The five poems here are all the work of Indigenous American poets who are reflecting on both the traditions of their cultures and on the way their cultures have changed with the coming of European colonization. To get you started on this assignment, let's take a look at each of these poems in turn.
In “Dear John Wayne” by Louise Erdrich, the speaker, who is Indigenous American, is watching a John Wayne movie that shows many false stereotypes about Indigenous people. The Indigenous members of the audience laugh at much of it, for they are all too aware of their real history, of how they were forced off their own land. Now they watch this adjusted history side by side with their white neighbors and reflect on how their ancestors received a raw deal in the past and how today they live mainly amid white culture.
“Who Am I” by Joyce carlEtta Mandrake also focuses on stereotypes about Indigenous Americans. A white woman sees the speaker and immediately assumes that she is Indigenous because of her braid. The speaker feels like some kind of spectacle and realizes that the white woman has little idea about real Indigenous American culture. All she knows is the generalizations she has been taught, yet these generalizations simply categorize people without really understanding them.
In “The Creation, According to Coyote” by Simon J. Ortiz, the speaker relates a traditional creation story told by Coyote, who is generally a trickster yet seems to be telling the truth here. This creation story is an important part of the speaker's heritage and must be preserved. It cannot be allowed to disappear into the past or get lost in the new ways of life many Indigenous Americans now follow.
“Indian Song: Survival” by Leslie Marmon Silko presents a journey, an escape from winter, yet there is something strange here. No one would go north to escape winter, so winter must be a symbol for something else, perhaps the coming of white colonizers who drove Indigenous Americans from their lands. The speaker in this poem interacts with nature all along her journey, using her senses to learn about the world around her and discovering deep meaning in the cold river, the mountain lion, and the spotted frogs. Yet winter continues to pursue the Indigenous Americans in the poem. They cannot ignore it forever or run forever. They must somehow learn to cope.
Finally, “The Last Wolf” by Mary TallMountain describes a mysterious wolf hurrying through a city. The wolf is completely out of place there among the traffic lights and high-rise buildings, yet he is seeking something. He enters the speaker’s bedroom and whines. The speaker talks to the wolf, telling him that she knows “what they have done.” This wolf appears to be a symbol of the disappearing Indigenous American culture that is being swept away in the modern life of the city. The wolf is alone now, the last of his kind, and he no longer fits in. His people have largely abandoned him and, the speaker suggests, their customs.