Break My Fall
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Monday, November 9, 2009
About a month ago I went to the University of Washington to listen to a lecture about historical trauma among Indian people. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, an Oglala Lakota woman and Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University, first conceptualized the term in 1985 when she realized that she was “carrying around grief that was much bigger than herself.”
Historical trauma is unresolved grief that has been passed down to each new generation of Native people, first as a response to policies of extermination by murder, and later to policies of cultural extermination by assimilation and boarding schools.
This leftover grief, I learned, is powerful. It affects all Native communities and takes on many forms. It’s one of the reasons why our youth have the highest rate of suicide of any other ethnic group and why so many of us struggle with substance abuse and poverty.
I’ve seen evidence of historical trauma on my reservation, Suquamish, and in my own family. The Suquamish tribe lost a lot of its language, traditional practices, and teachings when the United States government and Catholicism moved in. And we lost even more when our ancestors were forced to go to boarding schools and were adopted out to non-Indian families when they were children. For a long time it was illegal for us to practice our ceremonies; it was even illegal to possess the tools to conduct them or anything else connected to our spiritual practices. We learned to cope with our pain in ways that developed into inter-generational self-destructive patterns.
But things are changing, and as I grow in my own healing I notice how much stronger the people on my reservation have become. Suquamish has changed in some important ways over the past few years, and I imagine that to the elders here, witnessing our communities’ transformation is as inspirational as the presidential election of Barack Obama.
Today, Suquamish people have better access to mental health services, health care, and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. We have a youth center where kids can be in a sober environment after school and where they learn and participate in our tribal songs and dances. We have a program where other tribal members teach us our Lushootseed language; a cultural co-op board that works to revive our tribal practices; and finally, sgwedzadad qe’B ?altxw—the House of Awakened Culture, our new longhouse.
We are finally getting to a place where we can support ourselves and not have to depend on the government for survival. I worry that Suquamish is one of the luckier tribes and that it is going to take much longer for others to get to where we are. But if we can reach out to each other, we can get closer to healing from the historical trauma that’s kept us divided for so long.
-as posted at yesmagazine.org
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The only real difference between any of us coast Indians is what is known as the base enrollment list, a magical government document that holds the names of those present at the time of treaty signing. If someone wants to become one of us, for reasons I do not yet understand, all they have to do is trace their family back to a name on that list and prove they are of a suitable Indian blood quantum.
Along with several others, my tribe has set a bar on Indianness. This bar, a required blood quantum of 1/8 or 1/4 depending on the mood or whim of tribal council, serves to protect us against the fanatics and “wannabes” who don’t fully understand what they are getting into when they claim to be of Native American descent. Those with a dark complexion have a much easier time blending in no matter how few drops of Indian blood they actually possess or how far removed they are from their culture. Secretly, I have always envied them.
There are tribes that enroll anyone who can prove ancestry. They seem to pass out identity as if it were nothing and as a result I am most often mistaken for a Cherokee woman. I despise being told and asked if I am a Cheorkee. It’s an assumption most people I encounter make and a statement I’ve only heard Indians say.
“You’re Cherokee.” I’d often heard in the form of a joke or insult at Haskell, an 1800’s all Indian boarding school turned accredited four-year university. Here at this school is where I gained the ability to stand out just as much as my ever breaking down car.
“That’s a real rez piece of shit you got there, enit?” students often said and I always responded to with them with hope of acceptance and half sincere pride. I may have not looked “skin” enough to use words like “enit” in conversation but if my car could speak it certainly wouldn’t have that problem. This car with its cracked windows, bald tires and peeling white paint has the ability to blend in among my own people better than my freckled pale skin can. Where my car stood out at Haskell as being utterly Indian, my red hair stood out as being utterly not. It’s a fact that still bothers me when I think too long on useless things.
I left Haskell in a panic that I still don’t know how to talk about and after transferring to a school closer to home I began trying to break away from my heritage. It’s a process that’s not so easy and one that I no longer think is possible. I relapse all the time.
On a school night during midterms, my car and I sneak away from the city and pull into the dirt parking lot of the Smokehouse; a place my dad always dragged me to as a kid. It’s a place you don’t talk about much or discuss with outsiders. It’s a place where children stay silent and learn through observation. I was never any good at that.
On the drive here I noticed that the green and white highway sign still reads “Indian Reservation Next Right.” The sign evokes an odd sense of conflicting comfort that I’m sure I will never understand. It’s such an innocent direction but there is so much packed into those words that if I gave into myself, I could spend the rest of my life crying instead of living. My dad is not the type to cry or openly dwell over anything but when I think about my apparent addiction to the act of crying I feel most like my father. He has never been able to leave and stay away from the Smokehouse for long but at times I could have sworn he wanted to. You don’t have to be a pale Indian to experience immobilizing anger and confusion.
As I sit in the parking lot of this place, sipping the cheap black coffee I don’t like but bought at a gas station anyway, I realize how much I miss my father. Gross coffee is his signature drink and I swallow it down to feel closer to him somehow. I’m afraid to go into the ceremony without him but it doesn’t make a difference if he were here or not because he wouldn’t have anything to say to me and I wouldn’t have anything to ask. Our relationship just isnt like that. He fixes my car and I borrow money from him when I’m desperate. It’s the only dynamic we’ve been able to work out so far.
There are a few people walking inside from the parking lot and even though it’s dark outside they are aware of my presence. My headlights are still on. It’s difficult to move from this moment because right now I am connected. No one can see my face clearly enough to suspect that I might not belong among them. To everyone passing I am just another Indian in a car getting ready to go inside and witness the ceremony. They can’t see my pathetic shaking. They don’t know about my fear of stepping into the light where my pale skill will broadcast for them to question. I should not have come alone. I want to leave but I can’t shake the awful desire to try to belong to where I come from. I get out. I walk inside. I look at no one and try to feel invisible.
It’s the sounds that reach and pull at me first. It’s that combination of beating elk hide drums and deep voices that sing moans instead of words while dancers shuffle, jump, and move across the smoky dirt floor. I have never forgotten the sound of my culture and it never changes. It is the same tonight as it was in childhood. It’s the sound I still hear when I’m not dreaming at night, the chants and beats that always leave me full of mystery and hope only to throw me back out again. I keep my eyes low to the ground as much as possible because the floor is composed of simple earth and is therefore comforting. It’s hard to remember when
I felt peaceful here but I know that it existed. The ignorance of childhood allowed me to be nothing more than present. I didn’t have to think so much or question who I was and why I belonged to myself or this place. Now that I am seemingly grown I am too full of questions to even feel comfortable in my own body. I am too full of questions to understand what it means to be here within these walls.
Right now I miss that feeling of childhood but it’s there just over my shoulder if only I would look up long enough to catch it. Because here is where you could say my life first started, inside this very structure where my father danced to songs he never could explain to me. Everything has always been and must always remain elusive. This is a place where nothing makes sense; from the well respected elders who shun their pale faced children to the painted and masked dancers who wear Nike shoes and Levi jeans. Why is it so hard to see what’s good about where you come from when your eyes are closed with secret envy? Is there any way to come back? My thoughts are jumbling inside my head and even my breaths have started to weaken. It occurs to me that I am not seeking answers, only questions.
-It might be best to sit for now. If I can sit here long enough I might be able to take from everything around me and become a full person. If I sit here and listen harder to the songs being shouted out like prayers and to the beating of drums I might find myself in them. If I could just learn to sit, I know I could unlock the secret to rediscovering ignorance. But I’m not going to do any of these things because tonight I’m just not strong enough. I choose to not even try. Turning away from everything, I leave to seek the safety of my stupid car where at least for now I feel most present.