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HASWANA WOTIYE ~ DANCE FOR THE DEAD

In ancient days, Chukchansi cremated their dead
Old history’s words both in dry phrase
And condescending journal entry gives record.
The dead one’s band would kindle a huge fire
And host a night-long dance. Drums and deer hooves’
Rattling pulse gave furious mourning to the dead
As women would circle and begin to dance. Around
And around the pyre, ever quicker around, they’d spin
In frenzied cadence to fire, to the night, to loss.

Cinders springing from fire to dancers
Would singe the women’s hair, blacken their faces
While dust and sweat from the violence of grieving
Joined with smoke and the color of flame
To carry the dead one’s body away from the earth,
Body gone to find death-stolen spirit.
Then, when flames had morphed to cool grey ash and
Fragments of bone, our ancients in honoring tradition
Would never speak the name of the dead again

When I die don’t cry or wail, don’t grieve.
Don’t host a dance for me. Just sew my ashes
Into your mattress to soften your sleep
Where, selfish and vicious as any old witch woman,
I’ll warily keep watch through all your nights
And will slip into the erotic arcady of your drowsing
Filling it so full of memory you’ll weep joyous dreams
And awaken so contentedly from the night
That you’ll want no other woman.

But sweet man, if you should die before me
Leaving me in this sterile and too civilized world,
Where satin pillows and pious prayers are given the dead
In quiet rooms that give no welcome to the old gods
Or to me, I’ll go out and find a wild, natural place
And build a fiery mound on raw and rocky dirt.
I’ll throw my love for you into the kindle
Of sticks, the broken branches of native trees, and
Dry vines gathered as the whips of my sorrow.

I’ll shriek and wail around that fire until I have no voice.
I’ll dance for you until my naked feet are cracked
And blistered, around and around until in a furied rhythm
The flames themselves come to dance with me.
Spinning around that climbing, growling circle of fire
Until the ashes of mourning are all that is left of its flame,
I’ll dance and dance until my spirit follows yours,
Until the dance is broken to such silence
That never again will I say your name.

                        first published in “News from Native California”
                        Vol. 17 No. 4 Summer 2004

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