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Healing words: Cliff Taylor’s ‘The Memory of Souls’

You can order Cliff Taylor’s “The Memory of Souls” on Amazon and see his essays at lastrealindians.com. For more information, as well as a serialized memoir “66 Things I’ve Experienced as an Indian,” see www.clifftaylor.com

When Cliff Taylor (enrolled with the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska) read recently from his memoir, The Memory of Souls, it was like being in church.

The reading was held on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a library located in an abandoned bank building in Warrenton, Oregon, at the very mouth of the Columbia. Before the reading, my husband and I walked at Tansy Point, where the Chinook signed the treaty that took their land. There’s an open expanse of water—it’s about five miles to the other side—a fish processing plant, an echo of early salmon fishing days.

Taylor’s coworkers from the Astoria Coop and friends filled the room. He sat backlit against a pane of glass, a spindly purple leaf hanging above his head. Written during his last year in Nebraska, Taylor describes the book as “storytelling, sharing, personal history, and remembrance of these spiritual beings popularly thought of as gnomes, elves, leprechauns,” who he said the Northern Ponca call the Chahochina, the little people. In Astoria, Norwegians like my spouse, left treats out for the Nisse.

Generations of Taylor’s family were separated from their culture, which isn’t surprising given the multiple assaults on Northern Ponca sovereignty by the U.S. government. The Northern Ponca were targeted for termination in the 1960s, as the Osage were. Taylor began a decades long immersion in cultural practices to heal himself from the trauma he experienced in childhood and reconnect culturally.

In an easy conversational style, Taylor describes sundances and people he’s met. He describes his growing understanding, the journey from “a teenager, left alone to wander and cope like a crazy man for years and years,” his visions and encounters with little people teaching him, experiences that communicate a visceral joy.

At the reading, Taylor talked about the holy men, heyoka, and sundancers he has known, saying each word slowly. His hands formed a shallow cup as he indicated the book on the small table beside him, as if showing respect, honoring the words he wants available to Northern Ponca youth. He has told me he was very shy, but now the words come. It felt like he was channeling the experiences he’s had, pulling metaphors out of the sky, “like a waterfall of all the grace and support you could need.”

It felt like a sermon when he shared the vision he has for Native people. He drew the wholesomeness of healthy, intact Native communities, generations sharing, the ancestors ready to help. It’s an inclusive vision, available to anyone who wants to settle into it. Taylor feels like a holy man himself—something about the way he looks up as he speaks, like he’s looking for the words. Metaphors and clarity spill out, describing both our spiritual heritage and the destructiveness of past trauma, colonialism/capitalism. He also seems real. He’s a horror and sci fi reader/writer, a man who works in a natural food coop. A Native dude. 

For Natives, readings or interviews can be a gauntlet. Not surprisingly, Taylor showed patience and grace when a white woman asked, enunciating clearly, almost like he hadn’t been speaking clear eloquent English, “what is your Indian name, and what does it mean?” She also asked for more information about the Northern Ponca, “where has your tribe been for the past 300 years?” Taylor’s answers were friendly and dignified. Another white-passing woman announced she was Lakota and wanted to know about the prophecies of the white buffalo calf and whether his wife was Native. After a pause that lengthened, he said, “People back home talk about that a lot, I wouldn’t talk about it here,” and then, he introduced his partner, smiling broadly.  

After the reading, we ran into the big heart-shaped rears of a small herd of 𐓪𐓬𐓸𐓪^ (elk) clustered on a residential street near the Columbia. It was a good day. You can order Cliff Taylor’s The Memory of Souls on Amazon, and see his essays at lastrealindians.com. For more information, as well as a serialized memoir 66 Things I’ve Experienced as an Indian, see www.clifftaylor.com

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Ruby Hansen Murrayhttp://www.rubyhansenmurray.com/
Ruby Hansen Murray is a writer and photographer living in the lower Columbia River estuary. Her work appears in As/Us, World Literature Today, CutBank, The Rumpus, Yellow Medicine Review, Apogee, About Place Journal and American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry. She’s the winner of the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She’s been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, Ragdale, Playa, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Storyknife in Homer and the Island Institute in Sitka, AK. She is fellow of the Jack Straw Writers Program, Fishtrap: Writing the West and VONA, who studied at Warren Wilson College and received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots.
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