larry p. madden | yl voice | may 2017
If you're an Indian who's pushing elder status, then Louis Clark III's (Two Shoes) book will speak to you. “How to Be an Indian in the 21st Century" is a collection of autobiographical poems that weave lyrical writing with raw memories of what it meant to be an Indian at a time where no one ever curbed their racism in the name of being politically correct. Personally, I found kinship with Clark's retelling of those often pain-filled times. We both grew up in an era when the standard was that Indians were deemed losers. We were given lesser tasks at work, passed over for promotions, criticized if we complained and then we'd go home and see Indians were losing in the TV shows too. Still, many of us were proud of being Native and we gravitated towards voices that told us to wear that pride on our sleeves. Indians may have been losing on TV and movies but not at our kitchen table.
This collection is about the reality that Clark sees and it's one filled with blessings and optimism despite trials and closed-mindedness. Certainly, a poem like “First Grade Lessons" paints the sad picture of the realities Indians learn at a young age. Everyone has seen schoolyard bullying, but the almost condoned taunting of yesteryear was tough for all us Indians to endure. Those early wounds are still raw, even if they've been suppressed and Clark uses his poetic outlet to both vent and question the ramifications of it all.
Similarly, in “Just Your Race and Racism on the Job," Clark talks about the stereotypes we Indians encountered simply because we were trying to work in the white man's world. It still amazes me that people reduce hardworking people to one characteristic that may or may not be part of what makes them whole. Clark's words remind us of a time when being thick-skinned was just part of maturity. If a person didn't let bigotry roll off their shoulders then they'd be in for a harsh reality check.
Still, this is not simply a book about what we Indians encountered in the past, it's also a text that challenges us to make the most out of our lives today. It concludes with poetic advice such as “some gifts come in disguise" and “annoy your children with love," but it is lines like “it is what you do when no one knows that will define you" that truly resonate. For Clark, that was creating this excellent book, and after reading it his readers will agree that we all can add Two Shoes' name to the list of people who've encouraged us that Indians are vital, resilient, and will always endure.
Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.