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Local Lit: poets gather for Leonard Peltier



In southwestern Oklahoma, between the Red and Washita rivers, the rugged peaks of the Wichita Mountains rise abruptly from a broad, level plain. Though forced from those mountains at an early age, the Quahada Comanche poet Lonnie Poco remembers them well: the buffalo roaming the foothills, the hawks circling overhead, the creeks and streams teeming with white bass and long snout-nosed alligator gar. "It was really beautiful then," says Poco, "but it's all gone."

In 1940, the U.S. government decided to expand Fort Sill, an Army outpost since 1869, and annexed the 180-acre ranch that had been Poco's home. To create a reservoir at the fort, the Army also dammed a number of small waterways, including Blue Beaver Creek, which ran through the mountain ranch. Though just two years old at the time, Poco clearly recalls the day of his family's departure. "I wanted to go play in the creek," he says, "but there was no water there. I asked Dad why, and he said, 'The deer drank the water up.'"

The family eventually resettled about 30 miles south of the mountains in the town of Walters, where Poco's father opened a shoe-repair shop. As he grew older, Poco had to board at the Fort Sill Indian School, but he kept running away until he was finally expelled. Too small for football, he took up boxing in high school and won a scholarship to Cameron College in Lawton, Oklahoma. "I was pretty good," he quietly recollects. "I knocked out a lot of people. But after a while I got a little bit tired of it. I didn't really have the killer's instinct."

Poco dropped out of college and in 1962, after a stint in the Navy, he came to Chicago under the auspices of the Indian relocation program. He hoped to attend art school; instead, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, trying to keep costs down, persuaded him to enroll at the old Institute of Lettering and Design, where Poco says he was relegated to a two-year course in sign painting. Meanwhile, he continued to produce his own paintings, landscapes and portraits that occasionally incorporated Native American themes. He was also drawing single-panel cartoons in the style of the New Yorker, and it was from this latter endeavor that his interest in writing bloomed.

"I started writing poems as far back as I can remember," says Poco. "They were mostly for my own amusement--like keeping a diary. Sometimes I'd show them to friends, but I was never really interested in publishing them." As he struggled to unify his poetry with his art, he recalled the vanished country of his youth: "A sudden memory appears out of nowhere / just for a moment as thoughts of spring call / back fond memories of a forgotten time that / must remain buried beneath a decade of / winters and frozen snows." So writes Poco in Beside the Wichita, a slim volume of poetry and drawings peopled with images of boyhood. Here is Poco's grandfather, "Sitting on the porch / in the cool morning air / shaking his peyote gourd / while singing / the / sacred morning song." And here, Poco himself, "a small native child" who walks alone "along a dusty dirt road near the Wichita."

Because they look back on a lost era--"Only soft memories / in this land / which was once rich / and abundant"--Poco's poems have an elegiac quality. But there are also moments of ecstasy as the poet, his heart soaring like an eagle, anticipates a time of renewal: "The whole world becomes still / in the quietude of soft breezes from / outstretched wings that give life and comfort / to all who stand beside the great spirit." And then, as in that vanished time, the sound of quail will be heard in the distance and the sacred water bird will come down from the mountains to drink again from clear waters.

Beside the Wichita would not appear until 1981, but by the late 70s Poco's occasional public readings had already earned him a reputation as Chicago's "Indian poet." One young man who heard him then was the Anishinabe poet Ed Two Rivers. It was at the Newberry Library: "I happened to glance into a room where he was reading," says Two Rivers, casting his memory back nearly 20 years. "Lonnie had long hair and a Nehru jacket, and he was wearing Indian jewelry, and I said, 'Wow!' He was a real hero in those days, I tell you."

While Two Rivers is known locally for his "street poetry"--he won the Green Mill poetry slam in 1990 with a tale of a man awaiting the electric chair--his national reputation rests on verse that has an affinity with Poco's more spiritual lyrics. Such is the mood of "For Leonard," the passionate, dreamlike poem that Two Rivers has written for Leonard Peltier, the 48-year-old American Indian Movement activist serving consecutive life sentences for allegedly killing two FBI agents on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. Convinced of Peltier's innocence, Two Rivers will emcee a benefit at the World Tattoo gallery to help raise money for Peltier's defense. Joining Two Rivers and Poco will be local poets James Fenelon, Julia Hattory, Mark LaRoque, Jeanne LaTraille, and Martin Yellowbank, Seattle-based poet Chrystos, and musical ensembles Sisters in Spirit, Yellowbank Celebration of Hope, and Example: None. The occasion will also serve as the first Chicago exhibition and sale of paintings and lithographs created by Peltier within the confines of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Lonnie Poco, who feels that Peltier is the victim of a "tremendous injustice," plans to read one of his recent poems, "New Warriors," at the benefit. "That's my term for the kids growing up today," says Poco. "They come with the north wind, the winds of change. Those young voices that are being molded or created now and are giving force and new identity to Indian people. These are going to be the Indian voices that, centuries from now, people are going to look back on."

"A Poetry Reading and Music Gala Benefit for Leonard Peltier" happens Thursday, March 4, at 7 PM at World Tattoo, 1255 S. Wabash. Admission is $10. For more information call the Leonard Peltier Support Group, 427-4457.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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