LEANNE HOWE. Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005. Pp. 101. £9.99. Hardback. ISBN: 9781844710621.

LeAnne Howe’s poem “The Red Wars” is a first-person narration of an anonymous indigenous woman’s encounters with three other Native Americans. Perhaps the piece is autobiographical, and so the narrator is also Howe. This conclusion is possible because both the narrator and Howe are identified as Choctaw Indians and the piece is written in a first-person perspective. The work is also a personal reflection, with the narrator looking back on three specific moments in her youth when she encountered other Native American peoples. It describes the narrator’s attempts to read the bodies and behaviors of these other Natives and come to an understanding of who they are and how they are all related. The structure of the poem is broken up into three parts, and each part represents an individual encounter marked by a different, unique personality. The first encounter occurs in Oklahoma with a Sioux Native named Thunderhawk. The second occurs in Texas with California Red Wing, a native man who is part Dakota and part Navajo. The third encounter also occurs in Texas with a Cherokee man named Jim or Jack.[1]

Each of the three encounters that Howe describes in “The Red Wars” are marked by misunderstandings that build throughout the poem. In the first part, Howe is solicited by a young, rich, clean, and handsome activist who is raising money for the American Indian Movement. Thunderhawk seduces the narrator, tells her about the plans to create a separate nation for Native peoples, and then invites her to spend the night with him. Although Howe is aroused by him—she is “drunk with his scent” and was masturbating regularly at the time—she also feels distanced from him. He tells her about his grand idea for natives to engage in armed revolution against the US government; and, in that moment, he reminds her “of a black and white movie” where a “boy has been brainwashed.” Similarly, the man’s romantic idea of taking the narrator out for smokes is dashed by the reality that she has kids at home with a babysitter and she cannot leave them alone.

The second and third encounters of “The Red Wars” mirror the first. In the second part, the narrator meets a self-proclaimed Chief of an Indian non-profit corporation who is named California Red Wing. Although the narrator is “hungry to be with Indians—Indians out of costume,” this particular native man is inscrutable to her. She cannot understand why he “calls himself” a Chief and medicine man; she cannot understand the language he chants in; and she does not understand why he is engaging in a petty feuding with another corporate group of Indians in Dallas.

In the final part of the poem, the narrator meets an Indian man and his wife for drinks at a bar. This “self-made” man rails against embarrassing Indians who are on welfare and says he wants to support American Indian Museums to help natives “remember our past.” During this encounter, the narrator’s previously subdued confusion boils over into a rage, not just toward this man, but at all of the characters the narrator has met thus far. In a passionate internal monologue, she calls the man a “cultural eunuch,” and declares that “Indians are not a corporation” and they will not die to “become part of a traveling museum exhibit at Southern Methodist University.” Nonetheless, the silent and sad image of her grandmother in the mirror stops her from vocalizing these frustrations.

Howe uses the three encounters in “The Red Wars” to remind her readers that Indians are not one-dimensional. All three of the Native peoples that the narrator meets are somewhat stereotyped on the surface, with their beaded leather briefcases, bundles of sage, long braids, sunglasses and skins “tanned dark red.” In this sense, the narrator represents a native whose identity transcends all of these stereotypes. She admits that she has a secret and intimate world that no one else knows about. And, although perhaps she cannot appreciate this fact in her youth, Howe suggests that each of the other native characters have a hidden internal world as well. She does this with her line, “No one guesses what goes on with Indians when they’re alone.” Moreover, Howe juxtaposes misunderstandings with expressions of non-surprise, like “Of course” and “Naturally.” These perfunctory statements suggest that native peoples have found ways to understand each other, and to acknowledge their common bonds, despite the presence of obvious differences on the surface.

The brief snapshots that Howe presents in “The Red Wars” make these native peoples seem shallow at first, both to the narrator and to the reader. Yet the final, sobering image of the narrator’s grandmother in the barroom mirror, standing right “beside the self-made man,” seems to pull back on this idea. Howe seems to be saying that all of these featured characters are fighting their own “Red Wars” in their unique way. Each of them are struggling to live as Native Americans fighting for Indian Rights. Although the narrator approaches her personal struggle differently, she is no less wrapped up in a version of Red War. From the outside looking in, perhaps these characters even see her in much the same way that she has been seeing them. Perhaps they are reading her as well. And so, a poem built upon misunderstandings between diverse native peoples—all who consider themselves indigenous activists in their own right—ends on a note of unity, a plea to see the common in all of the different.

Notes:

[1] LeAnne Howe, “The Red Wars,” in Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005), 37-43.

*This piece was written as a reflection for a graduate seminar, “NAS 202: Indigenous Poetics and Performativities,” with Professor Inés Hernández-Avila.