Nancy Losacker’s mosaic “Big Sioux River, Union County” triggered Norma Wilson’s poem “The White Wing,” connecting messages about cultural survival across the centuries. Image courtesy Nancy Losacker
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Native Sun News Today: Tribal culture and poetry inspires new collaboration

Native regard for nature inspires poet Norma C. Wilson

‘Art of collaboration’ underpins recent book
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Today
Health & Environment Editor

DEADWOOD – In Rivers, Wings & Sky, showcased here at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books, poet Norma C. Wilson and artist Nancy Losacker reveal a shared passion for protecting the natural heritage of the Northern Great Plains.

Poems and photos of glass mosaics that the two former University of South Dakota faculty colleagues showed in exhibits over the past four years are now collected between book covers, affording a tour de force in what they call “art of collaboration.”

In the chapter “Our Collaboration”, Wilson writes, “Collaborating with another person is a complex. Sometimes it is easy. Other times it is, as Nancy says, ‘like pulling teeth’.”

Wilson and Losack complement each other with their works, meanwhile drawing inspiration from Native American culture and poetry.

Wilson recalls a story in a literary magazine published by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Sinte Gleske University. It was a narrative by Charlotte Black Elk, relating how Miniconjou people designated their leader Big Foot as a peacekeeper with a white trumpeter swan wing.

He carried the wing with him up to the time of the U.S. 7th Cavalry’s massacre of his tribal members at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890, a story retold in the first three stanzas of Wilson’s poem “The White Wing”:

The Keeper of the White Wing
rode ill with pneumonia
to save his people.

Bearing a white flag
he sought peace.
But others would fight.
At Wounded Knee
the soldiers’ guns
killed for hours.

That December day
two hundred fifty Lakotas
and twenty-five soldiers died.
After the slaughter
a blizzard flew
from the North.
As an elder shouted,
“The wing, the wing!
the gravedigger threw
the blood-stained white wing
into the burial trench.

It was Losacker’s mosaic “Big Sioux River, Union County” that triggered the poem. The mosaic is a bird’s-eye view of the river and farm fields with a white wing of the bird in the foreground “depicting the beauty and fertility that would have been lost” if Hyperion Energy Corp. were to win the fight against county residents to build a tar-sands oil refinery, Wilson explained.

“During the same era that Big Foot and his people were massacred, the trumpeter swan was hunted almost to extinction,” Wilson related. “The slaughter of defenseless people fleeing for their lives, the theft of their lands, and the extinction of a species are all violations of nature. And if we human beings are going to survive as a species, such violations must end.”

The people of Union County won their fight against Hyperion, and Wilson finished out the rest of the poem with what seems to be a prayer to protect that which has not yet been ravaged:

A century later,
white-winged birds
ride the North winds
soaring over the curving river
glistening with sunlight,
the checkered fields
of green and brown,
the river banks
with umbrella-like shade
that once
belonged to all.
Even birds sharing seeds
seem to know
that Earth’s abundance
is the white wing of peace,
falling to earth
as flakes of snow.

Wilson spoke to the Native Sun News Today during the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books. Turns out her southern accent is due to the fact that her home near Vermillion is the furthest north she’s ever lived.

A Tennessean originally, she derived a sense of relationship to the land from her grandparents, who grew their own food and lived without electricity or running water. She remembers singing to her grandfather while he milked cows and stored the milk on blocks of ice, gathering blackberries, and watching her grandmother make pie on a woodstove, kill chickens, and make dresses out of flour sacks.

“I loved being in the country with nature. Sitting on the grass under pine trees, playing in the creek and things like that are what I enjoyed in my childhood,” she said.

She went to the University of Oklahoma to major in English. Her dissertation ended up being on “The Spirit of Place in Contemporary Native American Poetry.” In Oklahoma she had the opportunity to meet the poets and study their work. They enhanced her appreciation of nature and fueled a desire to encourage her own readers to honor the earth,” she said.

For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday helped her understand the idea of reciprocity, or recognizing that “if you receive all these gifts from Mother Nature, you should give something back,” Wilson said.


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Native regard for nature inspires poet Norma C. Wilson
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