Louise Erdrich’s poem “I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move” retells the story of assumingly the author’s home being destroyed by a flood while she and her grandfather are left to witness the event. Such a traumatic experience is something that a person will remember their entire life, affecting their worldview and causing them to reflect on their life from the perspective of that event. The flood can also serve as an allusion to the historical destiny of Native American people as they inevitably faced assimilation to the white culture from the point when the first colonizers came to American soil.
The poem’s overall tone is sad as the protagonist is devastated to watch her former life get wiped out by the flood: “the water wrapped around trees until their life-hold was broken.” The speaker feels “broken” and “hollow” in her soul, as if she herself was broken, just like those trees were. Moreover, one can see further in the poem that the branches of the trees were “whitening in the raw sun” after the flood. Since the speaker draws parallels between herself and the broken trees, this could be a reference to the whitewashing that Native people had undergone in society.
To conclude, the poem uses the strong metaphor of a flood to signify the dramatic changes that the European culture brought to the people of America during colonization. The way in which Natives lived would no longer be the same, and all they could do was stand and watch the “flood” take place, turning them into “the ghosts of the tree people.” The poem is a powerful reminder that social injustices persist today and that no one deserves their lives not to be respected and cherished.