The people are a story that never ends, a river that winds and falls and gleams erect in many dawns; lost in deep gulleys, it turns to dust, rushes in the spring freshet, emerges to the sea. The people are a story that is a long incessant coming alive from the earth in better wheat, Percherons, babies, and engines, persistent and inevitable. The people always know that some of the grain will be good, some of the crop will be saved, some will return and bear the strength of the kernel, that from the bloodiest year some survive to outfox the frost.(from North Star Country)
As we mark the 123rd anniversary of the birth of Meridel Le Sueur this February and the 50th anniversary of the start of the Wounded Knee uprising, it seems apropos to say a little about her life and contributions, and to highlight several items in the Freedom Archives collection.
Meridel, author and activist, wrote powerful proletarian novels that reach far past the stereotyped factory settings into the battered but brave lives of poor women, published many children’s books, and created earthy, all-embracing poetry. Her feminist, anti-capitalist/imperialist, and communal consciousness sings with rhythms ranging back to Iroquois and Irish grandmothers, dust bowl farmers, Iowa corn, and the flowing Mississippi—a startling original use of language and deep love of freedom informs all her work.
While Meridel’s writings, journals, papers, and studies of her work reside in many libraries, the Freedom Archives is fortunate to have several herstoric recordings on our shelves. We have, for example, programs on her 90th birthday in Minneapolis, where Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, and many other artists and musicians joined the celebration, and an in-depth radio interview with her by dearly departed Freedom Archives co-founder Barbara Lubinski. Our summary notes:
“Midwest writer and activist Meridel LeSueur on her life, her writings, and her social justice activism. Includes topics such as: early life (her mother chained herself to the White House to demand the women’s vote); Meridel working as a stand-in, stunt person on the famous Perils of Pauline films; her writings, from proletarian novels in the 1930s to many children’s books, to world/global women’s poetry; FBI harassment as she became deeply involved in Communist Party and other left wing causes.”
A search of our Archives also revealed, in BLU Magazine, an excerpt of Meridel’s invocation to Wounded Knee, written on the 10th anniversary of the uprising, and to inaugurate the February 25, 1983 start of KILI, the first and largest Indigenous community-owned radio station in the US, which one of Meridel’s grandsons, Mark Tilsen, helped found. Meridel and the entire extended family were closely allied with that struggle from its start, even as her great-grandson Nick Tilsen continues the ongoing struggles for land back and self-determination. Among Meridel’s words on that occasion:
When the roll call is called up yonder I’ll be there. The nameless will be no surprise. Their passion will be part of the new flowering. They kept it alive when it was menaced; their anonymous deaths now will be named. Here on the air our sounds begin again… We come there from the four directions. The isolated selves then merge in the long snake line shedding its private skin…they sit as one body, they merge, they begin to glow as one body, a million cells, greetings from other cells around the world…our words on the air are different, words of rising, words from the root, come in Big Foot, come in Black Elk, Crazy Horse, Bull’s Heart, come in the women moaning over the dead, come in, speak.(from Word Is Movement: Journal Notes from Atlanta to Tulsa to Wounded Knee)
A new edition of Meridel’s novel The Girl has just been published and her ongoing legacy is facilitated by the Meridel Le Sueur Family Circle. You can find the official website at https://meridellesueur.org/ and the major archival collection of her life and work, including numerous digital recordings, at the Minnesota Historical Society http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00323.xml
As a final salute to Meridel, as also appears on our Roots of Resistance CD, this is Meridel with a portion of one of her poems, accompanied on the flute by Cricket Seagull—Let the Bird of the Earth Fly!