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"At dawn on November 27, 1868, Lt. Colonel George A. Custer and the soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked a Cheyenne village along the Washita River, a village of which Chief Black Kettle was the leader. Most notably, Chief Black Kettle was a 'peace chief' who had repeatedly tried to negotiate reconciliation with the American government, even in the face of all the treaties that had been violated by Americans—and even after a previous massacre of Cheyenne people at Sand Creek on the Great Plains. Over one hundred of the Cheyenne people died in that so-called 'Washita Battle'—including Chief Black Kettle, his wife Medicine Woman Later, and many women and children; those who were not killed were taken as prisoners. For me, there can be no justification for what the American government did to the Cheyenne people that November morning. For me, there was no 'battle'—it was a massacre, plain and simple—and it was important that I translate the tragic syllables of war into a language of sacred acknowledgement of the struggles of Indigenous peoples in this place we now call America."
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

                   for Chief Black Kettle & the Cheyenne People
I. 2016            
   that journey
i was tired
not ready for
a long drive
i live here now
my land here now
& the cheyenne
my new duty   
as i travel
i am afraid
carved country
in this part of  
my dark skin  
my kinky hair 
the worries      
the ugly
tales of travel
i am afraid
all this to write
some short history
for peace
at the battlefield
it’s near evening
no one here
to guide
through the bones
i must go alone
on one branch 
a flash 
cloth bundled  
a head  with
no features      
a jump in grass
no further
i should take off
my shoes
where they died
i walk down
the trail
the sounds
the horses
butterflies hop
they intone      
find that place  
where you walk 
this is where   
we wait woman    

II.  1864–68
   that time 

for years                      
the old ones                
an old story                 
an old people  
a whisper         
hope & survive 
don’t be afraid            
just wait                       
the world         
has lasted        
this long          
a legacy           
we rely upon    
lists of treaties 
medicine lodge
black kettle      
a kind man
suffered power
for peace
i grieve this man
i grieve his wife
no words
to justify
in suffering
i place my prayers
in spirit
in a gift
a bullet 
lost in blood    
pray before      
it talks to you   
what a man offered
left behind
children women
beaten by memory
the dawn
custer’s music
the warriors
point to trees
soldiers there  
a battlefield
quickly leave    
the offerings
for your tongue           

III.  1868
   that dawn

i must respect
i must respect
the beginning
the beginning
the dawn
a mourning
a hot sun
of migration
in this place
before claiming
river through trees
& elders
surely know
broken vowels
sand creek
counseling quiet
faith in life
through waiting
then a massacre
black kettle
medicine woman later
stop asking me
to understand
to absolve soldiers
no words
no words
i claim
in testimony
buried inside
a memory
it speaks in books
it chides the truth
calm never lasts
i want peace
calm never lasts
i want peace
i can’t forget
custer’s music
the women
sing to children
do not forget 
a massacre 
tend to stories
find the words       


Copyright © 2016 by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

Copyright © 2016 by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of the poetry collections The Glory Gets (Wesleyan University Press, 2015); Red Clay Suite (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007); Outlandish Blues (Wesleyan University Press, 2003); and The Gospel of Barbecue (The Kent State University Press, 2000), which was selected by Lucille Clifton for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize.

by this poet

A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies...Lord M...calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her...

        From The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson,
        August 1779

for Jerry Ward, Jr.

Shallow curve of the land
between master and owned
I have dismissed you until I come
upon kin     Since time my jaws
have collected accusations
from memory     No logic
grinding my teeth     I have not
been sold     The telling of the

I believe that white lady
meant well, but she took liberties
with my story.
There was a pint,
and I am a woman,
but I never did bear
thirteen young.
There was an audience,
and I did stand.
At first, hesitant, but then,
speaking God’s clear
consonants in a voice
that all might hear, not
with apostrophes feeding