A couple nights ago I was pleased to be one of two readers at the Grand Opening Celebration for our brand new Missoula Public Library. The other reader was my friend Heather Cahoon, who read from her brilliant book of poetry, Horsefly Dress. I read three pieces. First, an excerpt—selected by the master himself—from the new James Lee Burke book (because I was there only because Jim couldn’t be) out in a few weeks, Another Kind of Eden. Then I read a piece of my own from a book coming out in September (more on that later) and then the following. I figured I’d publish it here because … why not? If it reads kind of speechy I suppose that’s because it kind of was. It was a good evening.
When I was reflecting on how best I might address the monumental responsibility of helping to usher in a new library to our community, I quickly realized I could spend this entire span of my allotted time talking about nothing more than what libraries do for communities. How a library provides free access to resources—audio, video, online stuff— that many people wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to. Especially when for some of us the much-lauded “information superhighway” is an overgrown two-track that peeters out in a tangle of impassible, spiky hawthorns. Libraries are critical for those of us living as analogues in a digital world, aren’t they?
For some, the library is simply a safe place to be, in from the cold, or the heat, as we are experiencing in our city this summer. Some of us want to be around people, or need to be, but don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone. We can come to the library, experience public life, and not lose our minds or be hassled for being here. With all this in mind, is there any bigger symbol of true community spirit, of people from all walks of life sharing space and time, than a library? That we rallied as a community to get this one built at all ... what an achievement. I could probably call for three cheers right now and we would be justified if we all just made some noise, patted each other on the backs, then called it a reading and wandered off to sip bubbly and gnosh on unidentifiable hors d’ouvres.
When it comes down to it, for most people libraries are really about books though, right? Or any media that stores and disseminates information. Libraries preserve ideas and make them available to everyone. Every one. That is beautiful. Libraries house literature, and literature is art. There is nothing like art—visual art, music, dance, all of it—to connect us through experiences to people long passed. I’ll give you an example. Sometime around 230 or 240 years ago a Japanese poet is sitting beside a pond, or maybe a river, and observes a bird in the water. He is moved to write a poem for the experience. Two months or so ago a friend of mine similarly sees a bird—a great blue heron—standing in a waterway, and messages me to tell me because she knows I love such things. I am moved by the sharing; maybe her heart opens for a moment too with the knowledge she has evoked happiness in the heart of another. Maybe she smiles. I certainly smile. The next morning, I sit down with my coffee, open a book, and and here is this poem:
The evening breezes—
The water splashes against
A blue heron's shins
It is our Japanese poet friend from a couple centuries ago; Yosa Buson, speaking across time and culture in a way that few other experiences in our world can. Collected in a book, and I am almost certain the book, or at least one containing the same poem, exists somewhere in this library, waiting to be discovered by some other giddy bird lover. It is heartbreaking if you think about it; heartbreaking in how hearts explode for love and joy as easily as they do for sorrow. It happens all the time!
Look around you. See where we are. This library. This magnificent, brand-spanking-new library. And they are gorgeous, aren't they? Yes, you heard that right, THEY. Because we like to assign genders to things—to ships, to the cars we drive, to the sun, to the transcendent moon that pulls relentlessly at the water in all of our bodies—and I have decided to assign this space a gloriously non-binary, two-spirited one. No, a multi-spirited one! Mega-spirited! Because there is just too much going on here to be contained by an either/or. They are a multitude! A temple to art and curiosity. And doesn't it feel good to be here with them, all of us, together? Look around you. Smile at your neighbor. When you do you are glowing your radiance into the eyes of another bright spirit, full of its own beautiful ideas and contradictions and longed-for uprisings. We are all here, and just to be here is a subversive act. A subversive act that says, "No."
No to what? Well, nothing less than tyranny, friends. No to nothing less than hate, and intolerance. No to an unreasonable, burning rage that lashes out in all directions against anyone perceived as different. We are here to fill the breach. We are the Gandalfs on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in Moria, brandishing our staffs and shouting against this swirling cloud of radicalized hatred and ignorance that, "You shall not pass!" Each of you accomplishes this with your support, just by being here in this library.
It's no exaggeration. Think of every tin pot dictator to emerge throughout history. What do they go after first? Culture. Art. Libraries. Always with flames, always with destruction.
The Library of Alexandria, dedicated to the Muses of Greek mythology—spirits also worshiped and present here, I should add—is possibly the most famous. Founded more than 2300 years ago, it was likely destroyed by Romans putting down a rebellion almost 1800 years ago.
900 years or so ago some nameless warlord in India destroyed the Nalanda Library, a center for Buddhist learning that kept hundreds of thousands of volumes dedicated to the "arts, sciences, literature, linguistics, Buddhism, history" and other subjects. Destroyed and forgotten for a few centuries.
The Mayans had libraries all over their empire, with thousands and thousands of books made of bark. The colonizing Spanish destroyed all but four. Four! They are called the Maya Codices.
A rising political party in 1930s Berlin, the Nazis, inspired the right-wing German Student Union to attack a library and counseling center called the Institute for Sexual Research. Founded in 1919 by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld:
… the Institute promoted progressive research on gender and sexuality. The library itself housed tens of thousands of volumes, journals, and memoirs. Additionally, the Institute did pioneering research on what Hirschfeld termed ‘sexual intermediaries’: people whose gender did not correspond to their at-birth sex assignment. 1
On May 6, 1933, the Union attacked the Institute. The Institute’s collections were burned in the streets. Lists of names and addresses of those who sought counseling, used the resources, etc. were confiscated and later used to round-up and arrest thousands of gay men in Germany. Hirschfeld got away. He lived the rest of his life in exile in France.
If we think our nation, our leaders, are above any of this, take a look at our own history. History that many today believe is unpatriotic to share. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Isn’t happening. The first people of this North American continent did not have written languages but we had libraries. Our elders. Our storytellers. The people who made sure everything we experienced, everything we learned—our cosmologies and how we navigated our world across forested landscapes and over river systems and under wide open skies—was passed down from generation to generation, from voice to ear to voice. Those people were our libraries. They were the first to die.
What is the next step in destroying a culture that practices an oral tradition? You kill the languages. So that’s what the colonizers did. Countless tongues and dialects as much a part of the landscape as the water and soil, gone. The federal government made it illegal to speak the ones that weren’t eliminated. Authorities tore children from their homes and put them in boarding schools and beat their traditional words out of them. Over the last few weeks we have witnessed the discovery of more than 1000 bodies in unmarked Canadian graves outside of Catholic boarding schools. There are plenty to be found on this side of the Medicine Line too.
This assault on language is not ancient history. My great grandmother barely spoke English. Instead she spoke one of two languages: Chippewa, maybe, or Michif, the language of our Métis people. I don't know for sure because this language, our First Language, is dead in my family. Eradicated by a culture steeped in generational trauma and shame. My Chippewa ancestors have inhabited this part of the continent far, far longer than historians belched out of patriarchal institutions built on the ethos of white supremacy give us credit for. And now, one of the last two remaining speakers of our language living in Montana died during this ongoing Covid pandemic.
Many people will happily chip away at the foundations that make for a free, happy life. The foundations of rich, vibrant culture. We saw it here in our own state during this last smug, hateful legislature, where the only work these people seemed interested in doing was in making life miserable for folks who live in more open-minded cities like Missoula, where people support others who simply want the freedom to live as they are without pretending to be something else. Those were dark months in Helena in the wake of the 2020 election that spread into dark months for everyone else. The fallout of our winter and spring is still fluttering from the sky like the ash of burning forests turned to charcoal after decades of overwhelming evidence, all ignored, that our growth-at-all-costs culture is making the world a furnace we cannot cool down.
Sometimes it can seem hopeless. There are too many people who just don't seem to care. There is too much dry tinder to fuel the flames of willful ignorance. It is easy to despair. I despair. I often feel I am clinging to the edge of my own abyss and the lip is crumbling away beneath my fingers. But words rescue me. Today I'm reminded of another Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa, who was wandering the countryside and writing poems more than two hundred years ago. Issa lived a hard, hard life. Desperate poverty. Seemingly insurmountable personal suffering. He wrote his most famous poem in 1816, just after the death of his young daughter, who was not even the first of his children to die. Issa writes:
The world of dew
Is a world of dew, and yet
And yet ... what? This world of dew dries out on the brittle grass of our scorched landscape just after the arrival of the sun. And yet, the sunrise is still beautiful, is it not? And yet, the laughter of children is still uplifting, is it not? There is yet love in the world, isn't there, however subversive? Wine to drink, heart's-desires to drink it with? Let us feel our grief, but let us remember our ancestors before us and those yet to come and be bold in our subversiveness! Rejoice that we are here together. We are in a new library, built in the midst of all of this! A temple to the sharing of culture! A fortress that stands against those who would take it all away. There is hope! Hell, I can see it and I'm not even a "hope" guy! I mean, I write a newsletter called An Irritable Métis, for crissakes!
During a panel I was part of a couple months ago in Crested Butte, Colorado, a person during the Q/A portion of the event suggested that Indians "don't have the internet." You could feel the air whoosh out of my fellow panelists—I think I even heard one mutter, "Uh oh", because I was already in full stride in my loudmouthery at that point. I took a deep breath. I just assured the person that we Indians do indeed use the internet, and have mastered it as a tool, like everyone else, to further our ability to not get along with each other.
Another time, another encounter, and a person suggested that Indian children don't write well because of "the oral tradition." I might have gotten a little indignant that time. I assured that person that I was in the midst of teaching poetry to 4th graders on an Indian reservation, and that these gorgeous children write beautifully.
Two Indians won Pulitzer prizes this year, Louise Erdrich in fiction and Natalie Díaz in poetry. This is monumental. Others, like Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass, are putting Indigenous knowledge on the page and readers all over the world are looking at it in wonder that, "Hey, these Indians might have known a thing or two about a thing or two.”
So yeah. Indians can fucking write.
I bet you can find Kobayashi Issa in this library. Buson and his heron too. Erdrich, Díaz, and Kimmerer, certainly. You can find my work here, and the work of so many of my friends, like James Lee Burke. Friends I never met, like the mighty James Welch, but whose work has carried me through so much, who even without knowing them, have taught me how to know. Think of the opportunities for others to experience the same thing. There might be someone approaching the front doors of this library, right now, who will find here what they need to crack their world wide open.
We can change the world, you know. We just need to keep showing up. As you did at the polls to build this thing. As you have tonight.
I know few words in my Native language. But this is one: Chi- miigwech. It means thank you very, very much.