17 pages 34 minutes read

Joseph Bruchac

Ellis Island

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide


Joseph Bruchac published “Ellis Island” as part of his poetry collection Entering Onondaga (1978). In the poem, a speaker contemplates their ethnic identity in the context of America’s most famous immigration hub, Ellis Island. The speaker recognizes “the two Slovak children” (Line 2) who became their grandparents. It addresses the conditions immigrants faced when they disembarked at Ellis Island, such as “long days of quarantine” (Line 4). The poem also portrays the children’s first encounter with one of America’s most famous statues and landmarks, the Statue of Liberty. The speaker thinks about their European identity, but then slowly shifts into a reflection about another key element of their identity—their Native identity. The European and Native identities momentarily conflict as the speaker acknowledges “Lands invaded” (Line 22) as ownership and property rights became common due to European influence. The poem concludes with the speaker’s acknowledgement that their native identity often overrides their European ancestral memories.

Poet Biography

Born October 16, 1942, writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac is best known for his work focusing on the Indigenous peoples of America. Bruchac was born in Saratoga Springs, NY. He is of English, Slovak, and Abenaki descent. He received a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the Union Institute of Ohio. Bruchac’s work focuses on northeastern Native American and Anglo-American lives and experiences, and he is mostly known for his work as a Native writer and storyteller. His work explores his Abenaki identity, and he has published over 120 books.

Throughout his forty-year career, he has worked to elevate other Native writers and help them publish. Bruchac has won numerous awards for his works focusing on Native cultures, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas in 1999 and a Cherokee Nation Prose Award. He has also received a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship for Poetry, the American Book Award for Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets (1983). He founded the Greenfield Review Literary Center and The Greenfield Review Press with his late wife, Carol, and he has edited several literary anthologies. Bruchac also hosts a variety of informative school programs which educate young people and communities about Native cultures. His most well-known works include the novels Dawn Land (1993) and Long River (1995). He lives in the town of Greenfield Center, New York, located in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.

Poem Text

Bruchac, Joseph. “Ellis Island.” 2002. Jerry W. Brown.


“Ellis Island” opens with the image of “two Slovak children” (Line 2) at Ellis Island and their initial immigration experience. According to the speaker, the two children were the speaker’s grandparents. The children lived through “long days of quarantine” (Line 4) after “leaving the sickness” (Line 5) as well as Europe. One of the first encounters the immigrants have with America is seeing the Statue of Liberty, which the speaker describes as a “tall woman, green” (Line 9) and their initial thoughts about the freedom America offers: land made of “forests and meadows” (Line 10) they can own themselves.

In the next stanza, the speaker, now visiting Ellis Island nine decades after their grandparents first arrived, recognizes their own relation to Ellis Island, just as “millions of others” (Line 14) do. The speaker is “the answerer” (Line 16) of the grandparent’s dreams. However, in the final stanza, the speaker identifies that the Ellis Island story is only a small part of their own identity and cultural make up. The speaker acknowledges, “Another voice speaks / of native lands” (Lines 19-20), implying they also have Native ancestry. The speaker references Europe’s colonization, considering American through the perspective of “Lands invaded / when the earth became owned” (Lines 22-23), and the property rights and land ownership that stripped the Natives of their tribal lands. The speaker concludes the poem, envisioning America as a land where people did not possess land but “followed / the changing Moon” (Lines 24-25), and these first Americans had knowledge of the seasons “In their veins” (Line 27).