The Rural Poetry Series: Henry Real Bird

Henry Real Bird (left) with riding partner Levi Bruce; Joseph Terry, National Public Radio

“I’m going to ride where my grandfather rode. I’m going to show the kids how to write poetry…I’m just a simple guy on horseback, with a frying pan and a coffeepot and a match and pencil and paper, riding on horseback and flat enjoying myself.”
Our Rural Poetry Series continues today with the life and work of Henry Real Bird, 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. 
This summer 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 an 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 spurs
Eased into the dawn
To walk out kinks
Horse like shiny, free of burrs
Trotted into day
I’m ridin’ bay
If you can see the beauty
In the sunset with many colors
I only see the beauty in the sunrise with many colors
You can find me
In the beauty in the sky
In sunrise and sunset
In the shadow of the sky
Among the stars
If you can see the beauty, in the sky
You can find me, in your eye
With a red scarf on
Boots and chinks
Here I am, I’m ridin’ gone
Ground about day
Lookin’ for a stray
Red-tail hawk blessed me with his shadow
Clouds peak to my south
Granite to the west
Sheep Mountains and the Pryors
Look their best
Grass full grown
As I stood
In my heart that is good
If you can see the beauty
In the sunset with many colors
I only see the beauty
In the sunrise with many colors
You can find me
In the beauty in the sky
In sunrise and sunset
In the shadow of the sky
In the shadow of the sky
Among the stars