RIP RieLee, Baby

It’s hard to hear or read about violent or unavoidable deaths of children; their demise is unnatural, unfair, and heartbreaking. For me, as someone who has always loved and connected with children, and now as the mother of a near 4-year-old, it brings out raw emotion: a burning behind the eyes, constricted throat, wrenched guts, and flushed skin. Like I’m losing all my children.

The story of RieLee Lovell, a 2-year-old, has been especially hard to absorb. Published photographs show a beautiful Native American child still full of life. She was found dead, it seems, by other children, more than a day after it’s said she probably died. Folks are pointing their fingers at her caregivers, who were recently charged in RieLee’s death and are accused by community members of being drug addicts. Other folks on the comment boards of news organizations are pointing at the parents, the tribes, and Native American savagery. They point at everyone except those reflected in their mirrors.

But we are all to blame for RieLee’s death, and other children like her. The all-encompassing We condemn youth like RieLee and their families to their fates every day.

It’s not enough to say RieLee’s parents or caregivers – who so obviously need professional help for their own problems – are solely at fault. I am not saying they hold no blame. They surely do. But I wonder: What resources were they offered for the problems plaguing their family and community? What were their circumstances, historically and presently? This is the vicious cycle all people in poverty, but especially Native Americans, continue to be devastated by. There is no greater victim, no person more hated and outcast, than he of circumstance. It’s easy for those of us keeping our financial heads afloat to cast squinty scorn upon demographics we feel should be able to simply “get over it.” Like it’s easy to pull yourself out of five or six generations of poverty, or easy to overcome institutionalized racism or privilege. For most – especially children – it’s an impossibility.

Lots of folks scoff at this. I hear from judgmental people all the time about how they changed their own destinies through hard work and dedication, yadda yadda. I don’t want to downgrade or make light of anyone’s success – heck, by most accounts even I should be a stereotypical down-and-out Indian – but I contend success (lots of it, anyway, if not most) isn’t determined by the work you do. It’s determined by factors beyond your control, like paler skin pigmentation, male genitalia, generational financial legacies, the right side of the train tracks, whether you can fake a smile or not, and a sturdy network of people who know people. That last concept could very well be an answer to many of the problems children in poverty face: If more structured and “successful” adults compassionately and appropriately mentored youth, we’d see a great shift in the structure and success of at-risk kids.

Unfortunately, Americans surround themselves with protective bubbles to keep isolated from Undesirables. For non-Native people living in states like South Dakota, those bubbles are known “Reservations.” We value individuality and independence, and disregard communal efforts of living among fellow human beings. When those two value systems collide, as they often do for Native American people torn between traditional family/spiritual structures and capitalist consumerism, you get stories like RieLee’s, whose parents felt leaving a toddler with chemically dependent young adults was the best caregiving option they had to choose from while they “worked through a rough time in their relationship.”

How proud are we to live in a society that promotes ME versus US? (Sad pun, and ironic when you consider RieLee died at the height of our country’s Fourth of July celebrations.) Why didn’t WE provide RieLee with a world where her parents could receive adequate couple’s counseling without having to drive three or four hours to see a licensed therapist? Why aren’t there well-funded treatment facilities located in communities devastated by meth and alcohol? Why is our state government debating the merit of Bible studies in schools and not elementary, middle and high school budgeting courses to pull the next generation out of poverty? Where the fuck are our priorities, folks?! We could demand these things and more from our government leaders (many of us do). But helping the underdog isn’t in our nature anymore.

And kids like RieLee die.

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