“Weaves of Grass” links Whitman to Native American cultures
If you need a non-fiction text to pair with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and/or his epic poem Song of Myself, you may want to check out the February 2022 issue of Alaska magazine. Inside you’ll find “Weaves of Grass” by outdoor writer Michael Engelhard. The piece can be found online by the title, “The Art and Utility of Grass Baskets.”
I came across this article while — no kidding — waiting for my dentist appointment about a month ago. I noticed its catchy print title and since I was in the middle of planning new lessons for an upcoming unit on Walt Whitman, I snagged it and started reading.
In a word, this article is fascinating.
The article artistically connects historic and current day native Alaskan cultural traditions to Whitman’s poetry. Engelhard uses allusions to Song of Myself to showcase the craft of weaving with native grasses. The article examines the fiber traditions, still practiced by local artisans such as craftswoman Kathy Ward, to create baskets, buckets, clothing, masks, mats, baby carriers, windbreaks, and other items.
Watch for the lines of the article’s text printed in italic font. This is where Engelhard incorporates phrases and lines from Song of Myself, Whitman’s epic poem, into the narrative.
In fact, it’s interesting to see how Engelhard’s allusions to Whitman recall the many allusions to grasses Whitman sprinkles throughout Song of Myself. And what is it with the grasses?
It seems that Whitman chose grass, a ubiquitous element of nature to convey universal notions about humanity in general and Americans in particular, both native and white.
For example, according to The University of Iowa Graduate College’s Whitman Web International Writing Program, “grass is itself a child, always emerging anew from the realm of death into a new life; it is a kind of coded writing that seems to speak equality since it grows among the rich and poor, among black and white. But it is primarily the sign of life emerging from death, and the poet imagines himself walking over graves and imagining the grass as the transformed life of those buried beneath him.” In others words, Whitman’s ideas are true to his transcendental self where nature, in all its energy, is intimate to the human experience.
Six Song of Myself allusions are sprinkled throughout the article
Engelhard quotes Song of Myself using verses 31, 3, 6, 1, 17, 5, 7 in that order. Here’s the first example from the article that begins by describing the craft of Attuan tribespeople way out west on Nunivak Island. Here’s a sample:
“Crowding over 1,000 stitches onto each square inch, the westernmost island’s Attuans fashioned marvels out of Walt Whitman’s hopeful green stuff. He thought a single leaf spear no less than the journey-work of the stars. Native Alaskan straw wares, then, must be cosmic masterpieces.Weaves of Grass by Michael Engelhard
It’s a captivating article, but I’ll let you read the rest to see if it’s a piece that’s appropriate for your Whitman lesson plans. And as for expository writing skills, if you’ve ever had a hard time showing students how to seamlessly incorporate an author’s quote into their writing, “Weaves of Grass” does it seamlessly six times. For that skill alone, you may want to download Engelhard’s article.
I enjoy finding contemporary articles and such that link to canonical texts. And while poets like Whitman may be out of fashion in some circles, we should know that Whitman did include Native Americans in his work, often using the language of the era. According to J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, editors of Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, excerpted here on The Walt Whitman Archive, “Whitman was not unaffected by Native American life and events. While his own experience with Native Americans was limited, it was not insubstantial. He encountered American Indians as a boy on Long Island and as a young editor in New Orleans. He admired Indian troops who fought in the Civil War, and he was the only major American poet to work in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior (1865).”
Walt Whitman’s words and ideas continue to honor diverse voices. Thanks for reading!
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Featured Photo Credit: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from Anchorage, United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons