When She Died, We Buried All Those Words With Her

AlexieA poem from Sherman Alexie (thanks to elder Clancy Dunigan for passing this along):

My mother was a dictionary.

She was one of the last fluent speakers of our tribal language.

She knew dozens of words that nobody else knew.

When she died, we buried all of those words with her.

My mother was a dictionary.

She knew words that had been spoken for thousands of years.

She knew words that will never be spoken again.

She knew songs that will never be sung again.

She knew stories that will never be told again.

My mother was a dictionary.

My mother was a thesaurus,

My mother was an encyclopedia.

My mother never taught her children the tribal language.

Oh, she taught us how to count to ten.

Oh, she taught us how to say “I love you.”

Oh, she taught us how to say “Listen to me.”

And, of course, she taught us how to curse.

My mother was a dictionary.

She was one of the last four speakers of the tribal language.

In a few years, the last surviving speakers, all elderly, will also be gone.

There are younger Indians who speak a new version of the tribal

language.

But the last old-time speakers will be gone.

My mother was a dictionary.

But she never taught me the tribal language.

And I never demanded to learn.

My mother always said to me, “English will be your best weapon.”

She was right, she was right, she was right.

My mother was a dictionary.

When she died, her children mourned her in English.

My mother knew words that had been spoken for thousands of years.

Sometimes, late at night, she would sing one of the old songs.

She would lullaby us with ancient songs.

We were lullabied by our ancestors.

My mother was a dictionary.

I own a cassette tape, recorded in 1974.

On that cassette, my mother speaks the tribal language.

She’s speaking the tribal language with her mother, Big Mom.

And then they sing an ancient song.

I haven’t listened to that cassette tape in two decades.

I don’t want to risk snapping the tape in some old cassette player.

And I don’t  want to risk letting anybody else transfer that tape to

digital.

My mother and grandmother’s conversation doesn’t belong in the

cloud.

That old song is too sacred for the Internet.

So, as that cassette tape deteriorates, I know that it will soon be dead.

Maybe I will bury it near my mother’s grave.

Maybe I will bury it at the base of the tombstone she shares with my

father.

Of course, I’m lying.

I would never bury it where somebody might find it.

Stay away, archaeologists! Begone, begone!

My mother was a dictionary.

She knew words that have been spoken for thousands of years.

She knew words that will never be spoken again.

I wish I could build tombstones for each of those words.

Maybe this poem is a tombstone.

My mother was a dictionary.

She spoke the old language.

But she never taught me how to say those ancient words.

She always said to me, “English will be your best weapon.”

She was right, she was right, she was right.

One thought on “When She Died, We Buried All Those Words With Her

  1. This is simply the most beautiful and yet the most terrible of poems. Heartbreaking. Tragically it can be repeated hundreds and hundreds of times. Yes, English was the best weapon, it killed your mother’s tongue and what should have been your mother-tongue. A Native language, crafted over thousands of years, has a value of ten thousand times greater worth than the most expensive piece of art on the planet – and then add some. Thank you for this powerful lament. I shall never forget it. As a pink-skinned English (only) speaker from the UK, I am ashamed of my part in this treachery.

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