Indian Country

by Deborah A. Miranda

– for John T. Williams, and all Indians living on the street


On Broadway or 1st Ave, on Capitol Hill
or Pioneer Square, the Indians gather
in doorways or benches or grassy bits of park.
They sleep, sell Small Change, tell stories,
carve little totem poles, share cigarettes,
wait for the bars to open –
for the shelters to open –
for the soup kitchens to open
wait for the world to open.
This is Indian Country, potholed streets
Indian trails leading up and down steep sidewalks;
Indian graffiti, scars
across the faces of men
from old families of carvers,
women from clans of basketweavers,
all falling out
of the American Dream.

They call me sister when I walk by:
sister I’m a long ways from home
sister you look like my Auntie
sister ya got a spare smoke
sister take this, just a little gift,
sister can I give you a blessing?
Their breath smells like the bottles
from my childhood. Beautiful hair gone
spare and silver, eyes vomiting all
the scary things about being Indian
that I ran real hard to leave behind,
tried to hide under the stink of my shame.
If I say no, they wave me on with a shrug,
if I give them money they assure me they won’t
spend it on drink,
if I stop to admire
carvings or drawings or beading
they stand silent.
They never say the word ‘buy,’
just, ‘Whatever you think is right sister.’

I don’t give as much as I might;
afraid mine could be the fatal dollar
that keeps them out of the shelter
or lands them in the morgue.
I give enough
to ease my conscience,
get them through another hour.
I know I’m feeding the meter
of Colonization,
paying the rent on a parking space we should own,
but I can’t keep them safe,
I can’t keep them warm or sober or clean.
I’m not a good sister.
I’m not even a good Indian
and this isn’t survival,
it’s pain, pure and simple.

Another dead Indian on the street today,
brother, another ‘misunderstanding’ with a cop –
he had a knife,
he was a carver,
he was Indian
he was alive
that’s still a crime in this day and age.
He was alive,
sometimes just barely,
half deaf, brain soaked in alcohol,
but his fingers
could still read wood.
Today he bled on the street
he bled on the street
he bled on the street
he bled out
the street,
the curves of an old design
spilled out of his body –
and when I heard,
all I could do was cry.

What’s a few more tears, brother,
in this land with all the marrow sucked out?
Just the memory of your big swollen hands
holding mine, the words of a blessing
slipping from your mouth
onto my bowed, lost-daughter head.
All you had left to give
the last time we met
and I took it.
Now I’ll have to carry it with me
the rest of my sorry ass Indian life,
remember how hard you worked
to recall the words,
remember you:
remember where the Indians gather, wait,
on the downtown streets,
in the parks
on the benches,
by the Market –
remember I can’t ever run away
from this love.

Last updated November 22, 2022