Native Writer Peter Blue Cloud
Peter Blue Cloud or Aroniawenrate is one of
the most respected and venerable poets within
the Native American literary tradition. His
traditional name, Aroniawenrate, has been
approximated in English as "Stepping across the
Blue Sky" or "Climbing Up toward the Blue Sky."
These approximations were eventually
transformed into the moniker of Peter Blue Cloud,
which was created for him by a group of Paiutes
when he was in his middle twenties. Soon after,
Blue Cloud abandoned his Christian name, Peter
Williams, en route to a lifelong concern with
pantribal awareness and indigenous rights.
Though also of English and Welsh heritage, Blue Cloud has always made a point to foreground his Mohawk heritage,
even when in the company of far-distant tribes. Blue Cloud has retained the name Aroniawenrate as a second pen
name, and his deployment of more-fugitive pen names such as Coyote 2, Owl's Child, Turtle's Son, and
Kaienwaktatsie might best be considered the gambit of an author working less to represent a sole biography than
to represent a collective tradition.
Blue Cloud rejects the notion of literature-as-commodity, undertaking many projects on his own initiative, and
distributing freely the fruits of many of those labors. His rejection of commodity extends beyond his
understanding of literature and of naming; it encompasses a worldview that criticizes the destruction of nature
and landscape in the name of consumer culture.
Born 10 June 1933 to Ariron and Wahriah Williams of the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk Nation, on the Caughnawaga
Reserve in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada, along the Big River, known in English as the St. Lawrence and in French as
the St. Laurent, he was formally educated to the level of grammar school on the reserve and later in Buffalo,
New York. Raised speaking the Mohawk language, he came late to the languages of English and French.
In childhood and old age he lived among his clan at Kahnawake, but in youth and young adulthood he spent two
decades and more in the American West, working by turns as a carpenter, a logger, an ironworker, and, most
prominently, as a woodcarver. Through his travels he has internalized a varied set of landscapes that make
frequent appearances in his poetry, few areas appearing more saliently than those of Northern California and the
From an early age Blue Cloud was provided literary models from both European and American traditions. His
grandfather, a schoolteacher at Kahnawake, exposed him to the art of storytelling through the plays of William
Shakespeare and the tales of the Haudenosaunee. These influences contributed greatly to his later literary
output, both in White Corn Sister (1979), a play for voices featuring tribal archetypes, including the medicine
man and the clan mother, and in his collections of coyote tales--Elderberry Flute Song: Contemporary Coyote
Tales (1982) and The Other Side of Nowhere: Contemporary Coyote Tales (1990).
Yet, before these later successes, Blue Cloud endured many years of literary obscurity. During the late 1950s and
throughout the 1960s, as he attempted to fashion a place in letters, he was met with little more than a seemingly
unending chain of rejection slips. Having no literary connections, his breakthrough came when he took matters
into his own hands, assuming a prominent place within the Indians of All Tribes initiative to reclaim Alcatraz
Island as a territory collectively entrusted to Native Americans across the continent. Among the easternmost
representatives of the cause, which also included Navajo, Sioux, Winnebago, Blackfoot, Apache, and Cheyenne
activists, Blue Cloud assumed literary leadership of the cause with his editorship of the anthology Alcatraz Is
Not an Island (1972).
Assembling diaries, drawings, editorials, eulogies, histories, letters, poems, photographs, proclamations, and
resolutions, Alcatraz Is Not an Island proved to be a highly influential multigenre chronicle commemorating the
nineteen-month reclamation of Alcatraz, which spanned November 1969 through 11 June 1971, when the federal
government forcibly removed the remaining residents of the island. Among Blue Cloud's own contributions to the
work were his "Alcatraz Diary," a prose account of the early stages of the reclamation, including many poetic
passages, and his poems "Alcatraz," "First Brother," "Thunderman," "Alcatraz Visions," and "Tomorrow," which
examine various stages of the reclamation.
To Indians of all tribes, Alcatraz Island stood as a symbol of native rights in opposition to European
colonization, a Turtle Island or Coyote's Mountain in microcosm. In their "Proclamation to the Great White
Father and All His People," they called for a reassertion of self-determination to begin at Alcatraz through the
founding of a center for Native American Studies, an American Indian Spiritual Center, an Indian Center of
Ecology, an Indian Training School, and an American Indian Museum. While these calls went unheeded, the rebuke
of a corrupted colonizing power by the reclamation did not go unheard, and it continues to ripple through the
culture to this day.
Alcatraz, then, proved an impetus to a nascent continentwide movement. Spanning beyond San Francisco Bay,
Alcatraz Is Not an Island paid homage to wider initiatives of indigenous rights in the immediate region, including
those undertaken by the Pomo and the Pit River tribes. In this effort Blue Cloud contributed the poem "Pyramid
Lake 1970," a tribute to an environment held sacred to the Paiute and threatened by the excess of agricultural
dams along the Truckee River. In these and other environmental poems, Blue Cloud's thrust is less ecological than
reverent, and his song serves less as a protest than as a prayer. Nevertheless, his commitment to nature in these
early poems is as evident as it is unwavering.
On the strength of his increased visibility from Alcatraz Is Not an Island, Blue Cloud's literary fortunes
improved rapidly upon his return East, when he was named poetry editor of the influential Mohawk journal
Akwesasne Notes in 1975. In the following year Rarihokwats, the editor in chief of Akwesasne Notes, oversaw
the publication of Blue Cloud's first poetry collection, Turtle, Bear and Wolf (1976). Blue Cloud's favorite book,
and one of his most visible and well-received works, its sketches of traditional animal personae did much to
capture the collective consciousness of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee.
From this point forward Blue Cloud began to publish work at a rapid pace, placing poems in literary magazines such
as the Beloit Poetry Journal and releasing nearly a book per year over the next decade. He collaborated with
several illustrators, including Peter Jemison, and for his efforts Blue Cloud was recognized in 1981 with an
American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Much of the work from this period is difficult to
characterize, insofar as it eludes generic classification and tends toward the seamless integration of original and
A cosmopolitan feel characterizes the work of this period, as Blue Cloud had long been shuttling back and forth
between New York and California, writing about New York in California and about California in New York. Yet, at
the same time, locale remains a crucial element throughout, leading Blue Cloud to label certain poems by place-
name, even if only as generally as "pacific ocean, calif."
In other cases, Blue Cloud has been moved to create landscapes of his own invention, taking and melding elements
from different places he has lived and traveled. Nostalgia and vision are thus collapsed into a timeless sphere, as
encapsulated in Blue Cloud's Back Then Tomorrow (1978). Similar echoes of nostalgia and imaginations also
combine in White Corn Sister, Blue Cloud's play for voices, which proved a successful, albeit brief,
reindigenization of a form previously attempted by poets such as Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers. Yet, Blue
Cloud's proposed play for voices describing the trauma of Sullivan's March, in which Major General John Sullivan
destroyed forty Haudenosaunee villages and dispossessed thousands of Haudnosaunee people in the autumn of
1779, remains unwritten.
Like Jeffers, Blue Cloud has expressed a stronger affinity with animals and trees than with people, though he has
not gone so far as to declare himself an inhumanist. Blue Cloud's sense of the animal world is well evidenced,
perhaps nowhere more so than in Sketches in Winter, with Crows (1984), in which Blue Cloud puts his own spin on
a familiar literary trope, the trickster crow, employed to wide acclaim by Ted Hughes in his 1970 collection,
Crow, and, more recently, with less fanfare but no less force, by Native American writers including Joy Harjo and
Blue Cloud's crows might be expected to behave even more deviously than their literary kin, and yet, while
certainly exuberant in their wildness, these particular crows are also by turns placid, and even serene. There is a
decidedly Japanese feel to many of these lyrics, not least in the haiku sequences "Autumn By River" and "Winter
Morning," which unselfconsciously highlight an aesthetic that operates beyond the dialectical struggle between
adherence to and rejection of traditional English metrics.
Even more formally indifferent is The Paranoid Foothills (1981), described as both "a sinsemilla dialogue-in-
progress," and, more mundanely, "a work of fiction." In this sui generis work Blue Cloud presents a picture of
Northern California as a landscape of eroding hills, marijuana fields, and homestead settlements. It is a place
where landscape is a site of paranoia, which, while partly drug induced, is also provoked by the aerial surveillance
of a federal government unwilling to let the locals cultivate the land as they see fit. In this scenario, drug
culture seems fated to lock horns in a perpetual struggle against the powers-that-be, with the fate of the
foothills hanging in the balance.
During the later 1980s Blue Cloud settled in at Akwesasne, where he took on the editorship of Akwesasne Notes
(and composing its "Time Track" column), co-edited Coyote's Journal, and contributed to Indian Magazine. In
these years his attention turned more emphatically toward coyote stories, in which he attempted to place the
familiar trickster narratives and tropes within more-modern and contemporary contexts and settings. More
firmly returned to his ancestral home, he also began to reassess the fate of the Mohawk people.
Long an environmental hazard, ALCOA's aluminum smelting plant in Massena, New York, had by 1986 contaminated
the surrounding ecosystem so thoroughly that it poisoned local fish habitats and undermined fish consumption,
thereby collapsing the native economy. A serious blow to the health of the Akwesasne, this degradation was
addressed by Blue Cloud in his "Reflections on the St. Lawrence Seaway" and in "Searching for Eagles," in which
he condemns the greed of the industrialists and the shipbuilders whose careless actions have sullied the thriving
river of his youth and left him with the defiled river of his old age. There were no eagles, no loons, no owls--only
a small, depopulated parcel of land encircled by urbanization, its view of the stars drowned out by electric lights.
To Ross Montour, poems like these are the work of a poet who "quietly rages at the choking of the natural world."
The muted, elegiac tone that Blue Cloud strikes here and in other similar lyrics is so understated as to seem
unremarkable. Yet, it's a muteness that swells to indignation at other moments, as in Blue Cloud's oft-repeated
query to the nonnative peoples: "Will you ever begin to understand the meaning of the very soil beneath your
feet?" Not waiting for an answer, he has continually reaffirmed the stewardship of indigenous peoples, the
sacredness of their sites, and the eternal qualities of their continent.
Among the most sympathetic contemporary poets to Blue Cloud's project is Gary Snyder, who has written
introductions to several of his works, including an edition of selected poems, Clans of Many Nations: Selected
Poems, 1969-1994 (1995). Canvassing the work of a lifetime, Snyder has emphasized Blue Cloud's versatility,
praising him as one equally at home in the narrative, the lyrical, the celebratory, and the mythic modes, and, more
than this, as one committed to advancing understanding of the ecology and interspecies. Blue Cloud's nature
poetry is indeed more populated than the nature poetry of many other American writers: in writing of the earth,
he looks consistently beyond the flora to the fauna, describing the creatures he sees and trying to conjure up
those creatures that have disappeared.
For example, in "Death Chant," an elegy for the decimated natural world, Blue Cloud correlates the attack against
native America with the attack against American nature, writing of the two-tiered genocide that:
we die the buffalo
The extermination of the buffalo, largely accomplished, has its modern-day analogue in state-sponsored
extermination projects against the wolf, whose agents are critiqued by Blue Cloud in
whose minds create vast lies
With so many animal populations threatened, Blue Cloud's poetry frequently turns to other natural phenomena, as
in more- conventional poems such as "Sweet Corn," "Dogwood Blossoms," and "Chokecherries," and, most notably, in
songs praising powerful natural events such as "A Gentle Earthquake," dedicated to Mount Saint Helens, and
"Hurricane Andrew" both of which celebrate the balances of creation and decry self-interested depictions of such
occurrences as disasters.
Blue Cloud's skepticism of self-interested, human depictions also extends to the creation of monuments, which he
discredits in poems such as "Crazy Horse Monument." Questioning the value of yet another dynamited mountain,
and thus implying a critique of Mount Rushmore, Blue Cloud in this poem doubts that the desecration of natural
forms could ever be in the service of native culture.
Rejecting a pale imitation of "the crumbled glories of Greece and Rome," he asserts that such commemoration
would be better expressed by leaving the Black Hills untouched, leaving their diminishment "to the elements" and
"the wearing down of time," rather than to man.
It is mildly ironic, then, to note that Blue Cloud's work has been criticized for being less than sculptural. His
harshest detractors have gone so far as to label his work amateurish, clichéd, and crass--even pseudospiritual and
stilted. That they should seem so to some in the literary establishment will come as little surprise to those
familiar with the Native American canon and its critics. Blue Cloud's champions, on the other hand, have praised
what they see as a woodcarver's ethic in his composition, finding a technical sensitivity neither overwrought nor
For the most part stanzaic, with occasional instances of free verse, Blue Cloud's English prosody demonstrates a
restraint typical of a nonnative speaker. His French and Mohawk prosodies, by contrast, prove somewhat more
elaborate. Among his most notable formal innovations are the facing stanzaic techniques of poems including
"Autumn Morning," "First Light," and "Tsier."
The duality of voice in these works communicates the duality of Blue Cloud's vision, looking both to the now and
the not-now, the past and the future, backward and forward, here and elsewhere.
One need not be native, or a nature lover, or a poet, to find more to remember than to forget in Blue Cloud's
output. His writing is multifarious, including equal parts mud and magic. For some the mud seems a drag, and the
magic a dreg; for others, the mud and the magic seem to have mixed brilliantly. Whether readers' reactions tend
toward good, bad, or indifferent, however, they will likely acknowledge that the works before them are rarely so
much museum pieces as poems for use--poems made less to hang or hang on to than to be passed on.
If Blue Cloud's works sit awkwardly or uncomfortably within the mainline tradition of American literature as
taught today, it is because they do not aspire to assimilation. If they trouble the borders and boundaries of what
some consider the literary or the poetic, it is because they could not do otherwise within the aesthetic of the
colonizer, the occupier, and the usurper. If they fail to make the old ways new, it is because they reject the
concept of newness altogether. Blue Cloud's poems are for the ages because they are ageless, more intent to
communicate and preserve some snippets of the old ways that those of the so-called new world would do well to
Allen, P.G. Hozho--Walking in Beauty : Native American Stories of Inspiration, Humor, and Life. 2001.
Tohe, L. Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers On Community. 2002.
Bloom, H. Native American Women Writers. 1998.
Trout, L. Native American Literature: An Anthology. 1998.
Niatim, D. Harper's Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry. 1998.
|Peter Blue Cloud