Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky - poetry and prose by Lakota Youth (ages 10 - 14)

Poetry has a way of touching the soul, capturing the heart of what we want to say, and connecting us to one another. Each year, our students at Emerson celebrate their year-long study of poetry by sharing their own poems at our Poetry Slam. And each year, I am truly moved by what they share about themselves. I cannot wait to share with them Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky, a new collection of poetry and prose by Lakota youth at Red Cloud Indian School. This beautiful collection will touch readers with their honest look into the feelings of these young writers.
Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky
edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin
paintings by S.D. Nelson
NY: Abrams, 2012
ages 10 - 14
available at your local library and on Amazon
Timothy McLaughlin has brought together a collection of poetry and prose written by Lakota students in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Interspersed throughout are vibrant paintings by S.D. Nelson - I found the interplay between the art and the poetry particularly effective.

As McLaughlin writes in his introduction, the students' stories "spring from their multilayered identities." They are young Lakota people, whose lives are grounded in the traditions and values of their Native community. But they are also young people growing up in the 21st century, surfing the Internet, listening to music, watching TV. Their writing reflects this rich, modern, multifaceted identity.

McLaughlin has organized the students' writing into seven thematic strands, from the natural world to native thoughts to misery. Each section begins with a short introduction that helps readers understand Lakota perspective and life on the reservation more fully. I know that my own students will respond to many of these themes. Some poems and prose recognize the power and beauty of the world around us. Others reflect their growing sense of self. One of my favorites is "Who Am I?" by Dusty Black Elk. Here is the beginning:
from "Who Am I?"by Dusty Black Elk
I am a rose in a patch of weeds.
I am a storybook mixed in with some dictionaries.
I am a chokecherry bush surrounded by oak trees.
I am a window that is broken.
I am a boy with lots of sisters.
I am an Indian surrounded by white people.
These students don't shy away from talking about hard issues they confront - whether it's poverty, racism or drugs. The poems speak from their experiences growing up in one of our country's poorest counties. But they also speak about their hope, their beliefs and their communities.

I've Got Your Back - by S.D. Nelson

S.D. Nelson's paintings add wonderful depth and vitality to this collection. Nelson is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas, part of the Lakota community. Each painting, done in a variety of materials from acrylic to colored pencil and ink, corresponds to a thematic section. Nelson includes a title and information about how his artwork reflects on Lakota traditions and experience. For example, below the painting above, Nelson writes:
I've Got Your Back. Colored pencil and ink on ledger paper, 8/14 in. With a sober heart I am standing. With a clear vision I see. I depend on you. You depend on me.

All these traditions and old teachings are like tools. They serve no purpose until we pick them up and use them. - S.D. Nelson
Share this collection with students, with teachers, with friends. Read it aloud, but also have it ready for quiet browsing. I'm sure students will be drawn to it time and again.

Timothy McLaughlin is a poet and teacher who has worked in Native communities since 1997. He worked at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the late 1990s. After that, he worked at Arlee High School on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. He founded the Spoken Word Program at the Santa Fe Indian School in 2003. His students have received many awards and national recognition for their inspiring work. Read more about the Spoken Word Program.

If you want to learn more about this collection, head over to Poetry for Children for a fascinating interview with Timothy McLaughlin.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers Abrams Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2012 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. This looks like a great book of poetry. I want to read it myself! Great review, too.

  2. Very nice paintings too!