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Dreamtime Keeper
Interview with Native American Poet Ron Welburn

Interview by Ja A. Jahannes
Savannah, Georgia

Ron Welburn speaking on shared African American and Native American musical traditions. Smithsonian Institution. August, 22, 1999.
Ron Welburn speaking on shared African American and Native American musical traditions. Smithsonian Institution. August 22, 1999.
Ron Welburn at Wampanoag Annual Pow Wow on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. July, 2010.Photo by Cheryl Welburn.

Ron Welburn at Wampanoag Annual Pow Wow on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. July, 2010. Photo by Cheryl Welburn.

Ron Welburn's ancestral roots are tangled through Native peoples like the Gingaskin and Assateagues of the Delmarva Peninsula, the upper Chesapeake watershed (Lenape), and African Americans. Through his mother alone he is descended from Wat West, whose father was Gingaskin and whose mother was among several Cherokee families that migrated to the Virginia and Maryland Eastern Shore before 1830. Ron's hometown is Berwyn, Pennsylvania and he grew up in Philadelphia. He honed his poetry skills at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and received graduate degrees from Arizona and NYU. His poems have appeared in Gatherings, Red Ink, Returning the Gift (from the historic Native writers and storytellers festival in 1992), the Greenfield Review, Callaloo, and over 100 other journals and anthologies.

Coming Through Smoke and the Dreaming is his sixth book of poems. His collection of essays, Roanoke and Wampum: Topics in Native American Heritage and Literatures, was a co-recipient of the Wordcraft Circle Creative Prose: Nonfiction Award in 2002. He is particularly interested in the survival strategies of Native families along the east coast. An avid jazz fan, he is finishing a project on Natives and jazz. At UMass Amherst since 1992, Ron teaches Native, mainstream American literatures, western hemisphere fiction in translation, critical writing, and American studies. He also served as a chair of the Five Colleges American Indian Studies Committee and co-established the University's Certificate Program in Native American Indian Studies in 1997. After two decades as a pow wow vendor for the Native American Authors Project, Ron joined his wife Cheryl dancing at some pow wows in 2000, Eastern Men's traditional.

Jahannes: What is your earliest recollection of an interest in poetry?

Welburn: I’m sure I transferred my love of hearing family members tell stories and anecdotes to gaining a love of poetic diction has been a great influence. I also recall enjoying novelty poems as a child and teenager. Because I read a lot of history and autobiographies, I didn’t happen to pay close attention to poetry until late in high school when a double dose of poetry cultures caught my attention: a Folkways recording, American Negro Poets, I think is the title, owned by the family of a close friend, featuring Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay reading their own works; and the second was an anthology, The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men. Yet, I continued to read prose. When I entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in February 1964, a year and a half after high school, working in the Vail Memorial Library got me exposed to Conrad Aiken, Denise Levertov, and Rainer Maria Rilke. I sensed a world opening up!

Jahannes: What is the way in which you are inspired to write a poem?

Welburn: Being of rural (Berwyn) Pennsylvania background, and always feeling displaced in Philadelphia where I did most of my schooling, the natural world more than urban life held more for me as a poet. Birds, trees, hillsides, streams, a romanticized perception probably. Yet, growing up in the city had its effect. I was once described as "a rural sensibility attracted by urban rhythms," those being largely jazz, then salsa. I need Dream Time; that's when I can best reflect and organize my ironical vision, or natural inclination to see relationships in the world around me honed by knowledge learned from my elders. When Melvin Tolson (1) visited Lincoln in 1966, he told a group of us budding poets (Sam Anderson, Fred Bryant, me and others) that you went to the city to see life and to the country to write about it. But that never sat well with me, much as I appreciated him. I made plenty of poems from life on and around campus. The birds, the weather changes, I could relate to that. We had some family members who lived in the area, so that connection just came naturally.

Jahannes: After you began writing poetry, what obstacles did you have to overcome?

Welburn: I don’t recall any. Maybe not having enough money to buy books by poets I’d have liked to have. But I made do. We poets on campus nurtured each other; and we had non-poetry writing school mates who encouraged us.

Jahannes: What has been your best feeling at a reading of your poetry? What fed this feeling?
Welburn: Foremost would be articulating my poems well without stumbling. I try to "orchestrate" the order of poems in a book and for a reading. I’d never be a poetry slam reader, I’m not that kind of performer; just an old-fashioned poet who has some idea of how to give a poetry reading as though it were a song or musical composition. Maybe this comes from listening to a lot of music from all over the world, and being an amateur musician and composer.

Jahannes: What persons, events, emotions have fed into your poems you have decided should be published/read/shared?

Welburn: I've written poems about hypocrisy on the government level and between ordinary people, about urban Indians hiding their identities, about the alignments in the heavens, love poems, about astronomical and ecological mysteries. I'm a longtime reader of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, for his literary puzzles and ironies, and a few of my poems over the past decade or more invoke his perceptions directly or indirectly.

Jahannes: How do you see the Native American experience and the African American experience in your poetry?

Welburn: There's not enough space to write about this cogently, but I'll put it like this: There are blacks who are part Indian and there are Indians who are part black, and they’re not the same people, although many African Americans think they are.

Jahannes: What makes them different?

Welburn: The world views between the two peoples have some similarities and many differences; principally, Indians feel rooted to this "America" space that’s older than the idea of the United States and older than the name by many thousands of years. Our ancestors are part of the grass and trees. This is knowledge I grew up with from childhood, elementary school age; yet it took me a while to understand the "one drop rule," and that east coast Indians were not all removed as many people claimed because I was seeing otherwise. It is considerably painful to have one’s grandparent tell you: "We can’t be Indians any more. Just forget about it."

Over the past 30 years I’ve met numerous people who tried to forget and then got lost trying to come back. I mean no malice when I say that the Black Consciousness movement had an adverse effect on Indian identity on the east coast and Southeast because it compelled many mixed-ancestry Indians to try to fit into African America; being Indian and/or proclaiming pride in Indian heritage angered most black folks I encountered. So, the poems I’ve composed about aspects of this interaction have been a bit bemused. My early twenties to early thirties was the time I more consciously identified as black; yet I could never shake off or wanted to relinquish my Indian heritage, and this upset many people -- I almost got into a fight right in my dorm room over it. I couldn't see wearing the African garb; since my hair grew profusely, in the early seventies I wore it in a semi-afro, but would get a regular non-afro haircut. I just didn't look right or feel right in a dashiki. Later, at pow wows for decades I danced inter-tribals and eastern social dances; then ten years ago when I began dancing in regalia (Eastern men's based on early-to-mid 18th-century style) my wife says I’m dressed in my "real clothes." In high school, and by some at Lincoln University, I was perceived as Hispanic, even Latinos in NYC thought I was one of theirs, and I guess I cultivated aspects of that look.

In the long run, I think I had to experience that decade-plus of black identity to have a better understanding and appreciation of my personal Native legacy: how people got moved around, being run off our reservation on the Virginia Eastern Shore, living with apprehensions of children being taken from them to be put into boarding schools or up for adoption, and having bad memories of a whole lot of things. Things like that. Giving voice to those feelings by parents and grandparents, giving voice to the denials made about being an Indian while your hunting buddies were all Indians and doing things in a special way and demanding that I show deference to particular people in our community. And the people who quietly slipped off to pow wows; and the family we used to visit in an Indian community in Jersey without anyone saying the word Indian, or Lenape. So, I never felt that existential separation from an African motherland; but all my life, literally, and even knowing I have some black forbearers, I’ve had a great sense of loss of the country right under my feet. For the past thirty-plus years, a composite of all this has characterized the moods and feelings of my poetry.

Jahannes: What is special to you about being a poet?

Welburn: Being a poet keeps me situated in place, in time, in sensibility, and has been my most autobiographical of forms. Sometimes I wish poems could be published sooner; often, poems that have appeared in print, whether journals or my books, are two to five or more years old. But I’ve been fortunate to have the respect of many peers, especially among Native poets.

Jahannes: Two of my favorite poems by you, of which there are many, are Bones and Drums and The Mirror and the Hollywood Indian because they speak so cogently about place, legacy and identity:
Bones and Drums
for Lewis McMillan
by Ron Welburn

Generations unfold from our faces.
You will find kwanza celebrants
and bearers of yoruba, ibo, and muslim
names with connections in the cherokee,
gestures among the chicksaw;
a hoop broken like the faces, mouths,
a few brows native to apalachicola,
catawba, creek and ramapos.
Has America ever noticed
how some of these voices match
the trombone? the big horn of
Big Chief Russell Moore,
Big Green, Snub Mosley,
and Jack Teagarden we speak of;
Does the America recall Shunatona
at the '28 Inaugural?
What does it know of Willie Colon,
Steve Turre and so many salseros
in this bull eagle's timbre of speaking.
Have they listened to the bass,
a tree of rhythm smooth as Blanton,
sinewy as Pettiford, thickset as Mingus,
supple as a Rozie.
Or drums, Baby Lovett to Sunny Murray,
for a basic two-step
a round dance grass dance beat
on the stretched snare hide of ponca city,
tishomingo, okmulgee, tahlequa,
the rolling piano of muskogee;
sock cymbals and high hats
of seed beads, patterned and flowing
like leaves in a river
in the split accents of 4/4.

The Mirror and the Hollywood Indian
by Ron Welburn

Like coups, deceptions too catch us.
Once we belonged to nations and to tribes.
The idea of being part-Indian
belonged only to those who sought no alternatives.
On the homestead or the reserve
we knew what our names meant.
Leaving Nanticoke, Cherokee village,
Brandywine, the fringes of Robeson country,
the enclaves of Lenape stretched from
Jersey to Kansas, the Piscataway-
Places, land that knows who we are,
Mashpee, the Ramapoughs, Schoharie country.
Then came the movies:
Italians and wigged Huns
war-whooped and died at the feet of John Wayne,
bonnets streaming, yelling heap big
bad mouths; then along comes
a blue-eyed Geronimo; then we have
a speechless X Brand leaping off
rooftops in Derringer's New Orleans.
Into our mirrors we sought
that definition our families claimed,
hidden from many of us by snub noses
and rough hair.
We sought the Hollywood Indian
and did not see him.
We refused to see the eagle in ourselves.

Jahannes: Thank you for so eloquently giving us a vision that so powerfully peers into the heart and soul of America.

Welburn: Thank you, and thank you for this interview.

© 2010 by Ja A. Jahannes.

Dr. Ja A. Jahannes is a poet, psychologist, educator, writer, and a social critic. He is a frequent columnist and his work has appeared in diverse publications. Dr. Jahannes has lectured throughout the U. S., in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East and Europe. Professor Ron Welburn is included in the forthcoming poetry anthology/memoir by Jahannes entitled Fire and Lightning -- The Lincoln Poets: Langston Hughes, Larry Neal, Ron Welburn, Everett Hoagland, Ja Jahannes, Keorapetse William Kgositsile, Gil Scott-Heron.

1. Melvin B. Tolson was the author of the classic poem Dark Symphony from Rendezvous With Death by Melvin Tolson, copyright 1944 by Dodd, Mead & Company. Some critics considered him equal to Langston Hughes.

Ron Welburn, Professor, English Department, University of Massachusetts, Bartlett Hall, Amherst, MA 01003

  • Bones and Drums originally appeared in Callaloo Magazine. 1981. © by Ron Welburn.
  • The Mirror and the Hollywood Indian was originally published in Ron Welburn’s book, Council Decisions: Selected Poems (Little Rock: American Native Press Archives, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. 1990.) © Ron Welburn.

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Published in In Motion Magazine November 24, 2010

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