Presence: The Heartspeak of Indigenous Poets: b: william bearhart


As a poet, I struggle with language—the English that America force-fed down my ancestors’ throats during assimilation and the Boarding School Era. My mouth struggles to reclaim the language of my ancestors as I try to learn words in my mother tongues.

I write these words while sitting on Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lands. I type, We are still here, fingers on keys, and think about what it means to live as an Indigenous person in the United States, on Turtle Island today. I see no borders; I wish everyone could see through these eyes.

I think about my First Nations relatives to the north and our relatives from south of these manmade borders in what is known as México. I think about the caravan of relatives traveling north, the voter suppression of Indigenous people in North Dakota and of our Black relatives in Georgia, and the heavy history of a country that has weaponized words in so many unspeakable ways.

These times where my heart struggles to speak are when I need poetry the most.

November is Native American Heritage Month and in celebration I would like to fill the white space of the page with the words of Indigenous poets whose work nourishes my soul. The presence of these poets’ pulses through the literary landscape to help us survive our loneliness and silences, to bless us with light, and to bear witness to our presence in all forms.

– Tanaya Winder


The Blue Jay and the Tulip Field: What Started as a Letter to Saeed Jones

I, too, understand a body wrecked as it is and sung
with a foxtail glove. I understand a crimson dress
pulled from a hallway closet.

I get the switch of yellow tulle on sunny satin as a boy’s hips
sashay in the upstairs bedroom
far away from his father who wrote a drunken note
to a mother on a paper plate
______“Take this kid back with you.”

I understand how faggot is a brother’s hand
wrapped around the throat of a blue jay.
How gasping is a copper horn of a fabulous night panther
puncturing the lung.
I understand this precious of things.

I understand hands, their volatility,
how a father builds intricate explosives:
missiles, alcoholic siblings, bodies red clayed
and inlaid with grenades. I’m unpinned
with little time. I understand being the weakest
of my father’s kids. O, Daddy,

I understand how a father can sit quiet
while his queered blue jay son is silenced
on the floor as the family watches
a brother choke a brother
because one son might not be his son.
I understand a wilted coxcomb
I understand a field of red tulips
______gardened down a face.

b: william bearhart is a direct descendent of the St Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, a graduate from the Lo Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and currently works as a poker dealer in a small Wisconsin casino when not writing or editing. His work can be found in Boston Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. More from this author →