American Poets: m.l. smoker

by lizard

I’ve been trying to figure out who to highlight next, but the decision can be difficult, mainly because I have so many poets I would eventually like to cover. What precipitated my selection of m.l. smoker (that is how her name appears on her first collection of poetry) was actually a bigoted comment from j-girl’s tar sands post. The comment is in response to information provided by one of the post’s links, discussing the potential adverse medical impact of polluted water on the community at Fort Chipewyan. The newbie commenter, who is proving to be a real peach, had this to say:

I’m no scientist but rather than blaming the water maybe someone should study the effects of alcohol combined household cleaning products.

Obviously, what this statement callously refers to is the well known ravages of alcoholism in First Nation communities. I would like the bigot who made this statement to understand alcohol was used as a weapon to destroy indigenous communities, and its effects are still with us today. When it comes to the humans who were here before Europeans “discovered” the new world, Canada is not much different from America; our great shame is the genocidal expansion of western colonialism.

So I would like the words of m.l. smoker to stand in contrast to bigotry. Here is the brief bio from her first collection of poetry, entitled Another Attempt At Rescue:

m.l. smoker is a teacher and administrator on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, home of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. She is an enrolled member of both tribes. She holds a BA from Pepperdine University and an MFA from the University of Montana and also attended the University of Colorado and UCLA. Among her honors were the Richard Hugo Scholarship at Montana and the Arianna and Hannah Yellow Thunder Scholarship at UCLA.

And here is the title poem from her first book:

ANOTHER ATTEMPT AT RESCUE

March 20, 2003

The time is important here–not because this
has been a long winter or because it is my first
at home since childhood–but because there is so much
else to be unsure of. We are on the brink of an invasion.
At a time like this how is it that when I left only a week ago
there was three feet of snow on the ground,
and now there is none, not even a single patch
holding on in the shadow of the fence-line.
And to think I paid a cousin twenty dollars
to shovel the walk. He and two of his buddies,
still smelling of an all-nighter, arrived at 7 am
to begin their work. When I left them a while later
and noticed their ungloved hands, winter made me feel
selfish and unsure. This ground seems unsure
of itself for its own reasons

and we do not gauge enough of our lives
by changes in temperature.
When I first began to write poems
I was laying claim to battle.
It started with a death that I tried to say
was unjust, not because of the actual
dying, but because of what was left.
What time of year was that?
I have still not yet learned to write of war.
I have firends who speak out–as is necessary–
with subtle and unsubtle force.
But I am from this place and a great deal
has been going wrong for some time now.
The two young Indian boys who almost drowned
last night in the fast-rising creek near school
are casualties in any case.
there have been too many just like them
and I have no way to fix these things.

A friend from Boston wrote something to me last week
about not having the intelligence
to take as subject for his poems
anything other than his own life.
For a while now I have sensed this in my own mood:
This poem was never supposed to mention
itself, other writers, or me.
But I will not regret that those boys made it home,
or that the cousins used the money at the bar.
Still, there are no lights on this street.
Still, there is so much mud outside
that we carry it indoors with us.


  1. The Polish Wolf

    I quite enjoyed the featured poem, and have never heard of the poet. But I do have one comment which I think needs to be made –

    “Genocide”. It’s a strong word, and demographics alone would seem to bear it out in the case of Indians. By some (admittedly disputed) estimates, American Indians societies were diminished to one twentieth of their original sizes between the arrival of the first Spaniards and the dawn of the 20th century. But my current job involves extensive interaction with American Indians, and I can tell you the last thing the situation needs is more inflammatory language like ‘genocide’.

    There were genocides, certainly. True attempts to eliminate a genome occurred sporadically throughout the Western Hemisphere, being particularly devastating in the Caribbean. But to classify the entire Westward invasion of Europeans in the Americas as a genocide is highly inaccurate. Had the Americans wanted to eliminate by force American Indians as a race, it would not have been difficult. As Europeans moved west, they moved into depopulated wildernesses, as the societies that once populated the landscape suffered 90% attrition due to diseases which in most cases were accidentally spread and struck before any physical contact was made.

    Thus, what was normal warfare, familiar to both Indians and Europeans, experienced an increased level of tragedy because one side was already depopulated and disorganized due to disease. Post-disease Indian populations were subjected to a worse population destruction than European-style warfare inflicted on a normal population in which a large proportion of the people were mobilized. This is not to deny the tragedy of what happened when European/American and Indian societies collided, nor to deny that Americans in particular tried and in many cases succeeded in eliminating the cultures, languages and belief systems they encountered, as does any expanding Empire (including a fair number of American Indian empires).

    But genocide is a hyperbole, and a catastrophe like what happened to American Indians needs no hyperbole.

    • lizard19

      first, i am glad you enjoyed the poem.

      second, semantics. if you think genocide is hyperbole, i’m sure you can find plenty of people who would agree with you.

      whatever you want to call it, it’s a part of this country’s history that gets glossed over too easily.

      • The Polish Wolf

        Not only do Indians get glossed over in history, but they are worse ignored in the context of their continued existence. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, try getting your hands on some of the work of John Sanchez. He did an extensive study on the portrayal of American Indians in the media, and noted that in our national media representations of Indians are stuck in the past. Which is why I am always glad to see accomplished Indians reminding North America that they still exist.

        Here’s a video of him http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wctCDPqS-EA . I believe he will be speaking in Helena this winter.

        • lizard19

          media, movies, sports teams, dreamcatchers…

          it seems if our consumer culture can’t reduce the complexity of life to crude stereotypes and commodities to peddle to consumers it’s response instead is to marginalize, omit, forget.

  2. This is a subject of interest to me. Polish Wolf’s comments pretty much echo my own thoughts – that most of the “genocide” that occurred was done long before westward expansion or even the arrival of the Spaniards in the SW. As James Loewen mentions in one of his books, the reason the Puritans had a Thanksgiving at all was because the moved into a village that had been depopulated by disease long before.

    But spread of disease was unintentional for the most part. Ben Franklin in the 1770’s only imagined that closed air systems spread disease, but did not know why. Europeans carried quite a few awful bugs, and no one understood microscopic organisms.

    On alcoholism, it is my understanding that due to brief exposure to booze, natives were susceptible to it for reasons having to do with their inability to process it. Most of them are natural born alcoholics through no fault or weakness, and need to stay away from the stuff in total. That’s as I understand it, which is not well.

    I understand even less, but see in our native populations something like a defeated peoples’ syndrome. Many come from warrior cultures and were throttled by Europeans, which makes it difficult to stand erect. We descend form those who won the battles. They descend form those who lost.

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] m.l. smoker […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Desecration « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] There is a powerful collection of poems titled I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights, edited by two outstanding Montana poets, who I have featured here, Melissa Kwasny and M.L. Smoker. […]

  3. 3 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] m.l. smoker […]

  4. 4 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] m.l. smoker […]




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