Poet reflects on Native American heritage

By A Contributor

Elby Adamson
Contributing writer

Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is one of the Midwest’s most respected writers. Her latest book, “The Turtle’s Beating Heart” will further enhance her standing as a highly skilled wordsmith.

“The Turtle’s Beating Heart” is biographical, a family history and much more. Because it deals with Low’s Delaware (Lenape) ancestors and their concerns as indigenous people, it functions as a microcosm of the problems facing Native Americans in their efforts at assimilation into the culture that displaced theirs.

For Low this is a personal quest in an effort to understand her grandparents.

Low is a writer who captures place with her words and “The Turtle’s Beating Heart” reflects Low’s upbringing and the lives of her more recent ancestors in the Flint Hills and on the prairies of Kansas.

However, she also understands the past and the present are intertwined in time and space. The past is still with us bending the paths of our lives like some great lens in the space-time continuum.

Low corresponded with and studied the work of the native Kansas poet William Stafford, of whose writings she says, “His writings do not recall the past; they nurture its continuing presence.” In The Turtle’s Beating Heart low’s writing does the same.

The forced movement of the Delaware and other indigenous peoples from their ancestral homes ultimately to Kansas or Oklahoma still reverberates through the lives of their descendants.

In some cases these reverberations are in the form of customs or traditions still observed albeit sometimes modified in the present generation. Low sees a card game as a reflection of a Delaware game called puim.

At other times Low discovers behaviors that seem inexplicable can be understood if examined in the light of cultural history. Low’s appreciation of nature is perhaps one of the most important aspects of her Lenape heritage.

The title of the book is significant as turtles are important in Lenape and other Native American mythology. This cultural motif is reflected in Low’s writing about herself and her heritage.

Traditionally turtle shells have been used to make sacred rattles and bowls for ceremonial purposes. The plastron or bottom shell protects the vital organs of the turtle while the carapace or upper shell serves as a portable dwelling into which the turtle can withdraw and in the case of box turtles almost entirely so as a defensive mechanism.

Certainly Low reflects this in her writing life when she says, “I built my own carapace to protect my words.” and “I pulled back into my shell.”

The turtles function as a repeated motif in this biographical work…

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