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“𐓊𐓣𐓧𐓟 / Family”

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Note: This broadside is part of our annual translation special feature.  Our Translations Editor, CMarie Fuhrman,  selected two poems—both by poets writing in a language indigenous to the Americas. We are grateful for her time and vision. Of her choices and these broadsides, she has this to say:

The Osage language in Ruby’s poetry is beautiful. I find great comfort in the knowledge that she has the Osage orthography within her and that her hand movements when writing carries the spirit of her grandmother and mother before her. Despite all that has changed, these symbols and this language serve as reminders of a sophisticated, complex, and brilliant culture that flourished in what we now call North America long before the arrival of the English language. Ruby’s poem, I feel, reflects the value of passing on linguistic and cultural traditions to the next generation. Her forefathers’ pride at her return, the knowledge of her grandmother as told by the speaker, and the way her ancestors are still watching, are evidence of the power of language.
       “𐓊𐓣𐓧𐓟 / Family” illustrates the layered nature of the human desire to be accepted in modern society while honoring one’s roots. My own father grew in a house where “Only English is spoken here,” his mother repeated. He lamented the loss of knowing his culture and encouraged me to seek out the old languages and find the right words. But as Ruby’s poem demonstrates, sometimes it takes decades to recognize the wisdom of our forebears and to give our offspring the same opportunity and the same language to also see. Fortunately, Ruby also allows us to look over the speaker’s shoulder and see the beauty of four generations coming together in the language of poetry.
     Paired with the unfinished, unframed “found” art offered by Amy Meissner, this complexity is felt more intensely. Handwork, too, is generational, and we rarely look at the back side, only the completed project. This view reminds us that the work required to make something isn’t what we generally label as beauty, but indeed, like the painter’s pallet, the quilter’s unseen stitches removed and replaced, the craft itself, like the learning of language, is where the beauty lies in the work. That these edges are frayed, that strings are left uncut, shows a continuum and a moment. That the art remains unframed allows it to exist with the space around it, just as the speaker exists in Ruby’s poem, just as we all aim to remain soft at the edges so as to be excepting and not framed or bordered away from that which surrounds us.

Collaborators’ Q&A

Do you see an overlap between the act of translation and the act of responding visually to a piece of literature?
Artist Amy Meissner: The word “translate” seems more formal than my personal process of visual response to a text, but it’s essentially the same thing: a bringing together of two languages I know—maybe one more than the other, and this can alternate between languages—then unlocking a (not the) “meaning” of one through the vehicle of the other. Some of this feels like “speculation” or “guessing” or “assuming” or “gut work” based on personal histories and experience with a language, and sometimes I do get it wrong based on the writer’s original intention. My goal is for my “translation” to not reiterate or illustrate, but coax elements from a piece that the poet may not have considered initially. I think “translation” is always evolving as well. I would expect to respond differently to this piece in the future based on a growing and shifting vocabulary.
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: I realize I don’t think of writing in 𐓏𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐓣𐓟, Wah Zha Zhe ie, the Osage language as working with translation. It feels more like reaching to express myself. Which doesn’t make sense because I’m not fluent, not a native speaker. I think about transliterating, transcribing as the work to transfer the spoken word to the page using orthography.

Telephone: a game that was played 𐓤𐓘𐓡𐓶𐓻𐓘, kahoozha, a looong time ago. Our teacher Mogri Lookout stretches out the “long” in a savoring way. When I give my biography to an editor, they write “grew up on the reservation.” Translating is taking words and writing our understanding. Then looking again, deepening, broadening the context, revising. I didn’t grow up on the reservation, but across military posts on three continents. The coming and going of family informs one’s story, history.

Writing, and also publishing, in the Osage orthography creates another set of technical issues, challenges in representing the language on the page. Sometimes diacritical marks float away from the vowels they’re meant to mark. Some Osages initially resisted the creation of an orthography. I’m not a linguist, not a graphic designer, happy to have orthography on my keyboard, but not fully competent.

Meissner asks if she’s the person to pair with Native work; I wonder if I’m skilled enough to represent the language on the page accurately. Osage are careful with tradition, with culture, as we should be. I believe embracing the language and then moving with it into digital forms is respectful. My goal is to step into its resilience, honor its depth and strength.

What surprised you about this collaborative piece?
Artist Amy Meissner: 
I was surprised by how quickly I thought of this small bit of embroidery the moment I began reading the translation. It comes from a growing personal collection of samplers and embroideries featuring houses within pastoral scenes. When I find them (generally abandoned, some unfinished, makers unknown) or they are given to me (because people unburdening their households often shake free of the old and handmade first), I add them to the wall in my studio, reverse side out, a growing village of someone’s once-perceived concept of “home.” Most of the embroidery cloth is white or ivory—with the expectation that work like this remain “clean” even while being constructed, which is challenging for the embroiderer, particularly a new learner, especially a child—but this one always stood out since it’s worked into green cloth.
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: Cross stitch perfectly represents the ways Natives have been pressed to accept EuroAmerican lifeways. I appreciate the edges unraveling, the fragility of life and craft. Amy Meissner’s piece with its fraying threads highlights the distance between an intended image and the context in which it’s created. It echoes the experience of being Native in America.

Recently I listened to President Joe Biden tell Jonathon Capehart, a Black journalist, “I believe the essence of who we are as a nation, the soul of our country, is really about our commitment to the basic fundamental elements that make us Americans, which is the idea of fairness, decency, honesty which I think is baked into the majority of the American people…” This is a noble aspiration, but the US constitution, a foundational document, declared any person who wasn’t free be counted as three-fifths of a person. The Declaration of Independence references merciless Indian savages. Black and Indigenous people in this country live outside of the frame, outside an idealized America. Meissner’s decision to reverse a cross stitched sampler, a particularly intimate art form, is an expression of that excision, erasure, elision.

When I first saw the piece, I pictured Native people outside a house, maybe near a powwow dressed to dance, the loose threads feathers. But then, I wondered if these were settlers picnicking outside an Indian’s home. I wonder who are the people gathered. How do settlers live on Native land? Where are the Indians? Osages create beadwork and exuberantly colored ribbon work. There are contrasts and similarities in the forms, reflecting the attempt by people across cultures to express themselves in thread, fabric.

Why this poem?  How did your visual response take shape?
Artist Amy Meissner: First, it is a privilege to have visual work accompany this original piece and translation. I am sensitive to the fact that I’m a white woman of Swedish descent with a different cultural history around women’s handwork and embroidery than this poet. I may not be the right artist for this project. However, as a craft researcher living on Dena’ina Homeland (currently referred to as Anchorage, Alaska) I am aware of the violent history of the way Indigenous children were historically taught not only “appropriate” language in boarding schools, but also “appropriate” crafts and hand skills.

My thoughts on this visual collaboration are around the ever-changing notions of home—personally, culturally, generationally. Regarding this embroidery in particular: missionaries regularly taught Indigenous girls “proper handwork” and sewing, emulating European styles of dress and notions of beauty… all while obviously disregarding the culturally appropriate and powerful craft skills these children would have been learning from their Aunties and elders had colonization never occurred. A cross stitch depicting a scene such as this, with a Western-style, pitched roof house and long, full dresses, wouldn’t have been an uncommon project after the rigors of a typical ABC alphabet sampler first (also painful to consider). This is a vintage embroidery, maker unknown, the piece abandoned. It feels like a scrap from an unrelatable time. Featuring the reverse side is an opportunity to enter into the space of the setting from a different direction, to reimagine not only the way our grandmothers may have been taught but also the opportunity we have to educate our children for the future, a reclaiming of language and home.

Can you share a bit about this poem’s origins?
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: The experiences of sitting with my relative in Osage language classes and dancing with her under the arbor during our 𐒻𐓧𐓪͘𐓯𐓤𐓘 Inlonshka dances has been incredibly moving and healing. Our great-great-grandmother barely survived, but she emerged from the mission school and returned to her Osage people near the end of her life.

Both of our immediate families experienced the impacts of boarding school trauma passed through generations. Each of us found our way toward healing and made our way home, a lengthy and deliberate process. The power of being there together, family members reunited after generations brings the reality of our dispossession into stark relief. It makes me consider the cruelty of the missionaries, their attempt to shape our ancestor. It makes me wonder the course our lives would have taken if she had not been taken.

If this broadside were a type of weather, what would it be?
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: Autumn, maple leaves a peach-tan, blackjacks yellow and green. Redbud has dried in the past week crisping to dull olive/khaki. There’s extreme fire danger and a steady warm wind that lifts my hair, challenges everyday order.
Artist Amy Meissner:
Cold, crisp with clear ice crystals floating and glinting in the sun.

How does translation fit into your creative life?
Artist Amy Meissner: I think I’m translating language through materials all the time, aiming for legibility but also leaving space for interpretation.
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: 𐓏𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐓣𐓟, Wah Zha Zhe ie, the Osage language, is an element of survivance. My study is in support and furtherance of Osage resilience. Learning is also challenging. Preserving it and teaching is difficult. Painstakingly slow. I watch the Nation grow its language preservation efforts, see the delicacy that goes into honoring the dialects/variations from each district, the care in contextualizing efforts of early linguists and ethnologists.

Writing poetry in Osage is an expression of joy. Osage words carry the humor of being together, of close relationships in the forms the language takes. The words and expressions carry mystery and power, an old worldview. Elders say, “they put the old ways in there,” and we listen for them.

Do you have a favorite, generative prompt for artists or writers you’d like to share?
Artist Amy Meissner:  Tell your story in 3 images and 5 sentences.

Seen any good art lately?
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: There was an amazing breadth of Osage creativity present at the Nation’s Sesquicentennial Commemoration in Pawhuska. Grand scale animal puppets enacted an Osage creation story, community members represented themselves in clay at a community meal assemblage. I particularly loved a painting by Osage/Otoe artist Ted Moore, in which a golden eagle with talons extended is held in a glory of golden clouds.
Artist Amy Meissner:
I’ve been working with six other Mother-Artists for 18 months on a group exhibition called MOTHER. It will be installed at the Bunnell Arts Center in Homer, Alaska in December 2022 and at the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks, Alaska in September 2023. Creating work while mothering is challenging and none of us could fill a gallery alone at this time in our lives, but together we can. The months of conversation, support, and critique (online, since we are spread across Alaska) are about to get real, so I’m enjoying envisioning the artwork in literal conversation at last within the same space.

Read any good books lately?
Artist Amy Meissner:
I’m currently engaged with two: Sara Ahmed’s What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use and thinking about the use of doilies as laboring bodies within the home, and the 1983 Ruth Schwartz Cowan book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.

Anything else?
Poet Ruby Hansen Murray: I’m grateful to all my teachers, mentors and co-learners, especially Tracey Moore, Dr. Mogri Lookout, and Bill Hamm who have been so generous with this adult learner. Thanks to Chris Cotê and and Braxton Redeagle for help with this poem. I’m grateful also to Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman and Broadsided Press for their care bringing this to the page.
Artist Amy Meissner: 
It’s always a pleasure to see a Broadside come together.

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