are sold!
The High Window is an important poetry review site dedicated to covering international poetry in Great Britain. The High Window just published a major review by the British poet John Looker, artwork by Ethel Mortenson Davis, and poems from Meditation on Ceremonies of Beginnings published by Tribal College Press, written by Thomas Davis. This is just a stunning issue of the website, at least from where I sit in the universe.
All Things That Matter Press have released the cover for my new novel, Apples for the Wild Stallion. This book was written after my daughter, Sonja Bingen, one day remarked to me, while she was starting to read the first Harry Potter book to Joey, our non-verbal autistic grandson, I have really searched for a book that had a character Joey can relate to in his life, but have had trouble finding any. This cover was done by my ATTMP editor, Deb Harris, who based it on a photograph Sonja did on Joey and a brown mare who resembles Brownie, one of the horses, the one Joey rides, in the novel. The novel is set in the Zuni Mountains of New Mexico on Wrangler Road where Ethel, when lived in Continental Divide, did her daily walk with our dogs. The wild, white stallion of the novel’s title changes Joey’s life, but he returns the favor to the stallion in the story.
by Thomas Davis
We drove Grand Mesa’s unpaved, snow-packed roads Around its hairpin curves until the banks Of drifts were high enough to stop the plows. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins slammed Car doors and shouted so their voices echoed off The slopes and cliffs that soared into the sky. Then “food enough to feed an army,” sleds, Toboggans came from car trunks as the day’s Festivity spilled out into the winter cold. My Dad and Uncle dug into the snow To make a fire with driftwood, branches found Down in the canyon as we’d driven by The stream that gurgled songs beneath the ice. Then, looking down the road toward a bank That lurched uphill before a hairpin curve, The oldest of my cousins laughed and jumped Onto her sled, her head downhill, and slid Like lightning flashed into a coal-black sky: The slope so steep she flew, the hill of white A half mile down as solid as a wall, The road beneath her hard and slick as ice. Her mother, Aunt Viola, laughed to see Her fly toward the snowbank wall as I Could hardly breathe to see the tragedy Unfolding as the sunlight glared into my eyes. My eyes began to hurt. She had to crash Or slam into the wall of snow so hard She wouldn’t be my cousin anymore. But, as she hurtled down toward her doom, She dragged her legs behind the racing sled And turned the blades before she hit the hill, And everybody who had come to watch Began to yell when she rolled off the sled, Popped to her feet and shot her arm into the air. When, after other cousins dared the hill, I hesitated, swallowing to see The downhill slope, my younger brother jumped Ahead of me and joined into the fun. I stood above my sled and felt my heart Quail, staring down toward the distant bank That still seemed solid as a concrete wall. I froze and couldn’t move until my Dad, Behind me, got me on my sled and pushed Me off as cold and snow and light became A blur of flying, flying down the road. I flared my legs behind the hurtling sled And tried to slow down as I turned the blades, The running sound beneath my stomach, snow A cloud of ice as I rolled off the sled And came up, sunk in snow up to my hips, And shouted with my arm up in the air.
by Thomas Davis
I woke with his face still in my head, a handsome young man who looked something like the oil drilling roustabout who had lived next to my parent’s house when I was a kid rough around the edges with startling blue eyes. When he spoke, though, his voice was like the classical music on vinyl records I bought as a teenager when I wasn’t listening to Simon and Garfunkel or a country and western star my parents really liked. “He won’t be like most people expect,” he’d said in the dream. “He’ll come out of a tower as opulent, and filled with human hubris, as the Tower of Babel, shining even when no sun is in the sky, and when he speaks, great throngs will gather even though pestilence is raging, and their shouting and adulation will stir winds spreading disease and fan it into the most remote parts of the land. “He won’t drive around in a beat up, old pickup like many of his followers, but will sail in a huge, black limousine fancier than most people’s houses, and he’ll use grievance and insult to stir masses that march to Sunday church where they worship a humble man, who championed the poor and downtrodden and said fat cats had as much chance getting into heaven as a rich man had of getting a camel through a needle’s eye. “And as pestilence spreads and poverty grows out of pestilence, dissension and intolerance will enter into people’s spirits, and chaos will churn into an earth beset by destructive storms, floods, droughts, and great forests burning, spawning tornadoes of flames, disasters creating wailing and despair even as the ocean rises and voices speaking prophetic warnings can barely be heard above endless tumult. “O, he won’t be dressed in red or have horns or a pointed tail. He’ll wear expensive suits and act like a common man with a whirlwind voice singing resentment and anger and the exquisite joys and promise of human greed.” As I woke up the man, looking nothing like an angel, smiled, and I felt disoriented, wondering if I was waking up, or was trapped, somehow, in a continuing dream’s fog.
Tribal College Press has launched Meditation on Ceremonies of Beginnings! The book went up on their site, https://tribalcollegejournal.org/buy-meditation-on-ceremonies-of-beginnings, yesterday. I have emphasizing the Tribal College Press site for purchases because any purchase here goes to help the tribal college movement out through work that the Tribal College Journal does with all of the colleges.
To me, at least, this is the most important book I have ever written, as accidental as it is in some senses. It represents decades of work for all the tribal colleges and specifically for the colleges that I worked directly for over much of my life. Imbedded in the book also are all the sacrifices Ethel and my children, Sonja, Mary, and Kevin, made during the years when I was working so hard to make so many things happen of American Indian communities and students in individual communities and nationwide. I also want to celebrate Ethel’s magnificent pastel the press used for the cover.
I received my first copy of the finished book at the house yesterday, and I was surprised at how much emotion it generated in me. The tribal colleges and universities and international indigenous controlled institutions of higher learning are so important! All of us need to reach out, if we are not American Indian people, to the original people of this land and celebrate them and feel the power of what they and their communities have to offer the world. I hope that in the pages of this book of poetry both Indians and non-Indians can find the spirit of the tribal colleges and universities and then become inspired to support them in some concrete way. They are still among the poorest funded colleges and universities in this country even though they are doing God’s work in some of the poorest places in the United States.
Meditations on the Ceremonies of Beginnings is a book of poetry developed over decades as I played my small role in the tribal colleges and universities and world indigenous nation’s higher education consortium movements. Tribal College Press has announced it will be released in late November. The cover design just came in! The drawing is by Ethel Mortenson Davis.
You’ll have to enlarge to cover to read the writing, but I am especially excited about what Carrie Billy, one of the great leaders of the tribal college and university movement, and Kimberly Blaeser, on the most important Native American poets in the United States, say about the book.