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Henry Real Bird
7 Aug 2012
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From "The Rural Poetry Series: Henry Real Bird":

Henry Real Bird is an artist who sees little separation between the art of poetry and the art of living. The way in which Mr. Real Bird conducts his daily life suggests such connections; he's a rancher, an educator, a native Crow speaker and he's also the Poet Laureate of Montana. In that official capacity, Mr. Real Bird chose to accept the Laureate's work by bringing poetry to people across the state – in person, on horseback. 

In the summer of 2010, the poet undertook a 415-mile trek across Montana, handing out books of poems to folks that he met in the ranches, towns and reservations along the way. As the Western Folklife Center notes, in its extensive coverage of the journey on its blog, "This is not a press stunt, but rather a demonstration of Henry’s life, culture and poetry: a journey of horse and horseman slowly making their way across a vast ancestral landscape." 

The WFC's blog also features a few audio interviews with Mr. Real Bird along his way, as well as a recording of an early draft of a poem commemorating the journey. (National Public Radio also produced a story on the Laureate's travels.) The Writing Without Paper blog offers a comprehensive list of links to resources for learning more about Henry Real Bird, his poetry and his journey; included therein is Pat Hill's interview with the poet from the The Montana Pioneer, revealing how the language of his poems and his native Crow language come into concert:

"Real Bird said he also strives to make sure Crow culture is safe, and that retaining native language is an integral part of preserving native culture. 'I work on that as an educator…to preserve the language,' he said. 'In 1954, there were 30 of us in the third grade, and we all spoke Crow. Now, of all the grades K through 6th, only one percent are Crow Indian speakers.' Real Bird said the loss of the Crow language on the Reservation has led to a 'sell-out' of  Crow culture. 'These sell-outs, they're strange,' said Real Bird. 'If you speak Crow, you're of low mentality or something. They shun the language and move on.' Real Bird said he wants to see more emphasis put on Crow language in reservation classrooms, and he teaches his family to speak Crow on the home front.

"'I want to speak Crow Indian with my granddaughter,' he said, 'and then with her younger brother. There's a big loss with the oral tradition gone…some kids not even knowing where they come from. It's unbelievable what we have become.'

Native American culture and cowboy poetry merge in Henry Real Bird's work with a sensibility that finds common ground with the Beat Generation and rich oral traditions of the American West:

Red Scarf


Boots and chinks

Silver bit and silver spursEased into the dawnTo walk out kinksHorse like shiny, free of burrsTrotted into dayI’m ridin’ bayIf you can see the beautyIn the sunset with many colorsI only see the beauty in the sunrise with many colorsYou can find meIn the beauty in the skyIn sunrise and sunsetIn the shadow of the skyAmong the starsIf you can see the beauty, in the skyYou can find me, in your eyeWith a red scarf onBoots and chinksHere I am, I’m ridin’ goneGround about dayLookin’ for a strayRed-tail hawk blessed me with his shadowClouds peak to my southGranite to the westSheep Mountains and the PryorsLook their bestGrass full grownAs I stoodIn my heart that is goodIf you can see the beautyIn the sunset with many colorsI only see the beautyIn the sunrise with many colorsYou can find meIn the beauty in the skyIn sunrise and sunsetIn the shadow of the skyIn the shadow of the skyAmong the stars
Art Community Culture Education Health History Indigenous Innovation Recovery Rural/Regional Books/Writing Challenges Montana Poetry West
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