Five Indigenous Poets Explore Loss and Love of their Native Lands

From saguaros to sacred waters, the writers weave their personal relationships to the environment with the ancestral.

Districts, 2021 by Wade Patton (Oglala Lakota). Micron ink, prismacolor, graphite on an original ledger page from 1898. “The dragonflies not only represent the nine districts in Oglala Lakota County of South Dakota, but represent happiness and purity in my heritage,” says Patton.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we asked five Indigenous writers to share original works of environmental poetry that speak directly to future generations. Their poems grapple with grief and loss—from the construction of unnatural borders to the destruction caused by a warming world—while honoring their relationships to the plants, animals, and topography of their ancestral land.

Importantly, many of their pieces also imagine what a world returned to Indigenous leadership could look like. “A call to protect the land is a call to protect our languages, our families, our communities, and our ways of life,” says poet Jake Skeets. “This poem is a letter to myself and the world reminding us of that fact.”


Tanaya Winder

Winder is an author, singer-songwriter, and motivational speaker, whose written works include the poetry collections Words Like Love and Why Storms are Named After People and Bullets Remain Nameless. She comes from an intertribal lineage of Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, and Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, where she is an enrolled citizen. She currently lives on Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lands in Colorado.

Stone Mother

I.
I was born in the desert
learned to cherish water
like it was created from tears.

I grew up hearing the legend, the lesson
of the Stone Mother who cried
enough cries to make an entire lake
from sadness. From her, we learned
what must be done and that the sacrifices
you make for your people are sacred.
We are all related
and sometimes it takes
a revolution to be awakened.

You see, the power of a single tear lies in the story.
It’s birthed from feeling and following
the pain as it echoes into the canyon of grieving.
It’s the path you stumble and walk
until you push and claw your way through to acceptance.
For us, stories have always been for lessons.

II.
I remember my grandmother was well versed in dirt,
the way the earth clung to her hands as if it were a part of her.
We come from the earth. So she tended the seeds
as living beings, planted her garden full of foods
traditional to the land and handled them with care.
Every tree, plant, or rock has a spirit, she said “hear it.”

III.
I listen.

When my mother says words are seeds and to be careful
of the words you say, I pray. For I know each seed
carries a story.

My mother taught me that water is the source
of all living things and to honor life like the circle
we sit in for ceremony. From the doorway in
to the doorway out, life is about all our relations.

IV.
Before I was born, they tried to silence us,
pierced our tongues with needles then taught
our then-girl-grandmothers how to sew like machines.
You see, colonialism has always been
about them not seeing us as human but as object,
a thing. Conquest meant they saw our bodies as land,
full of resources waiting to be extracted and exploited.

Our land was stolen.

Our language. Our grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, sisters, mothers, brothers, daughters, sons, children, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and ancestors.

Our Mother Earth holds our histories in her dirt.
But today, she burns not in the traditional ways once taught,
controlled and deliberate. Today she burns desperate,
for all to resist fossil fuels, the drilling, and the black snake named
greed that swallows everything.

V.
When you lose something, you hope it will be found.
When something is stolen, you want it returned.
We’ve had our land stolen and we’re losing it again
unless we all take action for the climate to change.

VI.
Land back is a demand, a stand
against the Age of Exploration and Extraction,
a call for the Time of Reconciliation, the Now of Restoration

Land back is an understanding
that tomorrow isn’t promised, but today we can return
the power to the earth and her stewards. 

And those who wish to stand with us
must take action beyond the performative
where Indigenous consulting isn’t just a costume of free
and informed consent, where consulting with tribal nations
isn’t just a box one checks without due diligence, where co-management isn’t co-opted
just for the optics of equity, diversity, and justice.

Stand with us as accomplices.
Follow our lead for we have always been well versed in survival.

We were shaped by fire, made from lightning and
dirt-covered hands that know when to ignite healing.
Now is the time. Let us not drown in Mother Earth’s tears.
Mother Earth has a spirit and she’s asking us to listen.


Jake Skeets

Skeets is a poet and teaches at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, located within the Navajo Nation. His first book is Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series.

K.yah | Saad: Toward an Open Poetics

In this essay, I will

— locate the land’s locution
— shimmer inside a word’s mineral
— make my home sentence twine
— turn possessives into antiquated vocabulary

In this essay, I will

leave this place —

the desert is no sea its glimmer only black rock
knelt at the skycase
a chimney of sun tar and asphalt
beneath the rake and roll of cactus and canyon seed
spring dew taunts tarantula and scorpion
parched in a midday temperature high
for springtime or late fall

In this essay,
the desert is a love letter

there is no sea
a desert undertow is thirst
its riptide a dust devil
     fairy wind on the San Juan basin
the light casts its name in tarmac
swarm and memory

In this something other than essay
somewhere there is a fire
about to happen or is happening or has happened

In this     I will
this is the high desert, i.e., a place with light
so much of it we forgot how to look

In this desert, I will

light the hardened meadow with a technology so ancient we call it language.

This is what I mean:

the field steps pink onto a hairline road
the sun washed on morning needle and wrestled sap
it was an early frost followed by late heat
there are no rules or boundaries out here

the trees at the tree line are only a border
if we say it is—the same goes for river or alcove

If the lights go off any one moment, would we fear
the darkness? In it, we can’t see the cornfields
empty of corn or weeds growing in the abandoned mine.

In this darkness, I will
write another love letter to winter and call it by its real name
language, after all, is the only sound it can hear

I will say I am from here, this desert, a home
I refuse to let a border town be my name

Where are you from, they’ll ask
Háadę́ę́’shą’ naniná?

Here, I’ll say. Everywhere.


Amber McCrary

McCrary is a Diné poet, zinester, and feminist. She is Red House clan born for Mexican people clan. Originally from Shonto, Arizona, and raised in Flagstaff, McCrary received her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry from Mills College and is now the owner and founder of Abalone Mountain Press, which is dedicated to publishing Indigenous voices. She currently resides on Akimel O'odham land.

Self-Portrait as a Saguaro

Sometimes I feel like you

            a flowering hosh, has:an, saguaro

            breathing in the rocky sand

A bright, boiling star, eyes, my waxy, sprinkled skin

            I look at you and I can feel the prickled

            toothpicks stand on my skin

            just like when I see the hosh of my eye

I feel like you before the monsoons

            my ribs dry from the heat

            ready for the rain

            & the new year

However, this year is particularly funny

but what does this tall saguaro know?

                        the rain is solemn
                        the rain does not repeat
                        like it used to

I see relatives pick off

            my bearable fruit

            for years longer than something called a nation state

            whatever that is

Sometimes I see you leading

            me to other hosh older

            than the state of Arizona

            standing taller than the

            politicians looking like overwatered prickly pear

            with pricks spilling out of their mouths

            poking and bleeding out

            letters with no song

Sometimes I feel like you

            seeing freeways being built

            over my relatives and friends

            feeling the rivers dry in my spine

My belly unfull

            In the heat

            The magnificent heat

            under my weight

            I am protected beyond the laws

            by something stronger

            something laws cannot govern

When I see you

            my belly is full

            & the rain clouds appear

            bustling, dripping, rested

Please let it keep raining

My spine crackles in between love and loss
of language and land
the cars spit grief in the name of sublime song

A terror to us, a barrier between my skin and song
We can't hear it anymore
only the sound of wheels whizzing and whirring
all in the name of a construct of the mind
the loveless of the sands

it is raw in your belly
it is raw in their language
it is raw in a bleeding mind

Please do not let my belly disappear


Kinsale Hueston

Hueston is a Diné poet, performer, and junior at Yale University studying the intersections of cultural (re)vitalization movements, Indigenous poetry, and Indigenous feminism. Usually based on occupied Tongva Lands (Los Angeles), she works with Native youth in storytelling and mental health programming, edits Changing Wxman Collective, and can often be found penning love poems to the high desert. She currently lives on occupied Quinnipiac Land in New Haven, Connecticut.

​​after Sacred Water

I.

we inherit:

every gathering pool   a blessing
formed by careful hands         each monsoon
a heartbeat       turquoise vein

the sound of underwater
brimmed          with mosses
here laps the quiet tide of love

 

II.

in the summers we would flock to my great-aunt’s
swimming hole           down the canyon
dizzy from the jumbled journey in a truck bed
poke at the tadpoles squirming in the red clay
my mother watched from orchard shade
she had been down here many years before
with her sisters            her brothers
picking apples, following the bend
of the river      leading the goats to the wayside to drink
now the water is too polluted
with cow manure        uranium
we trace the mud with our eyes
watch the petroglyphs stretch in the shadows
miss the feeling of the sun      wicking river from our skin

III.

in 1956/ the glen canyon dam began construction/ with an explosion/
was hit with a demolition blast keyed/ by the push of a button/
in the oval office/ the bottom of the canyon/ dotted by navajo/
ute/ paiute footprints/
still cooling/ the explosion/ a scar in the earth still aching
with uranium mines/ yellowcake/ yellow corn/ tumbled
in the runoff/ what do you call ancestral homestead/
stopped like a kitchen sink/ the water/ of your people
redirected to ranches/ fatten cattle that render the san juan undrinkable/
quench the white men in bars that don’t admit ndns/ water
and mineral/ packed into bombshells/ how do you drown
by your own artery/ today
the lake has never been shallower/ a drought
of its own becoming/ not even time to weep/ before the crossing/
before the fleeing/ marina of familiar fossils/ zebra mussels
scour the bones of old adobe/ stilled
beneath the surface/ the ancient sun rendered closer/
every day/ as the ranchers lament the withering/ the tourists
sticky with sun/ dock their houseboats/ the people who have known
this land/ see the slickrock
still emerging

IV.

in the third world, coyote took the water monster’s baby
            so the water monster decided to make it rain endlessly
the water rose and flooded and choked the peaks
            of sacred mountains
and the beings that lived there
            did not know where to escape the flood
what saved the world was a reed curling
            into the sky     a way to climb out       into the fourth world
an offering by First Man         beloved by the gods
the one from which we all were formed

there are things that remain stolen              that holy people
weep for          and others look to us with upturned hands
ask where the reeds come from                  flee to the highest peaks
            dream of another world they can scurry into
through a wound in the sky
we have no answer for them                       we have known this the entire time
tell our stories               go to the water
            tend this land
                        and remember


Edyka Chilomé

Chilomé is a queer, Indigenous, mestiza cultural worker, writer, poet, and child of migrant activists from the occupied lands of the Zacateco (Mexico) as well as Lenca (El Salvador) people. She was raised in migrant justice movements grounded in the tradition of spiritual activism and was deeply formed by the works of Black feminist writers as a reindigenizing woman in diaspora. Chilomé is the author of two collections of poetry: She Speaks Poetry and El Poemario del Colibrí: The Humming-bird Poems. She currently lives east of the Arkikosa River (North Texas) in a 200-square-foot tiny house with her animal companion.

The Archive of Our Relation

I admit, the mourning is constant
the names, the words, the whispers
colors and textures that were lost,
persecuted, poisoned, disinherited,
extracted, cut down, shaved, kidnapped,
unclaimed, and forgotten. An endless war

I too report, my silence has not saved me
yet running water calls spirits
hidden in me carefully
waiting for me to quiet the mind
so they may wake me right on time
to witness the great expanse
a dance so tender
it gently wakes the sun

In gratitude the sun rises
offers its power
so that we may see
all that has been done
all that is yet to come

In humility and courage
I rise, offer my power
so that I may see
all that has been done
and you who has yet to become

            Tumal sinú
may the sun always shine on you
a prayer weaved by
the most precious parts of me
            a breath
the most potent offering
to our becoming

I report, the water, the earth, the seeds
and the grace of a dancing sky
remain a pure reflection
the wealth of our inheritance
the heart of our connection
the archive of our relation
if we so choose to co-conspire
to re-member

Agua es vida, Water is life
we are the water and
remembering has offered us
our lives, love letters bloomed beautiful
in anticipation of you
travel guides to the
ancient futures that are due
living memory of
gestation and labor
humble testimonies
conspired in your favor

You see, more than hope
we hold a deep knowing
all creation moves in circle
all that was once dead is reborn
the breaking of the seed
a necessary violence
forgiveness a necessary blooming
resistance a necessary rooting
rebuilding a defining act of courage
letting go a radical act of love

I too agree with trees
I do not shy away from the darkness
Nor do I fear the wind
I remember the water
and take root in the memory of you
the living archive of relation
a sweet and sacred confirmation
that we are still alive.


NRDC.org stories are available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as time and place elements, style, and grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can't republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.

Feature

With yields of biodiversity and a more climate-resilient food supply, a movement is sprouting in BIPOC communities across North America to save heirloom seeds and preserve culture.

Art

Four writers explore their place on our troubled planet and treat us to readings of their poems.

Profile

Matriarch Lana Jack continues a decades-long fight for federal recognition of her band—and the right to continue living on the lands of her ancestors.

Art

Two exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum explore Native perceptions of nature and themselves.

onEarth Story

The Climate Museum’s poetry slam at Harlem’s Apollo Theater was equal parts grief, anger, and hope.

Voices

Allan Saganash Jr. grew up in the bush, living off the land—then watched as industry shrank and changed his beloved boreal forest home. He’s determined to save what’s left.

onEarth Story

Princeton is displaying iconic paintings, photography, and furniture in a new light (and it’s not always flattering).

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.