INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN DEER CLOUD
BY GLENN SHELDON
I know you and your work carry such a sense of place (which very much interests me). Tell me about growing up in the Catskills and
how you think that impacts your poetry, if indeed it does?
Being born in and growing up in the Catskill Mountains has nearly everything to do with the poems, essays and stories that I write.
First of all, I carry those mountains in my very atoms; my interior landscape is the Catskills (for any one who doesn't know, the Dutch
called them that because of the panthers they saw there; originally it was Kaatskills, which means Rivers of Cats). I am nearly not
being figurative about this. I feel my body as containing those multitudes Whitman referred to, and my multitudes happen to be hemlock
trees, fiddleheads, red trilliums, river rapids, waterfalls, meadows, caves, deer, bear, eagles, scarlet tanagers, fireflies, and so
The Catskills are pervaded with spirit, as even the Dutch noted. The hemlocks and mists back then gave the mountains an ethereal
blue appearance that spoke of ghosts. Indian people called its vast, pervasive spirit Manitou. My ancestors showed immense
respect for that high, eroded plateau because of its powerful and eerie spirit, not to be tampered with.
I feel thankful that I am a Native writer who grew up close to the Earth. I am descended from a medicine woman who lived in the
Mongaup River Valley in the mid-nineteenth century and I still have relatives dwelling in this place our ancestors ran to in order
to escape being confined or killed by the invaders. I call the Catskills my "heart country." Not a day flashes by when I don't
experience riptides of homesickness for my heart country.
Firstly, I never know whether to say Indian, Native American, First Peoples, etc. So enlighten me on that. Secondly, you're a
great champion of good poets, as I well know. But what Indian [or another term?] poets should we be reading that maybe we haven't
I use INDIAN. Below is an excerpt from a poem I once wrote after three young NATIVE AMERICAN college women and I got into an impassioned
discussion over what term to use:
Hear me, my sisters, I am Indian, in God. Despite all the murdering
the invaders have done these past five centuries, all the taming
they have tried to do, in my red heart I am untamed, a wild, wild Indian
who knows how to run inside the bodies of deer, white buffalo, foxes, wolves,
swim inside fish motion, dolphins, coelenterate, sea stars, rise
inside rain, hawks, spiraling eagles, float in the blue silence
beyond silence of heron, the immense blue. I know how in full
moonlight to give those gifts over to the passion of a lover's arms,
to roll, howl in those sweet, fierce kisses of one who can flesh-fill me
with naked savagery feared only by those who hate what is exuberant, wild,
fearlessly free. Let them think any moment now I might toss
a tomahawk at their shorn heads, for I have proven my prowess
at tomahawk throws. Let them live in terror at all the stereotypes
they have pinned my wings with - the red wild savage Indian. I will
un-stick myself, string their stereotypes like glass beads, turn them
For those who don't know, that accidental tourist, Columbus, first referred to the indigenous
people he encountered as una gente in Dios, "a people in God." Once he decided to use the Tainos as slaves for providing sex and
silver, he stopped praising them for their "godly" qualities of peacefulness and openness. One subject of debate among the
intellectuals and churchmen of that time was whether an Indian was human or not.
More than anything it is how others treat Indian people. Some of those who use the more politically correct terms for us
often prove to be the biggest Indian killers of all (academentia, anyone?).
As much as I want to, I have decided not to give any names for the second part of your question even though there are Indian
writers whose work I respect and admire with all my Métis mountain Indian heart. I see all too often how certain non-Natives
set up one Native writer over other Native writers (we all know their names) and manage to pit us against each other by whipping
up jealousies. So I would say this: If anyone wants to know those writers I love both as human beings and as writers, they can
read the Spring 2008 Issue of Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Writing, Thought & Art which I edited, or they can
go to my Native anthology I WAS INDIAN (Before Being Indian Was Cool), published by FootHills Publishing. The first volume came
out last September and the second volume will be published this September. Some of these writers have been more or less forced
to live in exile for decades because they have fiercely resisted having their freedom pinned to the fuzzy black velvet of
To what extent does your heritage, as a Métis (Blackfoot, Mohawk and Seneca) influence your art and your relationship to the world?
My heritage completely defined my relationship to the world from the time I was a very small girl. I grew up in the
1950's and 1960's, when Indian people where I lived still were fairly quiet about their Identity. Not being considered quite human
still was a haunting aspect of our lives, hence our silence. Also, I am Métis, a pretty French word for that which we were called
in the mountains: "part Indian." I use Métis especially because of Louis Riel who fought for the rights of "mixed blood" Natives in Canada.
Of course many of us are Métis. How could we not be after five centuries of physical and cultural genocide and still counting?
My Mohawk ancestors reached a point in the seventeenth century when they kidnapped white people and other tribal people to prevent
their own tribe from being decimated to only a few people (I know, I know, there are going to be Native Americans all upset because
I didn't use "nation" there).
This complexity of identity naturally becomes a part of my writing. It caused me to question what schoolteachers and other
"authorities" told me when I was of a very young age. When I write, my fingers are a ghost dance calling back the days before
so many Native people died and before so much of indigenous land, culture and language was stolen. As a woman, I am also acutely
aware of "the Burning Times" and the rapes of indigenous women and all the relentless oppression of girls and women - so my
writing hands are songs of liberation. My fingers are the sign language speaking to the next seven generations to come, inviting
them to be brave as I have had to learn to be brave - asking them to take a stand against vanishing. When I walk out into the world,
in a sense I walk out as an ambassador for my people - not only for Indians, but for poets and artists and country people and
women and the "two spirited" and for anyone who has ever been told they are "no good." I am very traditional in the sense that
I feel passionately my responsibility to others.
A colleague and I have debated a bit about prose syntax and its relationship to poetry. Now I often use the noun-verb-object
structure, but I warn my beginning creative writers away from it. Your voice is one that follows traditional prose syntax and
then breaks it to great effect. So whose side of this debate would you take? Or more appropriately, what's the difference
between poetry and prose when it comes to syntax?
I don't take anyone's side. I don't even care. I have people make various pronouncements about my poetry, including their
sometimes telling me it is prose-y and therefore I should turn it into prose-poems. Indian people regard STORY as poetic,
magical, luminous. I grew up surrounded by storytellers, both Native and non-Native. Stories are mountains made of words,
as far as I'm concerned; they live in the revolutions of my atoms as much as the Catskills do. I am always telling stories in
the oral fashion, and my friends and I riff off each others' stories, poems and jokes. I can't imagine my ancestors stressing
over syntax and what is the difference between poetry and prose. Original Indian languages are all poetry, anyhow. Prose didn't
exist for us in the past and it doesn't exist for us in the present - not if we still carry remnants of our real culture in our hearts.
I happen to write in different ways, and those ways are simply natural to how I am existing in any particular present. Most
importantly, the very act of writing is as ceremony to me.
Ruth Stone has said that your words carry us "into new universes that favor freedom, exuberance and beauty beyond
all heartbreak." As a person, I certainly see that in you. As a friend, you've helped me get beyond some minor heartbreaks.
To what extent are you conscious of allowing your poems to permit your readers such transcendence?
I certainly wish for my poems to bring truth, beauty, freedom and transcendence to those who read or hear them.
I know that the words I just beaded will sound old-fashioned and passé to the jaded and cynical. But I have no
apology for embracing those words made of ancient amber and eagle wings. I am conscious of my poems especially when
I give readings, because that is when I see how they can make others smile, laugh and cry. I am aware that my being a
poet and my poetry, itself, convey to other people that they, too, can be brave. I tell them that I didn't even begin
speaking until I was fifty years old - truly not much of an exaggeration. I was a Sleeping Indigenous Beauty for many
years because of the "evil spell" the patriarchal, colonial world cast on me, although in my case it wasn't a prince's kiss
that woke me but a kick in the ass.
You have had your own poems, stories and essays published in literary jounals, anthologies and books. However, in recent years
you also have edited two anthologies and the Spring 2008 Issue of Yellow Medicine Review. Can you speak a little to why you write
and also to what made you decide to edit the anthologies Confluence and I Was Indian and also Yellow Medicine Review?
I have through the years come to realize that my poetry is closely bound in with my being a Métis Indian woman, and that all its
leafing complexity at best reflects the Iroquois Tree of Peace with its Four White Roots inviting all people in. I am tired of all
the "blood, "blood quantum, race, skin color, sexual identity and class issues slugged out in a neverending arena of hate. I have
seen this crap come from all directions and from all kinds of people, including Indian people. I did not grow up on a reservation
and my family has not ever been rez-connected, so the ones like us sometimes get accused of not being Indian or "Indian enough" from
those whose ancestors didn't run fast enough and hide quick enough. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Jigonsaseh, Deganiwidah,
Hiawatha, Osceola and so many great Indians did not carry the colonizers' "you're conquered" cards in their medicine pouches. I am
proud that my family managed to hide out in the Catskill Mountains and preserve what I consider to be the best of being Native. I
love and respect the spirit of Catskill Indians who never surrendered. Right now there is a groundswell, especially in the east and
northeast of Turtle Island, in which people are emerging from the woods and beginning to reestablish what the concentration camp/ reservation
system destroyed in far too many Natives - generous, kind, free and gentle spirits.
I edited the books because I wanted to get out the "voices of the voiceless," those who Martin Luther King, Jr. alluded to.
I emphasize here that I have not only published Indian writers but other writers, as well. I take a close look at the spirit
expressed in people's poems and what they are bearing witness to, what their visions are, and what they have to say to people
now and to people who I believe will need our words and dreams in the future. We all know how bad things have gotten on earth,
the latest being the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. All this creating that we do says that there can be something other than
runaway greed and destruction - what Bill Moyers calls "the culture of cruelty." When I do my own writing I am living as a Native
woman and as simply a human being who has not been defeated. When I do my editing I am helping to bring Indian people and other
hungering people home.
In my original home I am friends with you, Glenn Sheldon, maker of wry jokes about being a "white man," because I know full well
what a great hearted man and great poet you are. The same goes for your brilliant partner, Rane Arroyo, and my entire constellation
of friends, dreamer men and women all. My and my friends'creative work dares to reclaim the "Beauty Way" of our stolen first country - the
purely trusting and sweetly exuberant heart.