Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Six Grandfathers (poem)

Introduction to “The Six Grandfathers” – Where This Poem Started

Several years ago, I wrote a poem titled “Ozymandias In Reverse”. The poem told of a person traveling in the desert who came upon great carved stones lying about on the land, and a great tower built of these stones. The person wondered how these great building stones and tower came to be. The poem was an attempt to take the idea of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and turn it on it’s head. It wondered if a great structure, rather than falling into wreck and decay with the passage of time, could somehow come into being, could come to greatness with the passage of time. The narrator in “Ozymandias In Reverse” comes to realize that the reason the great stones and tower are there may not be due to the power of the hand that shaped and built them – they are there because they withstood the test of time. It was everything else around them that had worn away. The stones that remained had proven their worth.

Then I saw a beautiful picture of Mount Rushmore, a picture taken from the air, showing Washington’s face in profile. His face was like the prow of a ship, gazing out onto America. I had visited Mount Rushmore many decades before and had an image of the monument in my mind, but this picture struck me differently. Instead of us looking at the figures on Mount Rushmore and wondering about them, what do those figures think when they look out at this land? 

Then another question came to mind – what about the figures that are missing from this monument? What about those who lived on this land for millennia before the Europeans arrived?  These great figures from our past – whether they are present in granite or in spirit – what do they see when they look out at their country, when they look at us? That’s where I started.
North Andover, Mass.

The Six Grandfathers

Under the sky, bright with the crown of sunrise, the land sits dark, waiting.

Alone, the night still around me, I stand in the Dakota park, watching.
At first light, I see a land and sky newly made, washed clean by the night’s hard rain.
From afar, four colossi gaze, their dawn mountain serene above the plains.
Hidden from my eyes, guarding the native land and sky, two other faces reside.
On the mountain, with the four, the Warrior and the Healer-who-sees still preside.

The faces of the four, my eyes do plain receive.

On the inner eye, the two of the spirit fall.
I gaze at them, all these times, alone in this common hall,
yet to my mind, do their words and deeds conceive?
Here is what I lack, pray tell me how? How to know these six?
They answer me quick, an easy fix. Turn around the scene.

[compass North]

The eyes of Washington keep watch from the mountaintop, 
    as if our soul to measure. 
A gift from the sculptor, an offering from his workshop, 
    the visage whole, he sees. 
The ancient humors show themselves, in proper measure handsome  
the sanguine, the melancholic  
the ready hope and slow anger, leavened by patient earn’ed wisdom. 
How to see what he sees? 
Turn around the scene.
I follow his gaze, as he surveys the far countryside of time.
I follow his eyes, wonder at their demand, 
do the people and this land 
still earn the temper of this man?

[compass East]

Jefferson’s eyes look east to the sun, as if ever to the new day open.
With authoring words he wrote, not with his own, but the creator’s pen.
His words still ring true through the world, self-evident,
for all who would gather in the light of the new day.
But his life left many in chains, left a bell still ringing in the American night,
a bell of warning, of time lost, of pain,
of old scars from the lash, of shackles that remain. 

My eyes travel with his, with history our guide.
On our own corps of discovery from above,
I fly with the author across the great divide.
On my return, I see anew the same land he loved.
Our history near, I hear his words echo in me.
Standing here, I am left wiser but less happy.

[compass South]

Lincoln guided a nation through the wilderness of war,
our Abraham.
I follow his eyes to the south, to freedom and justice for all, to a new country.
The United States.
He told us why we fought, and what was right. 
Although his sepulcher journey passed into the night,
we have the hope of this man, his still living words, eloquent.
His eyes look to us
to complete, to dedicate, to consecrate, to hallow
what his words inaugurated.
His eyes look past me, still brooding over this land.

[compass West]

T.R. defends the land. He looks west, great vistas in sight 
There he fought the good fight.
His big stick diplomacy had its day,
but here is what stayed:
He opposed the narrow few, spoke for the common man,
and a gift that was new  
He bound us to a vision of the common land,
to protect our true nature 
from our own careless hand.

[compass to the Land, compass to the Sky]

For those of us who came before, may the journey be told 
For those of us who hunted on plains and woods to the east  
For those of us who lived here a thousand summers, ten-fold  
For those of us who crossed the western bridge, before it returned to the seas  
two faces are hidden in this land, in this sky, never old. 

Black Elk and Crazy Horse, we know their names; 
their spirit winters in these hills and pines. 
Do they long to tell us of tribes, our kin, alive, not past? 
Do they long to tell us our story, our country, recast? 
I stand in darkness at sunrise, I stand here, held fast. 
Do they see one land, one history, one people, at last? 

[The Six Grandfathers]

I stand on their mountain, I look from their summit. 

I gaze to the compass points of spirit and granite. 
To the north and south, to the east and west, to the earth and sky, 
How to know these six?
At today’s first light, the six grandfathers reply 
Turn around the scene.

Their eyes measure and judge
with righteous anger, with sorrow and compassion, with justice and healing,
with hope – 
showing what was taken, what was borrowed, what was earned, 
and what has been given.

Our grandfathers guide us, 
there are four in books.
On this mountain, I see more than four; more directions are fixed. 
For our people, in our story today, on the mountain here, there are six.
From where I stand, I follow their gaze, they show me where to look. 

January 2018 North Andover, Mass.


"The Six Grandfathers" is the Lakota Sioux name for the mountain known today as Mount Rushmore. As "The Six Grandfathers", the mountain was part of the route that Lakota leader Black Elk took in a spiritual journey that culminated at Black Elk Peak. Following a series of military campaigns from 1876 to 1878, the United States asserted control over the area, a claim that is still disputed on the basis of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Among American settlers, the peak was known variously as Cougar Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Slaughterhouse Mountain, and Keystone Cliffs. It was named Mount Rushmore in 1885 during a prospecting expedition by Charles Rushmore, David Swanzey (husband of Carrie Ingalls, who was sister of author Laura Ingalls Wilder), and Bill Challis. (from Wikipedia).

For an account of the ongoing story of Mount Rushmore, read about Gerard Baker, a Native American, who was appointed as superintendent of Mount Rushmore by the National Park Service in 2004. Baker worked to bring the Indian perspective to the interpretive program at Mount Rushmore. The material at this link was researched as part of the Ken Burns special on the National Parks.