Today would have been the 100th birthday of Jay Silverheels. Silverheels was a Canadian-born, Mohawk Indian, who was best known for his portrayal of the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, on the popular television series, The Lone Ranger. Silverheels was one of the first Native Americans to have a long and relatively successful career in Hollywood. He was thought of by some as an “Uncle Tomahawk,” but he actually fought throughout his career to expand the roles available to Indian actors, and to improve the portrayal of Indians. At the end of his career, he often spoke publicly about such things, and frequently appeared on talk shows to read his poetry based on his experiences as a child on the reservation.
I have never seen any of Silverheels’ poems, but in his honor, here is The Powwow at the End of the World, one of my favorites from Sherman Alexie. The relentless repetition of the poem’s syntactic structure seethes with anger, but somehow the poem never breeches its sense of calm authority. It is a feat that illustrates well the tension someone like Silverheels had to negotiate between holding true to the dignity of one’s identity, and conforming to a system in order to have an opportunity to change it.
The Powwow at the End of the World by Sherman Alexie (from the Poetry Foundation)