Yesterday, after a difficult one emotional wise for my boy and myself, we headed over to Rosebud Lakota Lady’s house to see her and her niece Mizz Suzy. I call my friend that because she’s from Rosebud and Pine Ridges reservations where many of the Oglala Lakota Sioux were forced to live years ago. Now all too many are still stuck there, in a spiritual “no-man’s land” bound not by law, but by apathy, rampant alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy and a circling pattern of passive-aggressive behaviours.
If you’ve read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, these are some of that tribes descendants. In fact, a couple of months ago, on a musical evening at our weekly meeting for Native American education, I met Tatanka Yellowbird, a direct descendant of Medicine Man Yellowbird who was killed at Wounded Knee. These days he lives in a rural town in Alabama along with his wife and kids, works an average job and writes memoirs from the spirits inside him, plays beautiful flute music and keeps the oral tradition of storytelling alive.
Along with my friend, he, I and others, do what we can to help those out who are struggling. Certainly, there are availibilities of body and mental health care, some programs to help those who are homeless or young people from trouble homes (and there are so many of them) and outsiders might think it’s easy, and question simply, “Why don’t they go do it? It’s there for them. It’s their own fault if they don’t.” I’ve even heard some who claim or actually may have some Native blood in their veins, but that really minimizes the issues as well as shows they don’t know the People. It’s never easy. It’s never obvious.
My friend, like some of my cousins who are a few years older than I, have parents who were still taken away from their families, their tribe and had their hair cut, their language forbidden, their beliefs expunged. Yes, in 20th century USA, not so very long ago. It still very much affects the trust level. It affects and backs the independent spirit. It still gets your hackles up when you think of “submitting” to THEM. That can include health care, mental evaluations…it’s like they’re still trying to take something away from you. Something precious, without which, you would be nothing. Assimilation.
I always feel a bit incredulous when someone who says they have Native blood asks why or suggests natives who continue to live in the traditional ways do not “get with the 21st century”. They live in America now, someone said, other immigrants have adapted, why can’t they?
I have to laugh a bit that because it seems very obvious to me: “THEY LIVED IN AMERICA THEN before any of you. YOU are the immigrants.” Don’t try to attach that label to us or equate our situation to European and other immigrants. That’s the first thing they do wrong, and it shows a clear lack of knowledge and empathy. Your so-called Native blood is shrinking in shame in your veins. We can live in mainstream, but we will not and never will be assimilated. We can’t. If you really knew us, you’d know that as well.
My friend especially has a very large family, having had close to ten brothers and sisters. Inevitably, and like my own mother’s brothers and sisters, the tragic pattern has continued. You do what you can. Like my own mother, she married an American soldier at a young age, trying to get away and seek a better life. Many Native Americans join the military, as a side note, to get away from “home”.
For my own mother, at 14 she was forced to care for her own siblings after my grandmother died at the age of 32 bearing her seventh child, and her father, a lifelong alcoholic ran off. She had to quit school and tried to keep them all together. They lived scavenging for food from dumpsters behind restaurants, from hand-outs, church missions until her paternal grandmother took them in yet that woman also heaped upon them humiliations because of their half-orphaned state.
My mother’s earliest memory was around the age of four, cleaning up a puddle of blood from the wooden floor from where her mother had stabbed her father is the customary fight on Friday nights. If one or the other wasn’t drunk, or both, there was always an altercation, knives, ice picks, whatever. My mother has a severe abhorrence to blood to this day.
When she married my father a couple of years after that, although he and I have never got on and remain at odds for a variety of reasons, he was a good man to take on the lot of them. Last year I started writing some of her memories down, of being a young child growing up in the mountains and hills of Tennessee, deep in the woods, where they only came out at certain times into the white man’s world. Of riding a mule-drawn wagon into town. This is 1950’s Tennessee people, not the 1800s. And then when they were forced to live in the city, everything changed.
With my friend and her husband, they regularly take one or more of her young relatives away from the all too-many dead-ends of the rez. Financially, emotionally, they try to care for them, get them in rehab if they need it, back in school, gain jobs or opportunities where they can imagine then work towards having a different life. If they’ve been away from it, they are brought back to their roots and made to feel proud of the history of the People, not the shabbily sad existence too many wander in.
There was a boy, one of her nephews, very tall and solid, strong though only thirteen when he arrived. He was a good boy who’d had a hard life. A series of boyfriends of his alcoholic mother had made his life hell. Rosebud Lakota Lady brought him down to heal, body and soul. Body because he’d broken his arm several months before, and in a fit of pique against the white man’s methods, mom’s boyfriend cut his cast off. The arm had twisted and become useless and he lived in constant pain. Rosebud got him into physical rehab, after a couple of surgeries to correct what they could. He was quiet but not exactly shy, very obedient all the time, gentle with the smaller kids, of which my son was one. If he had a little money, he’d buy candy or food and share it with everyone. A good boy. I remember his smile. We still have the photo of him standing beside my son at a pow-wow both red-faced after they’d danced, full of joy.
He tried his best in school, though he had learning disabilities, and enjoyed going on missions and camping with a church group. His choice, though Rosebud, like I, are not Christians. He loved to go to church and he was allowed, though he came along and drummed, sung and danced at pow-wows with us. After a year he got homesick though. Alabama is very different than South Dakota. No open sky in the same way. He missed his mother also he said. He returned. That was two years ago.
This past March I’d learned from Rosebud he’d stopped smoking and drinking so much. He’d been able to get in a program where he was provided a small apartment since he was basically homeless, or at least a drifter by choice, since the relatives who’d tried to take him in couldn’t deal with his sudden rages or his drunken mother showing up causing scenes. In this program, he was regularly checked on at morning, made sure he got to school, then afterwards onto a part-time job then back in by 9pm. It was a good situation which he inadvertently sabotaged.
There was a girl. He loved, said was his, and they had an off and on relationship but she finally broke up with him some weeks ago. The same day it happened, he left work early wanting to make up with her and only a few hours after the “break” he arrived at her apartment to find her “new” boyfriend. Two hatchet blows to the head and it was all over. Additionally he made the terrible decision to take the guy’s cellphone. Two felony charges, and this sixteen year old sits in jail now awaiting trial, but first they’re determining whether to try him as a juvenile or an adult. It’s his 1st offense, so I would think they’d try him as a juvi, besides the provocative situation taken into account…but you never know. If they choose adult, it’s an open and shut case witnesses. He won’t survive in jail, not in any way as the boy we once knew, if he survives at all. That is flat out reality.
Have they done a psych evaluation? No. Do they have him on suicide watch, as he is extremely despondent? No. Have any family members written letters of recommendations, any one from schools, anyone from churches he went to before? No, no, and no. Get it on then. We know his life had taken a turn for the worst, but there was potential and it can clearly be established. He has extenuating circumstances, though there is no excuse for violence.
I sit in a state of bemusement again. A kind of grief. I’ve penned my letters today, and posted them, along with my son’s. We’ll do what we can along with Rosebud Lakota Lady and everyone who’s loved him.
“Some 5 percent of Native Americans eighteens year old and older is involved in the U.S. criminal justice system, twice the rate of white Americans but half the rate of black Americans. American Indians, however, experience violent crime at over twice the rate of blacks and whites. Some 124 Indians per 1,000 residents over twelve years of age experienced violent crimes including sexual assault, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The homicide rates in particular are triple the general population.”
From: Race and Ethnicity – Native Americans Tribal, Crime, Rate, Indians, Indian, and Reservations.
What does this suggest to you? And no, it’s not because they haven’t or refused to “assimilate” properly.
When I heard about him, a prayer song immediately came to my mind. My feet wanted to move, and my arms lift to the heavens. “Man Above, there was a boy…