The Runners

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.

Isaac.

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.

Shopping at the local Spirit Halloween Store this weekend was frightful.  Not only because it was rife with wild children, bloody body parts and zombies. Not just because it was loud, expensive and highly commercial. It was also frightening because of this:

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Everybody meet Pocahottie.  I turned the corner at the store and found myself face to face with her the other day, all packaged up and ready to turn anyone into a sexy Indian.  She stopped me in my tracks, all three of my children bumping into each other in a pile-up behind me.  Don’t worry, all tribes condone push up bras and stiletto boots.  They are good for trapping and killing prey.

While it isn’t anything new to see what has been termed as native appropriation (the use of Native images or cultural elements to market or sell products that are not produced by Natives), this particular costume is revolting because it is also part of the new holiday, Skankoween, which has steadily overtaken Halloween over the last 10 years or so.  Skankoween stole Halloween from the children.  Halloween used to be about kids and trick or treating.  Skankoween would have none of that.  Skankoween saw an opportunity to get adults into the spirit of spending.  It put out a call and thousands of party hungry Americans answered.  Skankoween is now a day for grown ups to dress up and get wasted.  Don’t get me wrong, I like to dress up on Halloween and always have.  It’s fun.  It makes my kids laugh and they enjoy trick or treating. I also like to party.

Here’s a a few differences that probably exist between me and a Skankoweener:  My costume will not involve an aspect that makes my boobs or vag a central feature, not even dangerously close.  If I attend parties, the parties will be for CHILDREN, with CHILDREN at which CHILDREN will be belligerent.  They will probably fight, fall down AND puke.  They won’t be doing this because they have fed themselves copious amounts of alcohol in hopes of scoring with each other or just burying themselves in a moral free for all, which is more of a Skankoweener thing.  So, whats my point?  I guess I kind of don’t know.

Does Pocahottie bother me because she forces a sexualized image of Native women in particular down my throat?

Pocahottie: “HERE!! Look at me! I am what America wants you to be!”

Me: “Shut up, Pocahottie.”

Pocahottie: “LOOK! I’m super hot and wearing feathers! You and I both know they’re turkey feathers, but the people who buy me don’t give a shit!”

Me: “Shut up, Pocahottie.”

Pocahottie: “There’s a tipi in this picture! Let’s all laugh and joke about tipi creeping! Oh, and I’m super hot. Way hot. Everyone wants to hump me.  I’m an Indian princess!”

Me: “I hate you, Pocahottie.”

Yes, I think that Pocahottie bothers me because of the sexualized image.  Personally, I don’t want everyone to want to hump me.  That would be exhausting.  It is also exhausting to constantly deal with this:

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These costumes are called Reservation Royalty.  Seriously?  This title alone is enough to set most Indians’ blood to boiling.  It inspires anger.  It makes people stabby, which in turn feeds the stereotype even more. And, it isn’t limited to women:

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This is Chief Wansum Tail. I’m stifling a lot here, folks. I invite you to google Native American Halloween costumes, because there is just too much for me to include.  On top of the challenges that many young Natives face in their every day lives, there’s this shit too.  America has a romance with the appearance of Natives, and it contributes to a barrier of communication on all levels.  I live in Montana, in a college town that is fairly sensitive to Native American issues.  I can’t say that I’ve personally seen people sporting these costumes on the street in the town that I live in because in all truth, someone might beat them down, OR people here can identify that it might be offensive. Now, before I digress too much, I have some questions, though they may be limited to an American audience.  Be honest, because I’m curious.

1.  Have you seen people wear Indian costumes on Skankoween?
2.  Are you interested in Native American cultures and traditions and if so, why?

Pocahottie and Chief Wansum Tail do Skankoween

Roaring in Tired Revolutions

Sleeping under my skin
are traces of shadows left behind.
My steps echo of the past,
and ring of moving forward.
My jaw is set against my own questions.
I try not to pay attention to what I tell myself
most of the time.
On the plains, where the sky marries the land in a sunset ceremony,
the souls of my ancestors bled and died.
The ghosts of real people,
whose descendents sleep in the beds of backhanded poverty and abuse,
whisper from the grasses…
as the wind slowly sweeps across the Ft. Peck prairie.
Scars of the past manifest in the shadows that follow me,
whispering…. 
My heart is in the sky,
in the dirt,
in the green of the earth, 
and I am torn.
Lost.
I am a child of warriors dead and gone,
of generations of glorious women silenced.
My soul roars in tired revolutions, 
quieted by necessity.
I have not disappeared.

~SH

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Based on what I have written in this blog so far, it may seem as if  I am living in the past.  I spent most of my twenties doing that, and I am ready to move on.  It is important to me, though, that I share some of the struggles of my own family’s history because one thing that I am going to focus on in my writing is generational growth of families.  As my kids got older and the focus of parenting my children began to shift from chasing after them to make sure their physical safety was intact to having to provide insightful, emotional and intellectual guidance to a human being that is dependent upon that advice for formulating their own view of life – well, I found myself grappling with whether I really had what it took to do the job.

Most of my life, whether conscious of it or not, I have been waiting for a moment to come.  A moment where I can lift my head proudly and say “Ta Da! I did it! I am an ACCOMPLISHMENT! I always knew it, but finally, HERE is the validation. Case closed, let’s all go home.”  Call me skeptical or whatever, but I am starting to think there is never going to be a line for me to cross that means I’ve got everything handled, I’ll do the right thing, and I’ve learned everything I was meant to learn.

For so long, I have resisted the urge to pursue my desire to write because I was waiting for that moment.  In the back of my head I have been asking myself what gives me the right to say anything about the world?  What have I done that makes it alright to express my opinions about my experiences in life and expect that others will read them, much less have any respect for them?  I haven’t made a fortune, conquered face-to-face enemies, survived disease or direct tragedy.  I haven’t won any awards or accolades from my community for efforts towards the greater good. I haven’t even made it past an Associates Degree in college or bought my first home. It could be said that in actuality, I have accomplished very little.  This view did not lend encouragement or confidence to my ability to help my children be successful.

With a lot of support and over time, I have come to view myself as an accomplishment in existence.  I exist, and I put my best effort into making it a good existence.  I have overcome many things in my own life, and, despite what you might have read so far, I am product of people whose existence has led to the generational growth of their families.  In light of the challenges that various people in the history of my family have faced, the fact that I am here IS an accomplishment.  That I am happy, that my kids are happy and growing into functional, healthy young adults serves as proof of that.  The fact that I have found someone who loves me and has participated in a 16 year marriage with me (despite knowing me better than myself) speaks to the notion that even when you can’t see the best in yourself, others probably do.  My first words after he proposed were, “You don’t even know me.”  But he did, and he still does.  Growing up, I had discarded the notion true love was real.  Ironically, the Universe decided to gift me with it, and I have been learning a lot about the reality of loving ever since the day I met him.  Surely he saved my life, and I let it happen despite my disbelief that I deserved or could handle having such a gift.

Something about growing up impoverished and desperate made me afraid of failure and I no longer want to engage in the process of sabotaging myself so that nothing else can.  I no longer want to destroy my own efforts out of surety that I am going to watch them crash and burn a fiery death no matter what.  I want to stop dragging the chains made of what I haven’t done or had, or what my family couldn’t do or didn’t have.  My parents didn’t parent, but they broke cycles, and for that I will always be thankful.  I know there are a lot of kids out there that are the same kind of kid that I was.  Based on that, I assume there are a lot of parents that grew up like me and haven’t learned to see the cycles of behavior that trap people into generations of dysfunction.  I hope to bring that forward in this blog, and especially focus on the effects of cyclic dysfunction on Indians in America.  There is a lot to that, and even though I am no research scientist, I think I have things to say that might make some people stop and think.  To me, that would be an accomplishment ~ not the “accomplishment of all accomplishments,” but still one to be proud of, and one worth trying for.

Food for thought and a prep for the next post: The US Department of Health and Human Services Office Of Minority Health: American Indian/Alaskan Native Profile

The Day of the Duck ** this post contains an extremely offensive word**

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We sat there in a circle, nervously swinging our legs, all dressed alike in white shirts tucked into plaid skirts or black pants, depending of course, upon whether you were a boy or girl.  I hadn’t quite been ready to head into second grade, and having never experienced Catholicism, I was having a rough time adjusting to the regiment at Our Lady of Lords.  My family had just moved to Helena, MT.  We lived within four blocks of the beautiful Capitol Building.  Most of my days were spent simply trying to grasp the biblical stories that I had never been taught, struggling to adjust to a new town, a new school, and a completely foreign religion that every lesson I listened to was based off of.  Now that I am a parent, I really wonder what my mother thought would come of that situation. It was bad. The nuns really didn’t like me very much. I fell asleep all the time. They thought I was lazy and would grab me by the shoulders and shake me awake. What no one cared to find out was that my nights were spent consoling my little brother while my parents battled each other deep into the night.  At the time, it was normal to me, I thought I WAS bad when I was violently jolted into consciousness, everyone staring at me, an angry nun face glaring down into my sleepy world.  The price I paid in humility was great.

The other children thought I was a freak.  On the second day of school I had been so scared to talk to the ladies in black that I became paralyzed at my desk, unable to ask about going to the bathroom.  I remember when I lost control of my bladder, the warm liquid making a path down my legs onto the floor. I just closed my eyes and prayed that somehow, no one would notice.  It was the sound that gave me away.  One of the nuns came running over and grabbed me out of the seat. I couldn’t stop peeing and she became angry at me, yanking my arm and throwing me back into the chair. Kids started pointing and laughing.  That was when I put the first brick in the wall. I closed my eyes and set my jaw.  I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. I got dragged into the head nun’s office, mom got called.  I went home, none too eager to ever return. But of course, I had to.

This day, though, the day of the duck, the day all of us in our seven year old innocence were gathered together as a group, was one of those points in my life that has molded itself into my brain.  Some of the details of that day are foggy, like what time it was exactly, or why we were grouped they way we were.  We had a book, so it must have been that we were supposed to try to read the book.  I remember that there were three boys and four girls, our desks pulled into a circle.  The book had a picture of a yellow duck on the cover.  One of the boys put his finger on the image of the duck’s bill, and immediately jerked back, exclaiming, “Ouch! The duck bit me!”  He then passed the book to the girl next to him and said, “Try it, I bet he bites you too!”

“Oh, owie!” The girl’s pigtails bounced as she felt the duck bite her, she recoiled in horror and pushed the book to the boy next to her.

“Ouch! He DOES bite!”

And so it went until the book came to me.  I was kind of scared, I didn’t want to be bitten, but I had to try it, what if it did?! Wouldn’t that be cool?  I could tell everyone that at Our Lady of Lords, the books are REAL.  I put my finger on the duck’s bill and was immediately disappointed.

“It didn’t bite me.” I said, crossing my arms over my chest and leaning back in my chair.

The little boy who had first felt the duck leaned across our desks and put his face in mine.

“That’s cause it doesn’t bite niggers.”  He spit the words out like they made his mouth taste bad. He snatched the book and slammed himself into his chair, all the while, his chin thrusting forward, head tilted back so he could peer down his nose at me.  Now, I should take this moment to explain that I am dark skinned because I am Native American.  The majority of my ancestors came from the plains in Montana, North Dakota and Canada.  The people in my family ARE the “tragic minority” of the American West, and I had never heard that word before. Truth be told, most of the people I knew were too busy struggling against discrimination and bigotry to actually participate in it themselves.  I point this out because it is significant to me in that it was my first example of the blindness of racism.  Here was this little boy, too young to even realize that he was insulting me based on an incorrect assumption of my ethnicity, but still adhering to what he had been taught- that darkies were bad.

I was blind because of the people that surrounded me, and so was he. Something in the way that boy delivered that word, though, made me suddenly and very acutely aware that the very skin on my bones set me apart from all the other kids in that circle.  To this day, I struggle to understand how I made that connection.

“What did you say?” I stood up, I was indignant. I didn’t know what he was calling me but I sure as hell knew it wasn’t good.

“I said the duck doesn’t bite niggers!”

He jumped up and put his hands squarely on my shoulders.  I turned my head and bit the shit out of his hand.  I could feel his tendons and bones  under my teeth as he dug his fingers into the soft flesh near my collar bone.  I grabbed his arm above the elbow and twisted, began to push into the awkward angle of his shoulder, and then the nuns were there and he was screaming and they were yelling.  Then it was time to go the head nun, each of us dragged by our collars down the cathedral like hallway and through the big wooden doors.

I, at this time, had crawled into silence. I was terrified. I was angry. We had to sit next to each other in the room, tiny little bodies in front of huge oak desk.

“I heard that you each used very foul words in class today.” The head nun stood up and crossed her arms.

We were silent. He kicked at the rug. I stared at the nun’s shoes. All of them had the same horrible nursing home shoes.  She stared down at the two of us, flicking her eyes over us.

“You” She said, pointing to me, “Out to the hallway.”

I obeyed, nearly falling over myself as I beat feet to the safety of the empty hallway.  I sat on a bench after she closed the doors behind me.  There were muffled voices, a conversation filtered through the massive door that conveyed fear in muted tones. Suddenly, there was a rush of footsteps in the room, reminiscent of an ambush. Then the sounds of slapping. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Rythmic and sharp, each one ringing in my ears and increasing my heartbeat, each one followed by a high pitched shriek.  After a moment, the door opened and the boy wandered towards the bench, his body racked with silent sobs.  He clutched his hands at his chest and sat down, tears splashing against the backs of his hands, which he then cradled to his mouth.

Head nun stood in the doorway. She pointed at me. “You” She said, “Come in here.” And she shut the door behind me.

“Sit down.”  I was once again in front of the oak desk.

“Did you say a bad word in class today?’

“No, I didn’t!” I didn’t remember saying a bad word.

“Sister Isabelle told me you said a bad word.  Are you suggesting to me that Sister Isabelle is lying?”

“Um, no. I don’t know.” I started to cry. “He called me a name.”

Head nun peered down at me.  “At Our Lady of Lords we don’t lie.”

“He called me a nigger!”

Head nun’s face turned into a whirlpool of disgust.

“Children don’t speak like that here.”

I was dumbfounded and lost.  Head nun explained to me that children who follow the ways of the Lord do not speak that way, that the words of our mouths should be clean and of good intent.  Then she took my hands and placed them on the top of her desk. She stretched my fingers wide and reached into her drawer and pulled out a ruler.  And then she did something that stunned me.  She racked the backs of my hands ten times. Ten strikes delivered to a bewildered child that sometimes still burn my memory.  I felt wronged and betrayed.  I bit my lip and refused to cry anymore.  She kept looking at me, her eyes searching for an indication that I had learned my lesson.  I gave her nothing, not one tear, not one cry, not one ounce of validation that what she had just done to me would turn me into a God-fearing and obedient child.

She called my dad to come and pick me up.  He arrived in all his Native glory, and, upon learning of the situation, stormed out of the school with me in his arms declaring that Catholic school had always been an abomination to Natives and he didn’t know why the hell I was there in the first place.  Kind of heroic and kind of passing the buck at the same time.

The fight that night was worse than ever, of course, I blamed myself.  And I blamed the little boy.  As I lay there that night, I wasn’t able to resolve anything about what had happened that day.  I wasn’t able to pat my own head and tell myself that I was just a kid, and an innocent one at that.  I couldn’t whisper in my own ear about the importance of forgiveness and hope.  I didn’t hold my own hand and say, “There are going to be a lot of really hard times and utterly confusing situations that you will encounter in your life, you are going to make some terrible decisions and face literally dragging yourself out of the gutter, but you CAN do it.  You can be strong and graceful. And hopeful.  You will find people to love you, and you will love beyond what you thought was possible.”

I couldn’t say those things then. But I can now.