Publications

Into the Storm. Orca Press, 1984
In the Dreamlight: Twenty One Alaskan Writers. Copper Canyon Press, 1984
Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 4. University of Alaska Anchorage, 1986
Harper''s Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry. Harper & Row, 1988
Dancing on the Rim of the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Northwest Native American Writing. The University of Arizona Press, 1990
Raven Tells Stories: An Anthology of Alaskan Native Writing. The Greenfield Review Press, 1991
Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices. The Aperature Foundation, 1995
Native Universe: Voices of Indian America. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2004
Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 26. University of Alaska Anchorage, 2009 - Specially featured writer.
Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2, Clock Point Press, Anchorage, 2015

A book of his poetry, SoulCatcher, was published by Ravens Bones Press, Sitka, Alaska in 1986.
A self-published chapbook, Village Boy: Poems of Cultural Identity, 2015, can be purchased here.

Poetry

The following poem appeared in SoulCatcher:

 

Saginaw Bay: I Keep Going Back

I

He dazzles you right out of water,
right out of the moon, the sun and fire,
Cocksure smooth talker, good looker,
Raven makes a name for himself
up and down the coast from Nass River,
stirs things up.

Hurling the first light, it lodges
in the ceiling of the sky,
everything takes form -
creatures flee to forest animals,
hide in fur. Some choose the sea,
turn to salmon, always escaping.
Those remaining in the light
stand as men, dumb and full of fears.

Raven turns his head and laughs in amazement
then dives off the landscape,
dividing the air
into moment before and instant after.

He moves north, Kuiu Island, Saginaw Bay -
wind country, rain country,
its voices trying to rise through fog,
the long tongue of the sea
sliding beneath the bay.

Raven is taken in by it all:
sticky mudflats horseclams squirting,
rock pool water bugs skitting,
bulge-eyed bullheads staring though shadow,
incessant drizzle hissing. Oilslick Raven
fixed against the glossy surface of infinity.

II

The Tsaagweidi clan settled there first,
it was right. Beaches sloped beneath canoes
greased with seal fat,
they carried the Seal People to these creeks
shaking with humpies and dog salmon.
Everywhere eyes peered from the woods.
The berries were thick and bursting.

They knew how to live,
by the season.

Sometimes it felt like the middle of the world,
mountains circling within reach.

At its mouth on a knoll
a fortress guarded against intruders.
They came anyway, from the south,
a swift slave raid. They destroyed the village,
the people fled every direction.

A captured shaman was tortured and ridiculed,
his scalp peeled before his very people.
Through blood running in eyes
he swore revenge
and got it.

After the massacre, the battered clan
collected themselves and moved north
to Kupreanof Island. That became the village
of Kake. Those became Kake-kwaan,

and every once in a while
one sees in his mind
Raven tracks hardened in rock at Saginaw
where Raven dug his feet in
and tugged the mudflats clear into the woods
making a small Nass because he grew homesick there,
and in those moments they feel like going home too.

III

Kake is The Place of No Rest. It is.

I've heard of men in black robes who came
instructing the heathen natives:
outlaw demon shamanism,
do away with potlatch,
pagan ceremony,
totem idolatry.
Get rid of your old ways.
people listened.

They dynamited the few Kake totems -
mortuary poles fell with bones,
clan identifiers lost in powder,
storytellers blown to pieces
settle on the new boardwalk
running along the beachfront.
Houses built off the ground now
and my aunt drove the silver spike
in the middle of Silver Street
sealing the past forever.

People began to move differently, tense.
They began to talk differently, mixed.
Acted ashamed of gunny sacks of k''ink''
and mayonnaise jars of stink eggs,
and no one mashed blueberries
with salmon eggs anymore.

People walked differently, falling all over.
A storekeeper took artifacts for credit
before his store went up in a blaze.

Grandfather went out in his slow skiff
and cached in the cliffs
his leather wrapped possessions
preserved like a shaman body
that can't be destroyed, that won''t burn.

IV

My grandfather's picture hangs in the church
next to Jesus. He was a great minister. He traveled
with the Salvation Army band, the famous Kake band
called to San Francisco
to play for President Harding.
So that must have been about when?

My father was a young man
when he was sent away with others.
Sheldon Jackson Industrial School, Sitka.
Useful member of society.

They changed him.

Gone from his family years at a time,
one of the conditions.
Punished for speaking his own language.

He graduated.
He was sent off to college,
a handsome man,
a ladies man, I heard.
Shy and sad, but likeable.
But goddamn, you had to catch him sober
to know what I even mean.

Now they say I remind them of him.
But you have to catch me sober.

V

I turn ten or fifteen or something.
Pentilla Logging moves into Saginaw.
Floathouses, landing barges and cranes.
Cables to the beach, cables in the woods.
Dozers leave treadmarks in mud.

Redneck rejects, tobacco spitters
drink whiskey in rowdy bunkhouses
at the end of day,
brag how many loads, how many turns
who got maimed
and did they take it like a man.
Climb all over each other
gawking at the spare women of the camp
and their minds turn to tits and ass.

Some men can't help it,
they take up too much space,
always need more.
They gnaw, at the edge of the woods
till the sky once swimming with branches
becomes simply sky, till there is only
a scarred stubble of clearcut
like a head without its scalp of hair.

They hire a few Indians from Kake,
what for I don''t know; maybe it looks good,
maybe it's the stories they come with,
maybe it's just they do things so quietly,

even sit speechless
in the stalled speedboat
as high-power rifles chip
at the cliff painting -
the circle around three dashes,
a warning to the people who came
from the south centuries ago,
who destroyed with such precision.

VI

When my uncles were young men
they crawled on their bellies
through kelp draped rocks
at Halleck Harbor, Saginaw Bay,
at a tide so low
and almost remembered.
They found in the rubble
of boulders from the cave-in
a hundred skeletons
still in armor and weaponry -
piling over each other,
slave hunters
still hunting.

VII

Because Raven tracks are locked in fossil,
the clambeds snarled in roots,
because we have been told,
we know for a fact,
Raven moves in the world.

VIII

When I was young everyone used Tlingit
and english at once.

Tlingit fit better.

The old ones tell a better story in Tlingit.
But I forget so much
and a notepad would be obtrusive and
suspicious. I might write a book.
In it I would tell how we all are pulled
so many directions,
how our lives are fragmented
with so many gaps.


I know there is a Tlingit name for that bay
and it means "Everything Shifted Around"
what was down there is up here.
I do not remember the name
of the Halleck Harbor shaman
except he was of course most powerful
and I feel somehow tied to him (and was he
the one wrapped in cedar mat
sunk in the channel
only to reappear at Pt. White ascending the beach
to his own grieving ceremony?) I don't know.
I get mixed up. But I know my own name,
it's connected with some battle.


Listen, I'm trying to say something -
always our stories have lived through paintings,
always our stories stayed alive through retelling.


You wonder why sometimes you can't reach me?
I keep going back.
I keep trying to see my life
against all this history,

Raven in the beginning
hopping about like he just couldn't do enough.

 

Robert H. Davis

 

 

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