Allison Hedge Coke

Language and Preservation: Poetry as a Call to Action in “The Mounds” and “Skeletons”

by Erin Cheatham

In Blood Run, a free verse play dedicated to “the memory of trade between Pan-American Indigenous people”, Allison Hedge Coke writes of a land that speaks loudly of its people and heritage, of a city that represents how “critically important it is to preserve cultures, climates, architectural ruins, and sacred sites as they exist.” Blood Run National Historical Landmark runs along both sides of the Big Sioux River, in western Iowa and eastern South Dakota. Over 176 ancient mounds cover the city, encompassing a landscape that speaks to its cultural significance and inherent beauty. These mounds have social as well as astronomical significance, used for ceremonial, burial, and sometimes boundary marking purposes. Dating back to as early as 8, 505 years ago, the ancient site at Blood Run represents a culturally significant case study in the development and preservation of early technologies and civilizations. Margaret Noori writes in the introduction to Blood Run that

Archaeological evidence suggests that the heaviest years of use may have been between 1675 and 1705 A.D., when it was occupied by as many as 10,000 individuals, trading and interacting in social and ceremonial activities, sharing an Oneota cultural tradition. (Noori ix-x)

Non-local, native-made artifacts found at the site suggest that Blood Run was a place where many people gathered, implying a great social significance to the study of cultures and cultural interaction. As the source of much exploration and archeological interest in the nineteenth century, “tribal history, early written accounts, and French maps place Omaha peoples in a location consistent with descriptions of Blood Run” (“Time: One Place, Many People”). Evidence also places Ioway peoples here as well.

As one critic notes, the sequence of poems in Blood Run “evokes the art, engineering, culture, and history associated with the Native American earthworks – often described as “mounds” – of the little known Blood Run site” (Allen 195). The ancient technology of the mounds, and the historical relevance of the site that surrounds them, is at the root of Hedge Coke’s poetry, and what the people, past and present, of this place have to say is important in understanding the cultural significance of this specific time and place.  Blood Run represents Hedge Coke’s plea for the preservation of this ancient land, her desire to reconcile the past and present to show how important the future is, as well.

In “The Mounds”, the burial mounds themselves speak, describing the “woven baskets” of “rich-fresh soil” that are “piled one on top of another, again, again”. The mounds appear “as small, circular, sloping hills to untrained eyes beholding”, emphasizing the careful process of creation and “long term care”. The personification of the land adds a spiritual element to the poem, as “the earth is sanctified, sacrament caressed” and the “earthly wombs” create shelter for the “loved, cherished”. A maternal spirit, “Mother Earth”, resides in the mounds that are created “by cultural duty” and “by love for The People”. The mounds also describe their scientific nature, they are “Lain precise in accordance” to astrological events, the universe itself. This mix of spiritual and scientific, both “geometrical design” and “earthly womb“, emphasizes the complex nature of the burial grounds and their historical and cultural significance. They are places of both spirituality and craftsmanship, “positioned relevant to all that was–will be”. The poem is also carefully crafted, mirroring the precision of the mounds themselves, the “rope lines calculating paths” that are “measured by line”. The lines stack one on top of the other, creating in each stanza a small mound, representing the poem’s subject matter in an important way.

Similarly, “Skeletons” represents a plea for preservation, an appeal on behalf of those who reside within the mounds. The skeletons beg “Do not unsettle us,” describing the “subtle dusk” of the mounds they call home, ones that hold “the base of lifetimes”. Those buried within the mounds have settled into the ground, “have returned to it” and do not wish to be harmed or disturbed. Emphasized again is the labor involved in creating the mounds, that “Our people labored for this honoring”. Finally, the skeletons claim “no human should dismantle prayer”, combining the artifact of the mound with its inherent spirituality. This mix of both the science and the spirituality of creation addresses the complexity of this cultural practice and the necessity of its preservation.  “No human” should alter the spiritual offerings of those that came before us.

Allison Hedge Coke’s attention to both space and language in her poems represents the complexity of the themes they deal with. Both “The Mound” and “Skeletons” are purposefully crafted to mirror the elegant and profound nature of the Midwestern landscape, and its complex historical significance. The echoes of ancient voices, of the people who inhabited Blood Run and who still reside there today, pervade these two poems, linking past and present in a way that makes this work culturally significant and historically relevant. The area of Blood Run is threatened by commercialization, something Hedge Coke desperately calls attention to. Her efforts to use art and poetry as a means of raising awareness for cultural and historical preservation are what lend to her roles as both poet and activist. In an interview with Quiet Mountain Essays editor Suzanne Sunshower, Hedge Coke explained that she has “spent twenty-five years using art (literary, musical, visual, and performance) as a connective base to teach and bridge humanity, and empower youth and adults” (“QME Interview”). She uses language as a call to action, poetry becomes her protest for the recognition and preservation of a land she holds dear.

Works Cited

Allen, Chadwick. “Siting Earthworks, Navigating Waka Patterns of Indigenous Settlement in Allison Hedge Coke’s Blood Run and Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka.Indigenous Americas: Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. Minneapolis, MN, USA: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 27 April 2015.

Hedge Coke, Allison. “QME Interview.” Interview by Suzanne Sunshower. Quiet Mountain Essays. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. 

Noori, Margaret. “Introduction.” Blood Run: Free Verse Play. By Hedge Coke, Allison. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2006. ix-xi. Print.

“Time: One Place, Many People.” Blood Run NHL: Time. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.