Twenty-five years ago a poet from Ireland came to the University of Montana to replace Richard Hugo for a year. Hugo had a Rockefeller and he was going to spend a year in Italy to work on a book of poems based on his World War ii experience as a bombardier, flying missions out of Italy. That book would become
Good Luck in Cracked Italian.
I was one of the students that the Irish poet, Anthony Cronin, inherited, and he was quite pleased that I had an American Indian heritage and identified myself as an Indian. But he wondered how an Indian could have a name like Welch. That was an Irish name. I told him that I had two Irish grandfathers and one Blackfeet and one Gros Ventre grandmother. But it wasn't quite that simple. One of my grandfathers came out west as an Indian agent from North Carolina and had a Cherokee princess in his ancestry. Surprisingly, this Irish poet seemed to know about Cherokee princesses.
One night about a week later, Tony hurried into Eddy's Club, a local writer/graduate student/hippie haunt, and pulled out a slick chunk of paper and unfolded it before me. It was a map of Ireland and it took up the whole table. He pointed to a spot along the southern coast and said, "That's where you're from! That's where the Welch tribe originated!" He'd already been drinking and his smudgy glasses were down on the end of his nose, but his eyes were triumphant, almost defiant. I was young and I didn't know whether to be flattered that he had taken the time to show me my Irish origins or to be alarmed at his insistence that I know them. And in truth I had never identified with the Irish. I had grown up as an Indian, as a member of two Indian tribes. All my relatives were Indians.
Later that night, as I crossed the snowy bridge over the Clark Fork River, I began to think of my new Irish tribe -- must have been the Celts -- and of all the tribes in the world: European tribes, the Goths, the Franks, the Picts, Middle Eastern tribes, the Lost Tribes of Israel, Far Eastern Tribes, desert tribes, the Ainus of Japan, Mongolians, Genghis Khan, the tribes of Africa, Watusis, Zulus, the tribes of Southeast Asia and South America, some of whom were still being "discovered." Even in my beery state, or perhaps because of it, I was thrilled by the notion of a world full of tribes. It had been that way once upon a time. In some parts of the world, in spite of political boundaries, people still identify themselves according to family, clan, band, society, tribe. They still depend upon collective memory, spirituality, environmental lightness, and group loyalty to perpetrate their way of life.
It is sad to think that one day there will be no more tribes as we know them. There are too many anthropologists and missionaries out there looking to study and convert them. There are too many oil companies, lumber companies, soda pop companies, looking to exploit them. We will introduce them to the luxuries of civilization. Then we will try to figure out why they were so happy then and so unhappy now.
Ploughshares very kindly invited me to be guest editor of this issue, I was asked to come up with a theme that not only would have something to do with my own background but might have a kind of universal appeal -- hence, tribe. In my call to writers, I offered a definition of "tribe" that I found in my old
Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary: 1. A social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers. 2. A group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.
But what is our notion of tribe and tribalism as we approach the twenty-first century? Perhaps not strangely, many of the poems and stories I received peck around the edges of both definitions. Writers are notoriously, triumphantly, on the edge of established society -- it sometimes seems they can only comment on society from the fringes. This is not to say that writers do not go to church or become members of the PTA, but very few of them will bake a cake to send the high school band to Pasadena. This kind of rah-rah tribalism doesn't interest them as parents and citizens. But that doesn't mean they can't write a sexy account of such an activity.
Many of the stories and poems are about war -- literal, sociopolitical, and domestic -- with varying points of view, from those of abusers to victims to bystanders. Some of the work directly portrays ethnic tribes. Whether Haitian, Latino, Asian American, or Native American, these writers proudly describe their own cultures, with an underlying realization and sadness that they are being swallowed up by the dominant culture, rather than being accepted by it.
Other variations on the theme of tribes include homosexuality, love, religion. One poet writes of leaving the tribe of nuns before the final initiation. Another poet deals with homosexuality in the military -- a tribe within a tribe. A story speaks chillingly of a female bodybuilder who identifies more with a group of transvestites on a park bench than with her fellow bank employees. What nearly all of these works share is the desire to acknowledge the tribes of people outside the cozy confines of larger society and their inalienable right to bang at the gates.
Admittedly, there are several poets and storytellers in this issue who strain
Webster's definition of tribe. They are simply good. The tribe of good writing.