He was late AGAIN . Always late, never prepared. He didn’t have a coat as he stood in front of my daughter in line. I could see his breath, his tiny goosebumps on brown skin. He shivered and stomped. He’d be headed to his classroom with the other kids pretty soon. He must have felt my stare, he suddenly turned around and met my gaze with his nearly black eyes. I threw a silent desperate smile his way and hoped he would feel it. He didn’t indicate that he had and turned sharply at the sound of his teacher opening the door. My daughter waved and blew a kiss my way, which I returned with a heavy heart, sad to see that she was warm and he was cold.
I say his name because I won’t forget him. He was the class trouble maker, beyond any argument. He stole, he lied, he fussed, he fought. He was loud, he argued, he got in the way, he never had anything nice to say. He was the same kind of boy that tormented me and my brothers when we first moved to the rez. He was hardened, vengeful, afraid. He had an edge that reminded me of a cornered animal. He broke my heart.
One day, I stood outside the classroom door, listening as the teacher scolded Isaac in front of the class. The children were waiting in line to go outside. Isaac had taken a coin from one of the other children. It was a commemorative coin given to the boy by his father, who was in the Army and serving another term overseas. It had been very wrong for Isaac to take that coin. Didn’t Isaac know how special that coin was? Yes, Isaac said that he had. Why, then, would he take it?
“Because,” Isaac said very openly “My dad won’t ever have anything like this to give me. And his dad will. He’ll get more.”
I wanted to open the door and grab Isaac by the shoulders, just hug him. Just ask him what he needed. But, in reality, he probably would have rejected me, as he had learned to do. Isaac was building a wall to hide behind, and he was casting stones at anyone that tried to stop him.
His were the parents that were always missing from the school functions, he was the one always looking, always disappointed. The one time they did come to a luncheon, they showed up with hickeys all over their necks. They were so young that they didn’t even look out of place sitting at the kid sized desks. They returned stares with menacing glares, stuck their chins out. Other parents looked at me like somehow I might know their story, or have an explanation. Like somehow there should be a connection between me and this Native family.
There was in a way. But mostly, there was no connection at all. Did I know why Isaac was such a little brat? Most likely his parents weren’t parenting him. Most likely, he was hanging around while they gave each other hickeys. Or while they partied, or played video games. Because they were barely old enough to ever have done anything else. Because they were poor, they came from poor, hadn’t learned much beyond that yet. Will Isaac’s parents grow up? I sure hope so, but the seeds of havoc are already planted in their kid. Familiar story? Sure, way too familiar. Seen it hundreds of times reflecting out of the mirror, running on the playgrounds all around me as kid. It’s hard to get ahead when you’re scraping to get fed.
One thing that bothers me about trying to bring awareness to issues in the lives of Native American people is that it seems to require that everything ugly has to be hashed out over and over again. Most reservation statistics hurt to look at. They’re awful. Death, poverty, alcoholism, disease, mental illness, drugs, addiction. Overall dysfunction.
This year I picked up an edition of National Geographic because the cover story was In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, written by Alexandra Fuller. It was a beautifully written article. It had the feeling of a dysfunctional fairy tale, both tragic and lovely. Still somehow ethereal and unreal. And then there were the photographs. They were real, of course. They showed a bit of battle worn triumph and a LOT of pain. A LOT of scenes that make people who have never lived in that reality wonder how in the hell these Indians don’t scrape themselves together and start doing shit right? That’s where it’s painful. That’s where articles of that sort usually fall short of what they are trying to accomplish. The intent was good, the people that were featured were worthy and good, but the overall effect, in my opinion, ended up just being the same old apathetic observation of a pitiful people dispossessed.
Diane Sawyer did a 20/20 special called Hidden America: Children of the plains. I don’t know if anyone else felt the way I did when Diane laughed after Robert Looks Twice told her he wanted to be President, but I do know I saw a lot of negative feedback from Natives on that particular show. None of us who have been ashamed of our mothers’ or our own poor choices wanted to see Robert go through that on National television, but there it was anyway. Tragedy sells, and so do sad, beautiful Native American images.
We are not all sad and broken, though. There are actually many positive stories to be heard as well. And more importantly, there are many more potential positive stories. Like this one:
On November 4, 2012, 5 Lakota marathon runners will travel to New York City in an effort to raise funds for a Youth Center to be built on Pine Ridge by competing in the New York City Marathon. They are being sponsored by an organization called One Spirit. This is the link to their home page. This is a link to another homepage, where you can donate. While it’s hard to escape statistics of the past or even of the moment, people CAN do something to actively change them for the future. It looks to me as though these five people might pull something off here that will be an example for the youth of their community.
I’m not a member of the tribes in South Dakota, and I’ve never lived there but I hope they get the Youth Center and all the programs they need. It is worthy to look for this kind of action to support and talk about when looking at the actual Natives who live in America. We have to move forward and let go of that sad-Indian-slumped-into-his-horse-on-the-horizon-image. Because in reality, we just haven’t quite been defeated, despite the odds.