Verses and values echoed in Menominee poetry

Ryan Winn

A nation’s stories convey what it values. April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and for many people, the thought of versed lines evokes images of a raven or roads not taken. Yet, in each of those images the narrator is clearly a singular voice. Edgar Allan Poe’s raven tapping “at my chamber door,” and Robert Frost’s lone traveler conveys that “long I stood” before the fork in the road. America’s stories are often about the individual and not the collective.

One of the privileges of teaching at the College of Menominee Nation is sharing the poetry the tribe has produced. Beyond the beauty of the natural imagery and the precision of the meter, there are messages that echo across the generations — the poetry speaks for the Menominee nation or Native people as a whole and not from the perspective of one person. The verses affirm the knowledge connected to land and the beliefs of the Omaeqnomenaewak — the Menominee people.

In 1929, tribal member William J. Kershaw published “Joseph Fights No More,” discussing the end of combat for the “Nez Perce Chief Joseph (1840-1904). Kershaw embodied the man who won fame for his skilled resistance to the U.S. Army before surrendering in 1877. Although the poem depicts the scene of the famed laying down of arms, it changes the chief’s often cited line of “I will fight no more forever” to one that speaks on behalf of the collective.

Kershaw wrote, “We have fought our last fight, my brave hearted warriors / The land we defended is ours no more / To a stranger we yield the home of our sires / And our vanished hopes like a dream that is o’er.”

While Kershaw’s fictionalized words are equal in melancholia to Joseph’s actual speech, it resonates as a singular voice for a group of people who speak of the land as their “mother” whom they hope is not assaulted but instead continues to sustain them. He prays, “We ask Thee, Great Spirit, to keep her and bless her / And make her forever the home of the free.”

The same year, another Menominee poet published the tribe’s connection to the natural land that has always sustained their people. Gust-ah-yah-she’s “The Indian’s Plea” is a request to protect the tribe’s homeland and waters. The poem’s conclusion speaks to the Menominee hope that the dams are not built and the tribal connections to the unaltered land can remain. “Why can’t we have something that we can enjoy, / Oh! Leave it as God made it—do not destroy, / The light from our wigwams has passed as the day, / Now please do not take our waters away.”

In the 1940s, a poem attributed to an “Anonymous” Menominee read much like its predecessors in recognizing the beauty and inspiration of the Menominee homeland since time immemorial. “Thus they dwelt for generations, in their own dear native land, / From sea to sea an earthly eden, with fish and game at every hand. / Countless birds sang in the forest, anthems rang from all the trees, / And wild flowers in profusion, scented every wind and breeze. / Paradise-or much the same-long before the white man came.”

The most famous Menominee poet has been publishing since the 1980s and is often featured in anthologies. Known simply as Chrystos, one of this famed poet’s quoted verses continues to exude the resilience of her people as knowledge- “They have our bundles split open in museums / our dresses and shirts at auctions / our languages on tape / our stories in locked rare book libraries / our dances on film / The only part of us they can’t steal / is what we know.”

Earlier this month the Menominee Indian School District’s $35 million referendum was approved by the voters. The upshot is that the Menominee Nation will be building a new high school on their beautiful homeland that will continue to amplify tribal voices while affirming the values of their people.

While it is far too early to read the verses inspired in these future classrooms, I am certain the poems the next generation of Menominee poets’ produces will echo the beliefs of their tribal ancestors — speaking not to the value of thinking solely as an individual but rather as part of a collective.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit for more information about the school.