Lois Red Elk is an enrolled Dakota/Lakota tribal member with roots from Ft. Peck, Spirit Lake, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Crow Creek. Her poems, prose, and children’s stories have been published in many magazines and anthologies. Her first book, Our Blood Remembers (Many Voices Press, 2011) won the Best Nonfiction award from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Her latest books are Dragonfly Weather (Lost Horse Press, 2013), and Why I Return to Makoce (Many Voices Press, 2015), which was a finalist in the Montana Book Awards.
I Send You Horses
After I heard of your death I lowered
my head, let the loss of our human ones,
consume my heart and voice, then raged
for the ones who were taken away by the
frost. You were sent to walk the earth
for awhile, live a life sharing love and
wisdom, but grief and loss brought the
ancestors close this day. They reminded
me about the rider-less horses, the faithful
ones left alone, waiting. You were horse
people and long ago, your horses would
have been slain to travel with you to the
other side. Now I pray and ask that the
spirits of horses carry you safely to the
place where the ghost road becomes
visible, shines with stars and angels and
lights the way for your next journey.
Your horses carry buffalo robes to cover
your backs. When you died you only
had on your street clothes, thin and oily,
not fur and tanned hides. They did not
protect you from the cold kiss of death.
Your head and hands should have worn
the thick hides of beaver and fox, but
all you had was cotton and tired skin.
Not enough to keep out the still blue air
that stole your breath. On the horse, in
the bundle, there are warm gloves and
hats of otter, the kind your ancestor’s
knew how to make. Look for them, they
will keep you warm for this new ride.
I send you a stallion and a mare, a pair
of paint horses. On the Canku wakan
the ghost road, the old one, the old owl
woman will recognize you both by the
tattoos and scares that bear witness to
your earthly struggle, this shadow place
of sadness and pain. The Sunka Wakan
will carry you to a kinder warmth and
safety, away from the cold icy minutes
that stole your earth being, away from this
place that could not give what you needed,
this place that forgot how to provide you
with the life of our culture and horses.
To Outlast the Times
“Can you see them sitting in the back?
Are they here yet?” I look and search,
but they usually came in late.
It was part of the plan to outlast the times.
They didn’t want to sit in the pews
cause they said the wood was too hard,
besides, they liked sitting
on their blankets on the floor,
just like they sat on the ground
in their tents. I slid off the pew and
quietly hurried to the back
past all the families, and there they were,
all three of my grandmas, sitting
in a row, on blankets, on the floor,
leaning against the paneled wall
at the back of the church.
They were always glad to see me,
motioned for me to sit with them.
I gave them all hugs, told them
I had to go tell mom they were here.
They made me promise to come back.
While the minister began his talk,
the Grandma’s opened their bundles,
they sewed pieces of cloth together
and hummed some old Lakota melodies.
Then the minister opened his hymnal.
They knew all the church tunes by heart.
The words didn’t mean anything to them.
I went back to sit with them, and listen
to them as they hummed along.
When the song was over, they all chimed
in together and added their very own
closing end notes to the hymn,
“Hay yah Hey Yaaaahhhh.”