Clark uses writing as cleansing source

Ryan Winn

The Oneida word for stories is okalaˀshúha. One of the tribe’s most prolific contemporary storytellers is Louis V. Clark III (Two Shoes). This spring, he shared his work with the College of Menominee Nation.

Clark was born on the Oneida reservation of Wisconsin where he was introduced to the art of storytelling by his elders. Frequently a target of racist reductionism, Clark admitted he “used writing to cleanse myself.” Now retired from blue-collar work, Clark’s persistence at putting works on the page led to his impressive second act as a man of letters.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press published his “memoir in poetry and prose” titled, “How to be an Indian in the 21st Century.” This book received the 2017 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award as well as a Wisconsin Arts Board Award. His 2018 book, “Rebel Poet,” received a Midwest Independent Publishers Book Award.

This year marked Clark’s foray into theatre. In April, CMN and the Oneida Nation Arts released their joint production of Clark’s radio play “Little Boy Lost (Stupid Indian).” The show traces David Smith’s journey from youth to retirement; from the reservation to what is called “civilized society.” It offers a fictionalized account of the struggle of always being different while always attempting to “fit in.”

Upon reading the script, it was obvious that Clark was the ideal person to play the lead role. The story draws upon his own experiences of “reaching for the American Dream, only to realize that it seems to be a carrot on a stick that is always out of reach.” Clark lent weight to both the humorous and painful scenes, projecting the passion he exerts during his poetry readings and into his performance.

Streaming on CMN’s YouTube channel, the show confronts bigotry with humor, and “the protagonist persists against the odds almost like an alien that was sent to Wisconsin to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.”

To celebrate the launch of the recorded production, CMN invited Clark to present his work at the S. Verna Fowler Academic and Community Library on its Keshena campus. Weaving autobiographical narration, poems, and references to the scenes in his play, Clark took patrons on a trip through some of the memorable moments in his life.

Beginning with the words of the Oneida nation’s “Thanksgiving Address,” Clark shared how he tries to keep a spirit of gratitude. While that theme often emerges within his work, Clark paused his reading to specifically say, “By the way, I want to thank the Menominee for teaching us how to dance years ago. You’re the reason we have a powwow now, so thanks for that.”

The sounds of Oneida’s reclamation of a powwow culture made an indelible impression on Clark as a child. He heard the beat of the drum through his bedroom window, providing him with a rhythmic sound that sets the meter for his work. He demonstrated as much when he pounded the podium in sync with his reading of the lines from his poem “4th of July in Oneida.”

The evening took the audience through Clark’s lifetime of memories. A favorite was the anecdotes of his grandmother who, in his formative years, told him to “be nice to the Indians.” Clark dutifully endeavored to do so, despite not realizing that he was one. “I thought we were humans,” Clark explained.

Clark discussed how his race and lot in life shaped his maturation. He discussed how growing up as a child of alcoholic parents left an impression upon him, as well as how spats with playground bullies led him to learn how to fight. Still, it was a “sympathy date” with his future wife Debbie that shaped the trajectory of his life. With Mrs. Clark beaming from the back of the room, Clark boasted that despite his future mother-in-law forcing her daughter to go out with him, the date was a success. The couple now have six children and 16 grandchildren and counting.

Clark’s later reflections showcased both his joyful times as a little league coach and father, as well as the challenges of being a minority worker in a discriminating society. Still, Clark endured, sharing how he’d ascended to the role of former foreman. From the perch, he would read verses aloud to end his crew’s lunch breaks. Clark stated, “You wouldn’t believe how anxious they all are to get back to work once I started reading poetry.”

Clark concluded his presentation by noting, “When I started college, I was told by a poetry professor that my poems weren’t poetry.” Still, Clark persisted and no matter how you classify his powerful works, English courses across Wisconsin are better for having access to them.

Yawʌˀkó Louis for sharing your okalaˀshúha.

Ryan Winn teaches courses in communication, English, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school, visit