Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In the Basement of the Bone Museum

In the Basement of the Bone Museum

Look at us: lonesome piles
of sticks with no names,
no tribal ID, no stories
but the one in our teeth
that brought us here.
Our curved ribs stacked
like bows waiting to be strung.

Look us over, test us, try us.
Place your own smooth palm
over the broken web of our
souls: can you hear it? the rush
of belonging in dry marrow?
Will you know us without
our long hair, our brown flesh,
no tongues in our skulls to speak?

These bones, they’re all we have
to offer. Lay out our incomplete
skeletons on this clean white table.
Sing us that happy clapper-stick
song for dancing; twine
glowing abalone and olivella
among our faded vertebrae.

Do you remember us?
Do we look like someone you knew?
We confess everything, chewed
by the mouths of history and science.
We ache with fractures
from the echoes of that turbulence.

Touch us. Claim us.
Take us home. Tell us,
we have never forgotten you.

While at UC Berkeley, my sister arranged for us to visit the remains of seven Esselen ancestors found at Los Padres National Forest and stored at the Hearst Museum. Through a complicated system of having another tribe sponsor us (we aren't federally recognized), the Esselen Nation will be the lead tribe for reburial of these remains later this summer.

Ten other people from the Breath of Life Workshop, all members of California tribes, accompanied us to the basement of the Hearst, where the curators had carefully laid out all the remains, including the mummified body of a small infant. It was a very private, very bittersweet visit for us all, and that's all I really want to say. But I've been trying to write a poem about repatriation for a long time, and after I returned home, I dreamt of bones speaking to me. Fragments from an old piece (called "Repatriation") I'd put aside years ago resurrected itself and became the framework for this poem. I guess those fragments were just waiting for the right home, too.


  1. Many times, many places it touches us...


    Alone I exist,
    Without the scent of sage,
    Or sacred tobacco,
    Or smoke rising.

    Alone I sit,
    Without the cool safety,
    Of cedar's protection,
    Or the touch of the sun.

    Alone I exist,
    Without the sound of the drum,
    Or the voice of ceremony,
    Without filling my purpose.

    Alone I sit,
    Without understanding,
    In the great warehouse,
    Called Museum.

    Alone I exist,
    Lonely for my people,
    Waiting to go home.

    John D. Berry, Oklahoma

  2. Thank you, John, that is beautiful.



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