Pretty Tail

Photo Edward Curtis "Lucille" 1907
Pretty Tail
by Noelle Clearwater

Hawk soars and Eagle flies!
You, a young man with all the world in front of you—
God! If I had only known you then--
Sitting in a 1940’s diner, gray sport coat and baggy tweed pants,
A smooth, felt hat cocked jauntily on the back of that scraggy head.
Grey, stormy eyes and squared jaw give you that look of conscious determination
All but lost in later years.

Across from you sits a military private—your best friend,
It is a long way from reservation, yet you hear the beating of the pow-wow drum
Like blood coursing through a river of veins,
The dust rises and hangs thick in the Montana plains, making your native blood boil.

I could have loved you then, you who seemed afraid of little else than loving me.
I would have loved to hear the great old stories—held in check—behind those still, dark eyes
And determined fists ready to strike at the first man who called you Crow.

You spat fire when you were angry and blood upon a page when you were drunk—
Language was your gift; liquor your nemesis,
Ill-treated and imprisoned—your story yet unpenned,
You dug ditches in the rich brown earth that lies, still, as fallow as your grave.

Betrayed by pride and burning with rancor, you would not defend
Those who bent to lick the boots of whites, who held your neck so near the ground.
No, you would not defend your people, nor would you defend me.

Father, had I met you in that diner, I would have drunk a gin with you,
I, an honored warrior at your table, would have asked you for the stories of the Old Ones—
Of Plenty Coups and his visions of white alliance,
Of Great Grandmother with her silver-plaited hair and soft, deer-moccasined feet,
Of brown, and hopeful children who knew their fathers’ blood and the plains where they were born,
Of the tradition called the Sun Dance whose god I never knew, and you wished forever to forget.

But those stories are buried with you Old Man,
No nightmare-ridden sleep, nor need to hear your voice will bring them back,
And your words, like frail whispers—
fall to the dying earth,
like so many ashes over Little Big Horn.

I was twenty-three when you crossed over,
And I can never remember hearing those three words spoken,
That would have healed my heart.

Hawk soars and Eagle flies!
I wipe my tears alone, and walk away.

--Noelle Clearwater (all rights to poem reserved by author)

Note on the poem: I wrote this poem in a day after looking at an old black and white photo of my friend's father in the company of his best friend, a marine. Pat's father, whose tribal name was "Pretty Tail" was Crow Indian, an alcoholic and had been in prison for several years before Patrick was born. Theirs was a difficult relationship. From that information and a little more on the Crow nation, I wrote this poem. It has had some revisions since but not many.

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