Alexander Posey and the Vernacular of Nature

Alexander Posey was a poet. His poems about nature are some of the most beautiful ever published. Growing up on a farm in the Creek Nation, near Eufaula, Posey’s native language was Creek, but his “vernacular,” as he once wrote about all American Indians, was poetry: “not necessarily the stilted poetry of books, but the free and untrammeled poetry of Nature, the poetry of the fields, the sky, the river, the sun and the stars.” Posey’s gift of poetry blossomed during the years, from 1889 to 1895, when he attended and worked at Indian University, the school founded by Almon Bacone in 1880. At Indian University, later called Bacone College, the young mixed-Creek studied, served as librarian, contributed to school publications, and discovered himself to be a gifted artist of the English language.

Raised by his Creek mother Pohas Harjo and Scotch-Irish father Lewis Posey, Alex spoke Creek growing up at home until one day, as he later related, his father forcefully requested that his son henceforth speak in English, which the young man embraced and mastered. Alex matriculated at Indian University in 1889, when the school had been located in Muskogee for four years. There was a single large academic building, Rockefeller Hall, that served as dormitory, classroom building, administrative building, dining facility, and chapel. Almon Bacone was a Baptist missionary from New York who had traveled west a decade earlier to teach Cherokees in Tahlequah; he envisioned a school for all North American Indians, and worked with the Creeks to create a campus on Creek land north of Muskogee. Alex’s mother was Baptist, and he was raised in a Christian household, so he found Indian University, a Christian school teaching the liberal arts to American Indians, a perfect fit.

Alex was a secondary school student in the “Academic Department” until 1891, when he became a college student and school librarian. A bookworm and literary artist, Alex was a natural librarian. He was a prolific writer and helped two of his teachers, history professor Marion L. Brown and science professor C. H. Maxson publish a weekly newsletter, the Bacone Indian University Instructor. In the only surviving issue, from May 20, 1893, Alex contributed a story on the mythical Creek anti-hero, Chinnubbie Harjo, and alter-ego and pseudonym who appeared in many of Posey’s writings.

Alex Posey at Indian University was typically very well dressed, charming and elegant; he made a fine orator, would in time be something of a statesman, and believed wholeheartedly in the means and ends Almon Bacone envisioned for Indian University. In a surviving photo from 1891, Alex sits in the front row with a carnation in his lapel and a book, characteristically, in his hand, not bothering to lift his gaze from the written word even for the photographer. Such studious manner enabled Alex to form sophisticated ideas about learning, human character, politics, and nature. In 1892, for example, in response to a call from the American Baptist Home Mission Society for students at Indian University to respond to the question, “Why do I want an education?”, A. L. Posey, “a Creek,” responded:

“The world’s noblest citizens are educated men and women; they are the ornaments of human society and the gems that adorn the sea-shores of human progression.  Nothing contributes more to the intellectual wealth of the world than the education of its inhabitants.  And nothing imparts more happiness to man than the consciousness of a well disciplined mind to govern and control the higher aims of life.”

With such a personal philosophy of lifelong learning, Posey, upon graduating from Indian University, became a leader in the Creek community, serving in the House of Warriors, as well as Superintendent in succession of the Creek Nation Orphan Asylum, of Public Instruction for the Creek Nation, of the National High School in Eufaula, and of the Wetumpka National School. Posey the man of letters worked for the Indian Journal in Eufaula and the Muskogee Times. He wrote a series of satirical letters, featuring Fus Fixico and his Creek friends, writing about the Dawes Commission, land allotments, and the tense relationship between Indians and the U. S. federal government. His bilingual ability served him well as a worker for the U. S. Indian Agency in Muskogee, during which he sought to administer fairly the allotments of land to Creeks as prescribed by the Dawes Commission. In 1905, Posey served as secretary for a convention of Indian Territory leaders who met in Muskogee to compose a constitution for the proposed state of Sequoyah. Posey suggested the name of the proposed state and wrote a good part of the constitution.

During his busy, short life Posey married and had children and worked a farm near Eufaula. Death came to him early, when he drowned in 1908 while attempting to cross the Canadian River. His poems suggest that he was not unprepared for his final moments on Earth.

When flowers fade, why does

    Their fragrance linger still?

Have they a spirit, too,

    That Death can never kill?

Is it their Judgment Day

    When from the dark, dark mould

Of April and of May

    Their blooms again unfold?

 

His, poem, “To a Daffodil,” suggests that Posey felt at one, in life and death, with all forms of life:

                When Death has shut the blue skies out from me,

                               Sweet Daffodil,

                                 And years roll on without my memory,

                                 Thou’lt reach thy tender fingers down to mine of clay,

                                      A true friend still,

                                 Although I’ll never know thee till the Judgment Day.

 

When Almon Bacone founded Indian University in 1880, he hoped that the Whites and Indians would be able to live and learn together. Posey, a mixed-race Indian, believed in, and represented, peoples coming together to live in Oklahoma:

I pledge you by the moon and sun,

As long as stars their course shall run,

Long as day shall meet my view,

Peace shall reign between us two.

I pledge you by those peaks of snow

As long as streams to ocean flow,

Long as years their youth renew,

Peace shall reign between us two.

I came from mother soil and cave,

You came from pathless sea and wave,

Strangers fought our battles through–

Peace shall reign between us two.

 

One can imagine a day in October in the 1890s, when a young Creek-American, Alex Posey, wandered the fields and meadows surrounding Indian University, pondering life:

In the dreamy silence

Of the afternoon, a

Cloth of gold is woven

Over wood and prairie;

And the jaybird, newly

Fallen from the heaven,

Scatters cordial greetings,

And the air is filled with

Scarlet leaves, that, dropping,

Rise again, as ever,

With a useless sigh for

Rest—and it is Autumn.

 

Amid the peace and quiet of Indian University, there was conflict in Oklahoma and the surrounding nation. Near the end of his career at Indian University, in 1895, Alex Posey declaimed before an audience of students and teachers his view on how a thoughtful, reflective person should act in a world filled with movement and change:

“If a calm sea never made a skillful mariner, a calm life never made a great man.  Time, toil and vicissitudes; these are the cost of success.  The world can use the man who is willing to pay this price.  Its progress is dependent upon just such men; verily, upon men who are the devotees of mental embellishment and excellence of character; upon men who scorn from their soul’s inmost recesses the vanity of fashion and the folly of luxury.”

In the end, Posey bridged the gap between the two cultures, White and Indian, and identified both as American, proclaiming that America gained her independence from England because of the “persistence and determination” of the “forest born sons of America,” both those indigenous to this land and those who had arrived to start a new life in the 1600s. Posey the American was “like the tree, he strikes root, grows, puts forth his leaves and becomes the giant of his surroundings before the world is aware.”

Posey’s widow Minnie published Alex’s collected works in 1910: The Poems of Alexander Lawrence Posey (Crank & Co., Topeka, Kansas).

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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