Presence: The Heartspeak of Indigenous Poets: Casandra López


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


Welcome to San Bernardino:

Here is our city of abandonment—a country of metal and might. Learn to guard your grit. Get ready for puncture of skin and muscle. Bone could be next. Are we malleable yet? The beauty of these streets is cloaked in a gust of earth and swipe of spray paint; peel back a layer and smile at the joy, the hot soak of a loose city. Some here beg for cement and others for sky; some days I go away sticky with city and some days I’m so lonely I can’t bear to lose one more thing. Father walked blocks and blocks of concrete until his hips became titanium; inside his body he is all lustrous and silver; inside of the broken and worn weary is something that resists. I name it the same as this city, name it same as this hunger, name it same as my metal mouth that hides the departed. My mouth did bleed with infection and I wondered if I’d ever heal. The white gauze could not silence me. I pull it out to show everyone how I bleed. Show them my missing; I open it wide to mark the existence of absence. Do I have enough iron in my blood for you to taste my metal? Are you sensitive to our bitter? Can you not taste the water? My mouth has become all valley and mountain, an untied tongue. So much of us is invisible to the naked eye and news articles. I’m hammered tired reading our name on listicles of the most dangerous cities in California––We live greater than lists of victims, property values and White House misspellings. Every year our gutters flood open to relieve this desert; May drizzles and torrents of rain are both blamed on an Indian curse.

This is hardly a curse.

We wear it so easily because a curse is just the other face of prayer.

If we are cursed it is by Bullet and not rain.

There is no way to ignore the fact that some will be born here and some will die here.

How blessed we are like stars learning to hold ourselves together by our own gravity.


Watching My Friend Watch Her Father Die

Swells me with rain and all of the I don’t knows / what to say. I visit January / in hospitals back in town after months away. He’s an aged father / figure of big mouth advise. Coached Brother with Hawaiian lungs full of move / over this way, stand here. Now there are tubes everywhere, muted shaking / of head, some grunts and hand tightening. His hair and skin once so brown / tinged grey as sleeted sky. My friend says, blink your eyes / twice if you understand. We wait against cream / walls warning of pain levels breathing / in the medicinal, breathing in the ticking / clock and unwatched television. There is a comment about an accident / on the freeway and about her mother’s name / tattooed on her father’s arm. With wide eyes he shakes / his head, no more, no surgery. No investigative hand into / his bloated body. And all there is / now / is to wait in folding / chairs, in hallways and family / rooms. I’m summoned / in a night submerged / in hush / to wait. We talk about Brother’s death years / before and her mother’s before that. We talk of something / ridiculous and laugh in bursts of sweet years. We touch / his hand and then there is nothing / for me to do but / be here / and wait / until she is ready to leave.

Casandra López is a California Indian (Cahuilla/Tongva/Luiseño) and Chicana writer who’s received support from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf and Tin House. She’s been selected for residencies with the School of Advanced Research, Storyknife and Hedgebrook Her poetry collection, Brother Bullet, is forthcoming from University of Arizona. She’s a founding editor of As/Us and teaches at Northwest Indian College. More from this author →