Tag Archives: heroes

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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To Minot With Love

Sent June 14: Hi there. I hope you are doing well. Not sure if you remember me. I just happened to find a note you wrote me many moons ago when we were both in Minot, ND. Your profile picture looks fantastic. I am hoping you still carry that same confident, determined spirit always trying to understand why… Take good care.

 – Awesome Therapist*

I found this message a couple weeks ago in an obscure folder on Facebook. OK, maybe not that obscure, but I never check the “Other” folder under the main messaging area in Facebook. That I did at all was purely chance. Maybe.

It’s an amazing blast from my past. Here’s my response:

Sent June 23: Of COURSE I remember you! When I speak to student youth groups about overcoming challenges I refer to the wonderful advice you gave me back in the summer of 2001: you are responsible for yourself (well, maybe those weren’t your exact words, but I do remember you putting the emphasis back on ME to take control, versus letting outside influences determine my thoughts and actions). How wonderful of you to message me!

Crazy – seriously – but I thought about you (beyond totally plagiarizing you at speaking gigs!) just the other night. I work with a juvenile diversion program – lots of kids on home detention – and was trying to explain how I came out of my teenage rut, and I fixated on you during my explanation. Not in a weird way (!) but the kids asked me a lot of questions about what exactly you did for me, because I really do come back to our sessions [in Minot] as being pivotal in my personal success. I told them that after a lifetime of counselors and therapists rehashing my parents’ viewpoints, you showed me the power of personal accountability. Or at least led me in that direction.

I know we only had a summer fling of a relationship but the impact you had on me is truly… astounding. I will end here for fear of writing you a novel of a response (I am known to be introspective, but you probably knew that – ha!). Please, if you want, keep in touch. If you ever need a good boost of ‘my work is meaningful,’ I will definitely provide input.

– Taté (Finn) Walker

PS – I still have the bookmark with your note hanging on my wall. Interesting the mementos life brings back to us time and again.

I was quite the shithead when I was a teenager and fueled by overflowing family drama. I won’t bore you with the details, but I was abused, depressed, repressed, and full of potential. I am jealous of people who look back fondly at their youth; personally, I’d willingly suffer a blow to the head if it would mean forgetting everything up until age 18.

With my depression came self-harm and cutting. Suicide attempts. Drug and alcohol use. Rape. It all blended together for a spiraling cocktail of woe. I was eventually sent to live in a group home my senior year of high school, where I would give up completely. The group home staff was ill-trained and some staff were downright abusive. At the time, I thought getting a few cigarettes in exchange for doing “favors” was a great deal.

In the destruction of the tornado that was my life I got pregnant (while a participant in the group home system, no less). I remember my dad asking me what I planned to do. I was eager for responsibility and control over my own life, and so I told anyone who would listen how I planned to raise the child myself. Now, working with youth as I do, I see how unfair it was for the adults in my life to leave the decision wholly up to me, especially considering I was ill-informed.

I was just a kid.

Kids having kids.

How odd is it that I was locked away in an intense treatment facility, yet somehow could manage the responsibility of pregnancy and motherhood? I know, young mothers do it all the time. Doesn’t mean they should.

My social worker, a nasty she-devil (and I feel qualified in passing such judgment now, especially since I’ve worked professionally with many wonderful social workers these last five years), was adamant about adoption. My dad and step-mother… I don’t remember them throwing in a definitive opinion one way or the other; my step-mom would later tell me they had discussed raising the baby on their own, but I know them well-enough that this line of thought is rather a joke. They could barely raise me. I felt the same way about my biological mother – the woman I have since come to love and admire for all the wonderful things she is, but with whom I had no healthy or developed relationship with during my youth (that’s another blog post). My mom stepped forward early in my pregnancy to say she would raise the baby. I said no to this; my dad and step-mom had raised me to doubt any issuance of love my mother offered me (gifts were “buying me off,” letters meant she didn’t want to see me in person, visits were forced, and any bad behavior I had was caused by the bad genetics I got from her — no, seriously, these and more were the messages my dad and step-mom threw at me throughout my youth). So to her offer I said no, and I said no in such a cruel and spiteful way as to make my dad, step-mom, and She-Devil proud.

And so the state child welfare authorities sent me to the middle of nowhere (otherwise known as Minot, ND) to hide my growing belly. It was a place for pregnant youth to learn healthy living skills. It turned out to be a dream destination for me. The group homes in Bismarck were Guantanamo compared to this oasis. The staff were mother hens, and they cared for and protected us fiercely. At 17, I was an old participant; the other girls were 12 and 13, although a 19-year-old came in eventually. We made healthy (if fattening) meals, got lots of naps, and I was allowed to volunteer with the local humane society.

Also in Minot, I was introduced to Awesome Therapist*.

For all intents and purposes, A.T. is my own personal Jiminy Cricket. I can’t explain well-enough except to say she empowered me with personal responsibility, self-reliance, and control. She helped me recognize the vast majority of my problems – depression, cutting, acting out – were a result of feeling powerless. To be fair to my parents, they probably said some of the same things to me, though their communication system was definitely in the realm of “The Authority,” whereas A.T.  took a more equitable approach (if you were ever once a teenager, then you know the difference). She helped me see how imperfect my parents were (that may sound silly – no parent is perfect – but, truly, the pedestal I held them on had grown to skyscraping proportions throughout my young life, and before A.T. they could do no wrong in my eyes), helped me understand the shit I had experienced in my life, including getting pregnant, were not all my fault.

Accepting responsibility for my actions is one thing; A.T.  showed me how harmful and unhealthy shouldering ALL the responsibility was. She also explained the importance of learning from the past, letting it go, and moving forward.

But the most important thing she did for me was encourage me to study my Lakota culture and reconnect with my biological mother. She said strengthening those two relationships would also strengthen me. And they did.

They still do.

With personal accountability came enlightenment on many levels.  My most immediate situation – pregnancy – engaged my initial focus. Abortion had never once made it into my conversations with other adults (very taboo) until Minot. I did some research and made an appointment with the clinic in Fargo. North Dakota law cut off legal abortions at 12 weeks. I was right at the cusp, which further validates my belief that all things happen for a reason – usually a good reason. Blessedly, extremely supportive women in Minot surrounded me, many whom did not agree with my choice, but were non-judgmental and loving to me all the more. I owe them much and more for their unyielding support; what could have proven to be a really difficult and stressful experience turned out to be a huge relief and turning point in my personal recovery. So many people talk about either their or others’ abortions as a negative event – something they regret. I am lucky in that my only regret is I was ever in a situation to be victimized, which led to the pregnancy. Once I was fully educated of the options, having an abortion became the only road I wanted to take. Maybe I will post another blog on abortion – like sexual or domestic abuse, it’s something a lot of us who experience those life-changing moments push to the back of our minds, yet in talking about it we open up avenues for others to learn and progress.

Abortion has taken up a lot of space here, but only to explore the amount of growth I undertook after meeting A.T.  It’s unfair to say she pushed me toward a pro-choice attitude. In fact, I have no idea where her ideologies fall on the issue, and I’m not trying to paint her as anti- or pro- anything. She simply empowered me with the tools I needed to make my own decisions. That’s really all any teen needs. We adults tend to think teenagers can take on only so much information and we ‘protect’ them from the scary real world. Teens are resilient, and strong, and thick-skulled. They have the potential of doing some great things if we lay out a full spectrum of options. Sure, some will continue to make bad choices. But I’m willing to bet just as many – maybe more – good (better) decisions would be made if we imbued kids with some knowledge power.

A.T.’s impact has stayed with me all these years. And as you can see, she still has the ability to bring out some serious self-reflection. As I reflect, it dawns on me that I use a lot of her methods when working with youth:

  • Empower Youth
  • Encourage Family Connections
  • Enlist Spirituality
  • Educate Culturally

Those four “E”s seem to work pretty well. The youth I spend time with just need someone to believe they can succeed. For whatever reason, we adults make that harder than it needs to be. When all signs pointed to failure, A.T. was by my side with assurances and approval for all the things I had done right (strength-based care is amaze-bombs, btw – most every teenager I encounter is a survivor of SOMETHING, and surviving IS something…).

I apologize if I’m making A.T. out to be some kind of magic bullet. I don’t expect she’s beyond criticism. No one is. But I’d put a cape on her and call her a hero any day for the way she made me feel about myself. And maybe that’s magic, and maybe it’s just letting kids know you care, so they can start caring, too. I can only hope I’m having half the impact on the kids I work with as A.T. had on me. Anyone who knows me also knows I still trip and stumble – hard. We all do. But if A.T. left me with anything it’s that life’s too short to sweat the small things, I’ve gotta move on from mistakes, trust myself, and love fully. She met me when I was at the banks of the Rubicon, and she showed me I had the means to cross it and achieve victory.

Vini. Vidi. Vici.

Sent June 24: “What a humbling, beautiful response! You definitely have not lost your touch in getting your thoughts and feelings across! I’m glad for that. I do think of our summer [in Minot] often (believe it or not), as you have always stood as a benchmark for resiliency and determination that I used as a litmus in working with other teenagers since. I’m actually tutoring a young lady right now in math, grammar and science that reminds me a lot of you…I make her question everything! My journey as a therapist and now teacher has been an interesting one the past 10 years and I do reflect on our conversations fondly. I’m so glad to hear that you are sharing your experiences with other teens. I have no doubt that the way you have incorporated everything is extremely invaluable to them. To be honest…my personal work to do the same lent part of the magic to our sessions not that long ago…”

– A.T.

*Name changed to protect identity