Poet’s corner: A sacred circle, on the other side

As we zig zag the
US and Canada border
from Maine to Seattle
and into Alaska
We travel through Native lands
families and friends separated
long lines of cars and trucks
on land and bridges
close communities
Passports to be shown
sunglasses off
those with a DUI
cannot cross over
even as passengers
or ever again
I heard it said
Sometimes it’s a long trek
other times not
Reservations and Reserves
two separate lands
on one border
or another
Veteran Elders come
to participate
at Eagle Staff gatherings
some well into their 90’s
Regalia and bundles
inside the car
the border patrol
depending who you get
know better now
to not go through them
Officers with good training
have learned to respect
the ways and traditions
different from theirs
Indigenous men
women and children
come to participate
in a pow wow
a celebration
a sacred circle
on the other side
First Nations go south
Native Americans go north
First Alaskans go east
Northern First Nations go west
To participate and celebrate
to give thanks for each other
the earth
the land and waters
animals and trees
stories from another time
Everything done in a circle
intricately sewn regalia
headdresses, jingle dresses
made with feathers, beads
and the hide of buffalo
caribou, deer, and seal
Songs and traditions
from long ago
to say we are one
in a circle
with no borders
— Ziibinkokwe, Turtle Clan (Patricia LeBon Herb)
Patricia LeBon Herb is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (Upstate Michigan). She has resided in Middlebury for the last 25 years, is originally from Minnesota, and also lived many years in Belgium. Her father was from Antwerp, Belgium, and her Anishinaabe/Chippewa mother was from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (The Soo). Patricia is currently working on a collection of poems and drawings about her Belgian and Native American heritage.
As I read “Borderlands” by Patricia LeBon Herb it reminds me of a river. There is a sense that underneath everything there is flow, or at least the desire for it — for unobstructed movement, not unlike how language wants to be, or how most people want to live. The poem retains this underlying sense of flow, even as the obstructions in its story are presented: long lines of cars, regulations and restrictions impeding the flow of Indigenous people at a border made over two hundred years ago. A border separating ancestral lands inhabited for much longer.
I am struck not only by the ease of the poem’s language, but by the relative ease with which the speaker travels along and across the border as compared to the difficulty encountered by some residents of the native lands who she encounters. “Regalia and bundles/ inside the car/ the border patrol/ depending who you get/  know better now/ to not go through them.”
These words give us a sense of what it can be like for Indigenous people to visit other regions of their land “on one border/ or another.” In this case the purpose of their travel is to attend a Powwow, a sacred gathering, the kind of event that needs freedom of movement in order to happen so they can come together to honor their traditions and beliefs. As the poet writes, they gather “to participate and celebrate/ to give thanks for each other/ the earth/ the land and waters/ animals and trees.”
Returning to the poem one more time, it now feels even more like a river. A river that is, in some areas, the border itself. A river that is a sacred body, a source of material and spiritual sustenance, recognized as such by the people who live closest to it, and with it. It is interesting to think of the fluid, naturally shifting qualities of a river as compared to the more bounded territory* associated with our modern nations and their borders.
This river-poem seems to pick up speed near the end, as it describes in detail the ornate regalia and the care with which headdresses are sewn and made, all reflective of deep reverence for and dependence upon the earth. The poem moves swiftly toward its final message, reminding us:
We are one
in a circle
    with no borders
Patricia and her husband, Guntram Herb, created a website called Indigenous Borderlands and Border Rites (border-rites.org) after spending many months over the past two years living with and learning from the indigenous people who live along the U.S. Canada border, from Maine through the Midwest and into Alaska. The website includes their research, interviews and interactive maps showing where these many border communities are, what challenges they’ve faced over the centuries and still face, as well as ways they’ve been able to keep their communities thriving and growing.
*The term “bounded territory” used in the column was borrowed from an article on Politico.com about border communities, which is linked to from border-rites.org.
Susan Jefts is a poet and educator living near Middlebury, whose work has been published throughout the state and country, most recently in the Vermont Anthology, Birchsong Volume II. She is currently finalizing a book of poetry and is offering workshops using poetry both indoors and out to explore our relationships to nature, and how we are informed by its energy and beauty. For more info, contact her at [email protected]. Her website is manyriverslifeguidance.com.

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