On Being Indian: A Girl’s Story

I was asked to submit a piece for the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award, due Feb. 8. The request came about two months ago, so of course I got down to writing… Feb. 6. I’m a deadline writer by nature. I can’t help it. Anyway, not sure what will come of it. But it’s out there.

The piece is fictional by nature, but they say the best writing comes from true life. I wanted to incorporate werewolves and wands, but those just didn’t fit. Seriously, though, if you’re going to read this, just know it’s graphic, as real life tends to be.

And that brings me to another line of thinking, why I tend to lean toward books with fantastical, adolescent bents, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, and the many more like them. When I say I enjoy reading stuff like this to friends or acquaintances, I often get the mocking smile or that’s-so-juvenile roll of the eyes. I shake it off now, but I still feel a ping of offense, like, “What’s it to you? Come at me, bro!” As a kid growing up how I did, books served as a means of escape. When I read and reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, or Dune in sixth, or the Narnia series in high school, it was because those books took me out of myself. Growing up is hard. It really is. Adolescence, with it’s raging hormones and rites of passage, is like a war zone. If you survive it, you’re guaranteed PTSD, regardless of the number or depth of scars. You see, the books I’m attracted to, books with magic and heroes, usually feature some insurmountable odd(s), cast little guys against big guys, and generally show that true magic – love, perseverance, and friendship – wins in the end. I totally put myself in Harry’s shoes. He was abused, shoved in a closet, and told that’s as good as life gets. Then he was given a wand and a way to take himself out of the life Circumstance had given him. Books were my magic wand. And I’ve never grown out of their ability to transport me to new heights.

I was inspired to write the following short piece after a mandatory child abuse recognition and reporting training at work. We watched a tough video, “Why God — Why Me?” about child abuse survivors from Maine. It was extremely detailed; to say it was hard to listen to is an understatement, but when you talk about the rape and other soul-destroying actions taken upon a child there really are no words. We were all professionals at this training and most – if not all – of us had at some point worked with clients who had experienced abuse of some kind, but the general feeling of the group was helplessness. How do you, as an adult, prevent abuse? Treat abuse survivors? Work with abusers? We’re supposed to do all those things in my line of work. But it’s hard.

Harder still is going through it, and the survivor featured on the portion of the video we watched got me thinking of my own experience with child sexual abuse, and how it’s the survivor in us all that keeps us from being paralyzed by feelings of helplessness. We may feel like we can’t cope, but we do – somehow. Like the heroes in the books I read, you keep going, keep breathing, keep pushing for something better. My push – my power – is my daughter.

My daughter walks her own path, but I will be there as a guide and support system.
My daughter walks her own path, but I will be there as a guide and support system.

The following story, though based on true events, is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

On her tummy, she stares up at the TV, her face propped by her hands on bent elbows. The screen shows a man in a trench coat and fedora hat being thrown off a big boat into choppy, dark waters.

Later, when they asked her what she remembered about that night, the TV and unlucky character was all she could remember.

It took longer to remember why the show was on. Or why she – at 3 years old – was watching it.

Or why she was on her tummy.

“This is what Indian’s do,” her uncle whispers in her ear.

Like many kids living in traditional households, she grew up amongst her tiospaye. She had a mom and a dad and an older sister, but she also had aunts and uncles and cousins who played the role of mom or dad or sibling. Her 3-year-old mind turned every old woman into an unci, and every wrinkled man into a lala. She both respected and feared gray-haired people the same. As she grew older she became aware people like Uncle Duane weren’t really, in fact, related. When she was a woman and told people about how her mom and aunts had breastfed her and her cousins indiscriminately, she understood that not everyone was raised like this. Not everyone had been loved and cherished by the many adults in their life. To the little girl, the trailer house she lived in belonged to everyone.

And she belonged to everyone, like they belonged to her. Hopes and dreams were shared alongside the despair and nightmares.

For her, growing up Indian meant living with and among a lot of people.

It meant getting poked in the eyeball if she looked too long at her unci’s face.

Being Indian was being jealous your last name was Murphy like your dad and not Whirlwind Horse like your cousin.

It meant lots of laughing. It meant lots of crying but shaking it off before someone caught you crying.

It meant beads everywhere – stepping on beads or finding beads in the cracks at the table. It meant getting yelled at by aunts when you used their quills as toothpicks.

Being Indian meant being taught without words when sage was used, when sweetgrass was used, when cedar was used, and that tobacco – whether natural or from a cigarette – was the best way to honor the elders and spirits.

It meant learning whitewashed history at school and real history from drinking relatives.

It meant going into any trailer on the street and being fed a snack if you were hungry or given a bed if you were tired.

It meant wearing the clothes your cousin wore yesterday.

Being Indian meant you didn’t need to be at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek or a boarding school to have PTSD.

It meant the smell of coffee and fried Spam on Sunday morning.

It meant sitting at the hospital for a looooooong time.

It meant watching people get starquilts at weddings and graduations and funerals and wondering when you could give away your baby blanket, because people who gave stuff away were respected.

Being Indian was driving to Pierre or Rapid City and bitching in the car on the way back about how much you hate going to Pierre or Rapid City. Being Indian was knowing at 3 years old that racism exists.

It meant eating lots of cheese. It meant selling some of that cheese for cigarettes so Auntie Lennie could smoke.

It meant having award-winning artists in the family who used their winnings to buy the whole tiospaye burgers at Dairy Queen.

It meant money was important, but not that important.

Being Indian was to be intimately connected to all things, even if you weren’t quite sure what that meant exactly, but being confident of your place in the world nonetheless.

It meant being told totally believable ghost stories and hearing about White Buffalo Calf Woman over and over again.

It meant knowing spirits were everywhere and that they made shit move and made sounds but weren’t to be feared.

It meant pointing without using anything but your lips.

It meant having an Indian accent, ayyyy.

It meant getting pregnant as a teenager and knowing the child’s grandparents would help raise it.

It meant dancing in circles until you couldn’t move anymore. It meant standing beside drums and drummers and instinctively knowing what song they were singing, because it was the song in your heart.

It meant playing horseshoes.

It meant lots of artwork with red, yellow, black, and white used.

Being Indian was laughing at how stupid Lt. John Dunbar is but secretly loving the only movie to make Indians look kinda nice. Being Indian was telling people just because they knew the word tatanka didn’t mean they were Indian.

Being Indian had to be proved to people who weren’t Indian.

It meant surviving.

She sits in a small room with a white woman who wears long jean skirts and tennis shoes. The little girl never looks up. Maybe the woman wears glasses. The woman has lots of toys lined up along the walls. “Show me what your uncle did to you,” she says. The little girl, maybe 5 or 6 now, understands what the woman is asking. But it’s dirty. She’s not supposed to talk about that stuff.

Daddy gets mad and walks away when Uncle Walter’s name comes up. Mommy tells her to stop “messing around” when she touches herself and makes her Barbies kiss and cry. Daddy took her to a doctor not too long ago and said, “Doctors are nice and can touch you anywhere.” This made her cry and shake as she took off her clothes. The episode was so bad the doctor said, “No. No one should touch you unless you want to be touched. Not everyone is nice.” She remembered her daddy getting flustered, like he knew he had said the wrong thing. It wasn’t long after the doctor found out why the little girl never wanted to pee or poop.

She takes a boy doll and a girl doll from the wall of toys. “My Uncle Walter hurt me,” she tells the skirted woman. “Like this.” She shows the boy doll on top of the girl doll, both face down. She doesn’t know what else to say or do. No one told her what to call it.

The tiospaye is broken now.

“She’s lying,” one auntie says. “She watches too much TV.”

But no one can dispute the medical and psychological reports. So the uncle goes to live with another tiospaye. It isn’t until she is in college that the girl-now-woman gets a call saying Uncle Walter is going to prison for a few years, because he raped Sheryl and Denise and Wilma and Heather and…

Someone finally reported it. Reported it to people who cared enough to follow through, to help figure out the jurisdictional mess and file charges. Other men in the family are charged with child molestation. Rape. Incest. The girl-now-woman might need to come forward as a witness.

“Yes,” she says. Conviction, certainty, and finality ring in that one word.

She never gets a call. But she imagines what she would do if she saw him. Maybe it’s for the best. She’s never been a violent person, but she’d make an exception for monsters.

To say she “reported” what Uncle Walter did is too official. To this day she doesn’t remember actually telling anyone what happened. The whole experience still gets muddled in her head. She remembers him bringing her into her parents’ bedroom; mommy and daddy were out playing volleyball in their blue and yellow uniforms, and he was babysitting not just her but maybe four other cousins who were outside. She remembers watching him put on a white condom before he took her to the living room.

She remembers the TV show. And being on her belly.

She can’t recall being entered, but she remembers him putting her up on the counter in the bathroom and watching him through the mirror as he puts a Band-Aid over her anus and vagina. She remembers her parents coming home.

She remembers touching herself, because it feels really good. Her parents find her humping stuffed animals, making dolls do terrible things to each other.

Later she’s told how the doctor found rips and tears underneath and inside where little girls should never have rips or tears. Skirted women with toys in their offices make her show them what happened and ask her how she feels.

She feels shamed. And confused.

And angry.

Uncle Walter? He gets to finish high school. No one makes him see doctors or skirted women with tennis shoes. When he gets out of prison he comes out to his family as a gay man. People say, “Oh. That’s why he did what he did to all those little boys and girls.”

That explains it.

Funny uncle.

What drives the girl-now-woman crazy is that Uncle Walter – and so many others like him – are milling about free as birds. She has a daughter of her own now. And it drives her crazy thinking something a sinister as a sick child molester could be on the same planet as her daughter. It drives her even crazier knowing people like him – people like him who hacked away at her body and stole her childhood – continue to be accepted within the tiospaye. Is that what being Indian means? Sitting down at high school graduation dinners, or marriages, or funerals and breaking bread with child molesters? Because that’s what happens. She – not him – but SHE! is blocked out of parties and celebrations. Oh, sure, she’s invited, but he’ll be there. He’s in all the Facebook pictures, smiling, and holding babies. Her own mother has pictures of him, and she feels betrayed. She told her mother once how much it hurt to see his acceptance. Her mom told her family doesn’t give up on itself.

Fuck that.

If being Indian means accepting and tolerating cycles of abuse, then she wants out of the club. She knows there is more to being Indian than this, but when the tiospaye welcomes the sins of someone who so unapologetically suffocates childhood innocence, someone who so completely violates the wakanyeja… it is impossible to embrace a culture of complacency.

With her daughter, she runs through body parts and “good touch/bad touch” dialogue. It’s not a “private” or “wah-wah.” It’s a vulva or vagina. It’s a urethra, not a “pee-pee.” Anus. Breasts. Hips. Hands. Stomach. Neck.

No one – not even mom or dad or grandmas or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends or teachers or… – is supposed to touch you without your consent, she tells her daughter every few weeks. No one should make you watch or touch them if you don’t want to. She quizzes her daughter about how people touch her, like tickles or pushes or handshakes or hugs. It might be paranoia. If it is, she hopes it will help keep her daughter’s body and soul intact. Help keep her daughter’s mind free of shame, shoulders free of weight.

This is the new Indian. One who prevents abuse, not harbors it. One who surrounds herself with only the family she trusts implicitly to support her and not harm her daughter. Being Indian means getting educated to become a warrior. With education – with healing of the mind – comes understanding that being Indian doesn’t mean having to do something because family sticks together no matter what.

The tiospaye is only as strong as its weakest link. When a whole generation of wakanyeja are broken by abuse, the tiospaye ceases to exist. It can only be built up strong again when prayer and treatment and counseling and support from loved ones breaks the cycle of abuse. This is the same for families struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, diabetes, depression… Those abuses must be faced head on, or they continue to fester in the peripheral shadows of denial.

She kisses her daughter on the forehead goodnight. “I love you,” she whispers in her daughter’s ear.

A good mother. This is what it means to be Indian.

This stone angel is weirdly situated in a grove of weeds and natural grasses on my dad's property south of Bismarck, ND. It makes me said, but hopeful, all at once.
This stone angel is weirdly situated in a grove of weeds and natural grasses on my dad’s property south of Bismarck, ND. It makes me sad, but hopeful, all at once.
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