Monday, September 13, 2010

Monday Muse: Montana's Poet Laureate

Henry Real Bird is Montana's third Poet Laureate. He succeeded Greg Pape (2007-2009) in September 2009. The state's first official poet was Sandra Alcosser (2005-2007).

The honorary two-year position, which is unpaid, was established by law (Senate Bill 69) in 2005. That law requires the state arts council to provide the governor with the names of three nominees, each of whom must demonstrate "exceptional talent and accomplishment", have published at least one book of poetry, and have resided in the state at least one year. The governor has to make an appointment within 30 days of receiving the list. Re-nominations and self-nominations are not permitted. Nor is the award of the title given posthumously.

* * * * *
. . . I have asked that you ride the best
Of beautiful words to create images
Of life's reflections filled with feelings of reality
Winters many may you ride the best. . . .
~ From "Hoola Hand" by Henry Real Bird

A native Crow, rancher, and educator Henry "Hank" Real Bird has been writing poetry since 1969. His published collections include Where Shadows Are Born, Beyond Reflection, Reflections and Shadow, and Best of Hank Real Bird. His work also appears in numerous anthologies, including Ten Years Gathering: Montana Poems & Stories (Ranch Country Publishing, 1995; available through resellers via Amazon) and Cowboy Love Poetry (Angel City Press, 1994; 2nd Ed., 1996). Real Bird also has written and illustrated a dozen's children's books. In addition, he has released a CD, Rivers of Horse. He also recorded the commentary for the CD Stories from Native America (available from resellers via Amazon).

Real Bird is featured on Why the Cowboy Sings, a documentary produced for the Western Folklife Center; he performed the song of the same name at the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Nature and land — Real Bird grew up on Montana's Crow Reservation on the site of the famous Little Big Horn battlegrounds — as well as horses and ranching culture figure prominently in Real Bird's unadorned poetry. He's a plain speaker who uses few words to set a scene and call up a feeling. He doesn't require a lot from us to imagine the sound of his voice cutting through a still night:

Goin' on fresh snow
Snows been fallin'
Several days
The ground, all is white
Sagebrush tops
Stickin' out of snow
Riding' through snow, it's quiet
River where it goes. . . .
~ From "Tail That's Light" (Scroll down to poem.)

. . . 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. . . .
~ From "Red Scarf" (Scroll down to poem.)

Real Bird also tackles Native American rights issues. In this clearly political poem that he turns on the "sell out" Crow, he writes:

Sell out Crow.
Who are they that give water rights away?
Sell out Crow.
Who are they that take tribal hay?
Sell out Crow.
Who are they that take tribal buffalo?
Sell out Crow.
Who are they that give Mother Earth away?. . . .
~ From "Sell Out Crow" (Scroll down to reach the poem.)

A regular performer at the yearly Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada, Real Bird is the recipient of the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Real Bird, whose primary language is Crow, teaches kindergarten and elementary grades at Northern Cheyenne Tribal School and directs Crow Tribe Head Start and Seven Hills Healing Center. He also is a visiting poet at YMCA Writer's Voice.

In the summer of 2010, Real Bird traveled at least 415 miles on horseback to give out books of his poetry. (See "Ride Across Montana with Henry Real Bird". Included here is audio and a transcript of an interview on July 21, 2010. Asked whether he considered what he was doing part of his job as state poet, Real Bird replied, "You know I took it on like that, because nobody else will ever do this type of thing, you know. Nobody has the guts to just saddle up a horse and just go from town to town just giving out books of poetry and stuff like that....")

Real Bird raises champion bucking horses on his O-W Ranch in Big Horn County, Montana.


All Poetry Excerpts © Henry Real Bird

Audio of Real Bird Reading Poetry

Audio of Real Bird Reading and Talking About Poetry (Billings Gazette)

Audio of Real Bird's Keynote Address at 2010 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (Transcript may be purchased.)

Excerpts from Cowboy Love Poetry: Verse from the Heart of the West (1996) (This collections includes Real Bird's "Cowboy Drifter", "Lone Star Woman", and "Love is a Lady".)

"Across Montana on Horseback, Poet Hands Out Poetry", NPR, July 20, 2010 (This broadcast includes Real Bird's reading of his poem "Sunrise Whirls".)

Henry Real Bird Poems Found Online include "Driftwood Feelin'" (see video below); "Hoola Hand" (this poem also is found here); "Journey Poem" (a poem inspired by Real Bird's 2010 summer trek across Montana) Real Bird's official poetry page is here.

Billings Gazette Editorial, "Real Bird will work to bring poetry to life", October 2, 2009

Jared DuBach, "Henry Real Bird Talks of Horses and Tradition", Elko Daily Free Press, January 28, 2010

Pat Hill, "Henry Real Bird - Crow Indian, Working Cowboy, Poet Laureate: Crow Culture Survives and Merges with the Modern World through Montana's Poet Laureate", The Montana Pioneer, March 2010. (In this interview, Real Bird speaks with deep feeling about his efforts to retain Crow culture and the Crow language, the simplicity of his lifestyle, and how he aims to spread poetry throughout the state.)

Humanities Montana

Montana Arts Council

Montana Page at

Montana Poet Laureate Position

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Western Folklife Center (FaceBook Page and Twitter)

Real Bird Re-enactment FaceBook Page

In this video, Real Bird recites his poem "Driftwood Feelin'" at the 2009 Montana Festival of the Book:


Louise Gallagher said...

Thank you -- I so appreciate your Monday poet laureate series!

I've learned alot and read some great poetry because of you!

L.L. Barkat said...

I love that he's a rancher. Poets are everywhere. Sometimes we forget that.

Anonymous said...

thank you maureen.
watching the video :-)