“Black Elk,” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

“Eulogy” by Sherman Alexie

My mother was a dictionary,

She was one of the last fluent speakers of our tribal language.

She knew dozens of words that no one else knew.

When she died, we buried all those words with her.

My mother was a dictionary.

She knew words that have been spoken for thousands of years.

She knew words that will never be spoken again.

I wish I could build tombstones for each of those words.

Maybe this poem is a tombstone.

My mother was a dictionary.

She spoke the old language.

But she never taught me how to say those ancient words.

She always said to me “English will always be your best weapon.”

She was right, she was right, she was right.

Excerpt from commencement speech Gonzaga University
Sherman Alexie, writer, poet, film maker
Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Native


Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

11 thoughts on ““EULOGY””

  1. This post stirred my soul, Kayti. The painting is magnificent and I am a longtime fan of Sherman Alexie, having read everything he’s written that i can find — except this poem! It is so like all his writing, approachable and enjoyable and yet making a person think in many different layers. I also like that he gave it as part of a commencement speech at Gonzaga. With your artistic skill and his writing, you gave me quite a gift today, my friend.


    1. I thought as I read the poem that as children we all think of our mothers as dictionaries. We are the slates upon which they will write.
      I love his honest style. I heard him speak in Seattle some years ago and added him to my ‘favorites’ list.
      I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did Janet. I am enjoying his new book.


  2. I’ve never heard of Sherman Alexie. The poem is poignant, and true. It reminded me of the Oxford Junior Dictionary deciding to remove words related to the natural world. Out with acorn and buttercup; in with broadband and voicemail. I’ve no opposition to including tech-related words, and I appreciate the argument that a dictionary has certain space limitations. But there’s an obvious bias behind the choices, and the loss of words sometimes becomes permanent — as Alexie points out.

    I went over to Goodreads to skim the quotations from his work, and delighted in this one: “Do you know why the Indian rain dances always worked? Because the Indians would keep dancing until it rained.”


    1. Wonderful! I didn’t know that one. I don’t remember which came first; hearing him speak or watching the movie “Smoke Signals” taken from his book. But it exemplified what I know first hand of some of the Native life.

      I often think back on Samuel Johnson’s big dictionary. Think of having to invent so many of the words in the first place. Amazing, but he probably had a good time writing it while enjoying himself at the Cheshire Cheese. Much nicer than sitting in front of a computer.


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