Tim Giago: Poem still inspirational after many years
One of the poems that gave me strength over these many years has become the title of a movie by Clint Eastwood. Starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, the movie is out this week.

The poem that inspired Mandela was, “Invictus,” by the English poet William Ernest Henley, and it was in a book of poetry I read while preparing for an elocution contest at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The poem I was assigned to recite was “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field. To the best of my knowledge the year was 1948. But while memorizing my poem I happened across “Invictus” and although I was only about 14 years old, I was captivated by the strength of the poem.

Therefore it does not surprise me that the poem gave strength and courage to Mandela while he was incarcerated. It’s a poem that shouts out to the world to lead or get the hell out of the way. And strangely enough, the poem was written from a hospital bed.

Henley, at the age of 12, was a victim of tuberculosis of the bone. Despite this severe illness he successfully passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student in 1867. The tuberculosis attacked his foot and caused his leg to be amputated below the knee. He was told by his physician that amputating the leg was the only way to save his life.

He lived nearly 30 years after his release from the hospital and perhaps as an expression of his strong will to survive, while still hospitalized, he wrote “Invictus.”

I was a young boy living and surviving on a very poor Indian reservation when I first read Henley. In the 1940s, just after World War II, the Indian reservations of the Northern Plains were hard places to live. My mother and father struggled every day to provide for their seven children. We were friends to hunger and uncertainty. Sending their children away to a Catholic boarding school was the only option for many Indian reservation parents. At least we had a roof over our heads, three meals a day and a good education awaiting us.

When I first read “Invictus” there was one verse that stuck in my mind and I memorized it. It always came back to me when I needed it the most especially when I was far away from home in Korea.

The verse went:
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

I wished that I had been assigned that poem to read. But instead I did my best with “Little Boy Blue,” and I found this poem to be a very sad poem and even years later, if I recite this poem I get a lump in my throat.

Well, Donald “Duck” Clifford went on to win the blue ribbon in the elocution contest by reciting a poem about a Blue Jay. The poem was about an African American man greeting a Blue Jay in the early morning. It allowed “Duck” to use a Southern accent, an accent foreign to most of us at the mission school, and he did it so well that he won the ribbon.

I suppose it hurt to lose that competition, but at the time I did not realize how much more I would garner from that experience. It opened a world of poetry to me; a world I didn’t know existed. I read books of poetry voraciously for many years and I became familiar with poets like William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, and one of my favorites, Rudyard Kipling.

There are those that believe poetry is a dead art, but if one listens to the rap music of today, he will notice that there is still a penchant for poetry mixed in with the rapper’s words.

I hope that the movie “Invictus” will serve as a revival for the poetry we were forced to memorize as children and found out later in life that the poems had a special meaning that took many years for us to recognize and to appreciate. The final stanza of “Invictus” goes:
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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