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Analysis of “Moving Camp Too Far” by Nila Northsea Essay

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Updated: Oct 10th, 2021

The last line of this poem seems to express guilt, but it is more a statement of conviction that not all change is good, and we mourn what is lost: if she only felt guilt she would not have written the poem. This line is certainly powerful, and there is likely some guilt, but mostly is is mourning. Nila Northsea is honoring her culture as best as she can with this poem. She mourns the loss of identity, and she points out that some things we cannot help, but others we can change and we should.

Northsea starts out by mentioning the things she cannot do, things lost to progress, not all of which are good. Moving camp on travois was hard and backbreaking work. Counting coup was the way to count victory over the enemy without killing them. Taking scalps was actually not originally Native American culture, but was taught to them by the French and the British, who wanted proof of a kill. The loss of the buffalo is not good, and losing any traditional music or dance is a loss of some of their identity, so not remembering the last great battle or the buffalo hunt is a loss, but not critical. The ghost dance, however, is central to her tribe’s cultural heritage, and it is sad that she does not know it.

In the second half of the poem the poet talks of the comparable replacements for the cultural things lost. The most poignant is the picture if an eagle on a Slurpee cup. The picture is not the reality and she mentions it is almost extinct. It is ironic that the cup is plastic, one of the main contributors to the degradation of the planet. However, she likely also knows that the eagle populations are recovering. So this is something she is pointing out to suggest change. She mentions travelling to powwows in campers and Winnebagos, another pollutant and represents overconsumption of finite resources. She mentions eating buffalo burgers at tourist stands and compares the rock and roll music to traditional Indian dance, which are not necessarily bad things. The buffalo is another animal which has been brought back, and we know that great effort is being expended to preserve the traditional music, art and food of Native Americans. The Powwows are one way they do this.

The last line is a statement that she does use the substitutes and it is unfortunate. However, she is not especially professing guilt. What can she do about the loss of her culture? Can she clear the plains and restock them? Should she if she could? Progress is relentless. It happens whether we like it or not. Because we cannot turn back the clock, we can only speculate as to what might have happened if only… When we analyze those portions of culture we have lost, or are losing, we should look very closely at those things which we can change and do that if we believe it would be better.

For example, my grandmother hates to go to the hardware store, because they are huge, impersonal and they do not stock certain items. In fact, she tells us that she wishes that the little stores she calls Main Street because that was where they were, were still here. She says shopping used to be social and small shops served their customers. She does not have to walk a mile to get a penny nail. (She says it was named that because they were a penny a pound.) She says that if people her age had known what patronizing the huge convenient and cheaper stores would do to Main Street they would have done differently, but it is too late mostly. She says there are no corner hardware stores left in her home town, and maybe not anywhere. Now all we have are Home Hardware and Rona etc, where it takes an hour to get a penny nail.

The last line points to all of us. We all accept change, perhaps too readily. That is the meaning of the title: we have gotten too far from our origins. Do you shop at small mom and pop stores on main street, or wherever they have been pushed? Can you find a small locally owned store? So when Northsea says, “Unfortunately, I do.” It is more a statement of loss than guilt and she does much more. What can Nila Northsea do about slowing progress selectively? She can write, and she does.

This is a powerful poem which communicates need on a deep level with a few strong images, and draws the readers in to identify and empathize with the narrator, also causing them to look at their own lives and what has been lost to progress. Northsea puts a lot into very few words. The poem is aimed at more than just other Native Americans, because she uses mostly images that any educated North American would know. These are ordered in a way that points out what poor substitutes we have, and the last powerful statement is a simple statement of reality.

The poem is devoid of metaphor, except that it is a metaphor for the state of the world. Progress can be seen as neither good nor bad in itself, but the change it brings may not be to our liking if we do not pay enough attention to control it. However, the entire poem is composed of images which are compared almost side by side: moving camp on travois alongside going to powwows in campers and Winnebagos; hunting buffalo alongside eating buffalo burgers at tourist stands and doing the ghost dance alongside dancing to Indian rock and roll. We see the comparison. Only the picture of the eagle on Slurpee plastic cups is alone without a comparative. Whether this is an oversight or deliberate, it is a powerful symbol of the loss of culture and the damage to the planet that progress has brung.

Northsea uses plain language in very short lines to make the point even stronger. We cannot misunderstand. She speaks of what she does, even though she is pointing at the rest of us, all of use of all cultures. This is a loss to all of us and we need to pay attention. The beginning line is an echo of a cliché used in many western novels and movies to portray Indians as illiterate and simple, speaking of many moons. The ending statement is an acceptance of her part in the problem.

If Nila Northsea’s purpose was to point out that we need to pay attention and do our part in controlling progress so that it does not eliminate all that is valuable, then she accomplishes this very neatly. She does not accuse or berate. She simply mourns and accepts that she contributes to the problem. He words evoke imagery with which we are all familiar, and which parallels the losses to every culture. A culture’s most important attributes are its literature, its language, music and art. Many Native American cultures are making a strong effort to preserve the arts, literature and music of their tribes. Only a day or so ago there was a special presentation of how this is being accomplished on Martha Stewart. In that it was shown that the skills are being preserved, but that there are new designs and refreshing subjects, and this is good, since merely preserving the artifacts and skills to copy them is not a preservation of culture, but of imitation. Nila Northsea is helping to preserve this culture by her poetry, and she writes about the present history, examining it with a critical eye. In her statement that she contributes to the problem she does not suggest what else she could or should do. That is left for the audience to figure out. After all, we each have our own heritage and culture to preserve.

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