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Sunday, March 15, 2009

K'é: Alcoholics and Child Molesters

for all friends of Bill

I was at a party and a friend was telling her sister's story. She had just adopted a family of three Yup'ik kids from Alaska. It's a story she tells often, about the kids, their history of FAS, the complete selflessness it took to adopt the lot of them, in order to keep them together.

Most people don't know much about the ICWA of 1978. She does. She had to deplete her savings in order to legally adopt them.

At this point in the story most people's sympathies are with the storyteller and her sister, especially considering the expense she went to raise another woman's children. We're the lone hold outs. Mostly I stand there silent. This is not a teachable moment. But this time the storyteller refused to end the session.

The mother, of the children, is, of course, a demon. All three kids have FAS. You'd think she would learn. To stop drinking or not to get pregnant, I'm not sure which, but you'd think she would've learned by now.

We stand there silent, and an unusual thing happens. The party host notices. Silence and tension build among the listeners but the storyteller is not affected. She keeps on talking. The kids require an unbelievable amount of work and many financial and social resources. Her sister is dauntless. She refuses to let them sink into the squalor. Their village, there's nothing there. "I mean they're all alcoholics and child molesters."

I am a child of alcoholics and child molesters.

It's common knowledge. Childhood shapes every aspect of adulthood. If I make it, March 29, marks my 20th birthday. 20 years sober. 20 years is half my life, nearly to date. If I continue on this road I will soon have more days sober than I had drinking.

Of the many things that have gotten me here, white knuckles included, nothing has helped more than my home schooling. I exist because my mother bore me and I am who I am because they, my family, raised me.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was first established in 1978 (25 U.S.C. § 1902) in response to the historical removal of Indian children into non Indian families . The imposition of western models of the family on Indian families has been devastating. The intent of ICWA is to "protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian Tribes and Families," by giving jurisdiction to the tribe in matters concerning all of their members, especially their children.

Removing children from the family removes the future. Their removal is a final blow in the systematic destruction to our clan, kinship and traditional educational systems. Removing children says, there is nothing here, in this house, in this culture, in this village to learn from. You are nothing, of no value.

Traditional knowledge enables us to see our place and our responsibility within the movement that is history, as the community experiences it. When children are born they have a responsibility—that responsibility is to become an elder.

Vine Deloria's chapter, "Knowing and Understanding," in Power and Place: Indian Education in America, offers the following insight:

"Even the most severely eroded Indian community today still has a substantial fragment of the old ways left, and these ways are to be found in the Indian family.

Even badly shattered families preserve enough elements of kinship so that whatever the experiences of the young, there is a sense that life has some unifying principles that can be discerned through experience and that guide behavior."

Mine is one of those "badly shattered families." I have never wished my experiences on another, nor have I ever wanted to be removed from my relations.

"The old ways of educating affirmed the basic principle that human personality was derived from accepting the responsibility to be a contributing member of a society. Kinship and clan were built upon the idea that if each individual performed his or her task properly, society as a whole would function. Because everyone was related to everyone else in some specific manner, by giving to others within that society, a person was enabled to receive what was necessary to survive and prosper.

The family was a multigenerational complex of people, and clan and kinship responsibilities extended beyond the grave and far into the future.

The elder exemplifies both the good and the bad experiences of life, and in witnessing their failures as much as their successes we are cushioned in our despair of disappointment and bolstered in our exuberance of success."

It has taken me over half my life to sift through the good and bad examples from my home. Where I have wounds I also have salve.

Kinship in its most expansive sense helps us account for our movements and experiences across the land, up through the previous worlds and into the Navajo Nation now. Our memories of migration, colonization, slavery, alcoholism, drug abuse and urbanization are revealed in the strains and breaks to our families, and in our responsibility to address those strains and breaks today.

When we turn our backs on any member of our community, and fail to recognize them as such, be they father, ant or rock we turn our backs on ourselves.

Healing a community requires more of us than removal. Individual families are targeted as the illness in most therapeutic models, but the removal of specific children, by itself, does nothing to address the roots or context of family violence. Taking children from their villages and giving up on whole communities to locate and develop the necessary resources to survive is part of the overall agenda to annihilate Indigenous people and Indigenous culture.

My Grandfather's and my Uncle's response to their own spiritual suffering was one of violence. Their choices form a legacy we pass down. Like clothes, they affect future wearers for generations. The world told them they were nothing and no one and they acted like that was a truth they would never escape from. I witnessed their failure, and bore the weight of some of it in particular. These experiences of observation and abuse taught me the consequence of believing their lies and hate, and of accepting their realities and visions as my own.

In the worst of moments my Grandfather took his fight against his own degradation out directly on his children’s' bodies and souls and my Grandmother attributed the blame to our culture: "Don't be a damn fool like your father. Crazy Indian."

Last year I had the clarity of mind to recognize, in part, why I drank. It was that feeling I didn't want to have, I sent the drink in search of. The particulars of feeling like a nothing may be a family pain, especially for our position in the world and the deep irreparable fissures in our family caused by our experience of racism and religious persecution. I stopped for a moment and said out loud, "this is why I drank. Not to feel this." And then I kept on walking. The spiritual strength and emotional maturity required to make a different response is a gift also given by my relations: the unfathomable belief that we can be "more beautiful than broken."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

For Future Reference: I am I cried

part two

President Obama's words to as-Aribiya refuse to leave my ear hole:

"[I]f you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task."

When Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) Bishop Richard Williamson there was a swift and strident outcry. Williamson's denial of the Holocaust is unpardonable. Few could tolerate his statement: "I believe there were no gas chambers."

In the midst of the uproar his SSPX colleague Father Floriano Abrahamowicz, another of the four "traditionalist" bishops excummunicated by Pope John Paul II, told the Italian newspaper, the Tribuna, "I know the gas chambers existed—at least, for disinfecting—but not whether they caused deaths or not."

In response to Obama's recent words, there has only been shrill silence.

Even when I repeat his words to others the response has been, "Yeah. Right. What's the problem."

This is hardly the same.
No it isn't.

Recognize: 2., to know by some detail

The United States of America is a settler colony. The settlers moved in and continue to occupy our homelands. In response the Nations within (Indigenous Nations) have continued to assert three things: we exist, it happened here, and it is happening now. The details of America's history as a colonial power go beyond this writing.

Historically we, Indigenous People of the America, have failed to register as a people. Our history does not seem to bare weight. Our elders lack authority. We've spent the last 517 years simply asserting our existence.

Invisibility is a power many of our ancestors used to great strategic affect. This is different.

Recognize: 4., to acknowledge the existence, validity, authority or genuineness

The day after the oral arguments for the California case against Proposition 8 opened and closed, the San Francisco Chronicle was already reporting that the court seems to favor the validity of Proposition 8.

During the arguments proponents for Proposition 8 said that the weddings performed during the 5 months when same sex marriages were legal, would not be invalidated, but they would not be recognized.

Where is Duane Big Eagle when you need him?

Obama's election has been hailed as a turning point in the U. S. national consciousness, a day after of sorts, a moment in linear time reflecting an evolution of thought, a wholescale shift in character, a now to oppose a then.

We are flooded every day with words and images that deny our humanity and experience. On June 6 of 2008, in McLean VA, the USPS issued the new priority mail stamp. On Janaury first of 2009, additional postage was already required. Regardless it was my only option. I refuse to send an elder a SASE with the defaced Black Hills as postage. I asked for other stamps. The Postmaster said there were none. I can do math. So I asked for other stamps that would add up to the new rate. It took nearly 15 minutes and her constant sighing, but I left with a SASE that looked not unlike the image on the official USPS poster for suspect mail.

California AAA's western wonder page sports the "Mountain Men" this month. Sculpting of Gutzon Borglum's giant homage to four U.S. presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—began in 1927. Fourteen years later, Mount Rushmore National Memorial stood head and shoulders above South Dakota's Black Hills. The magazine arrived shortly after my frustration at the post office.

These are trifles. Yes. But these trifles wear us down in a relentless assault on our souls, as we face our occupied homelands today, as we face an academic and popular insistence that we don't exist, we did not know who we were, or where we came from, and our conquest is complete and definitive.

Recognize: 9., to acknowledge as having the right to speak.

The most painful memory I have, in relation to homophobia, is the trip my wife and I took to Minneapolis to bless our nephew. His maternal grandmother introduced me to her mother as "This is Reid. We met her at the wedding."

I stood there, dumb. What do you say to that? How do you maintain your dignity in silence?

I was not even a friend, or a roommate. I was someone met at the wedding.

I am the oldest of the generation of "children" and my wife and I have been together the longest. We flew at great cost, to my health and our one income household. In a sentence I was reduced to no one of no consequence. And I stood there and swallowed.

Some say the Navajo philosophy is to walk around the rock.

My soul is tired and my feet not rested.

No matter how many times my wife and I marry there are many who will refuse to recognize our vows. My own Nation included. I understand that we are asking precisely for what they refuse to give: an acknowledgement of our humanity.

In the 3 years since my nephew's baptism I've developed a fetish for Nebraska, somehow convincing myself that if I could understand their minds I could somehow make a space within it.

There's the rock. Walk around it.

When I was little I used to run the house singing Neil Diamond.

"I am," I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
"I am," I cried
"I am," said I
And I am lost, and I can't even say why
Leavin' me lonely still
1971 Prophet Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

Some things are old. We feel them even when we are young. We do not know how. We do not always know why. But we know we do.

painting: Sitting Bear by Niki Lee

Sunday, March 1, 2009

For Future Reference: I am I cried

This month, For Future Reference will take the form of a series, unfolding.

". . . with the Holocaust. Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology. Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human real. That is not a mechanical problem, but an essential one. . .I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual and in his language, to rescue the sufferings from huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity, and to restore the person's given and family name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him." Aharon Appelfeld, Beyond Despair

Things to be Desired
for Ershod

“You’re an Indian, huh?”


“What are you doing here?”

“My Dad worked these docks. They called him Beaver.”

“He the Indian?”

She nods.

“I come down here too.”

He steps up close. Shaved iced. He’s a barely holding together. Twilight is a blanket. For the moment they step inside.

“See. You’re lucky.”

Two hundred pounds of fat, she doesn’t feel. What is it he’s saying.

“You know your people.”

She heard it all; but she never heard this.

“Black people. We don’t know our people.”

They stand, shoulder to shoulder, in the silence of recognition. The water coming up to the edge. Sometimes pouring over. He to the left. She to the right. One man, five foot seven. One woman, five foot one. Thin. Fat. Black. Beige. Close cut. Thick waist length braid. Before them the island. Behind them the buildings. Overhead the new sky of the Embarcadero. The Central Freeway just torn down. Earthquakes expose the mud beneath the surface. Structures fall. Pancakes with no syrup.

She doesn’t know what to say. This was her moment to find the quiet and he keeps on talking. Her head packed tight with wishful thinking.

“My Sister gave me this. Have you seen it?”

He hands her a folded paper, the Desiderata. She looks at it. Reads. Still not looking at him. The intimacy between. Her father’s people always find her. Head nods and hat tips, an index finger raised to the eye; she walks the city streets and they stake a claim. Daughters lost. Fathers found. Uncles and nieces.

“He an alcoholic too?”

She turns and looks at his ear. Small ears. Hers are huge, no one disputes the size of ancestry in the earlobe. Strings of ears on museum shelves, hers still attached. They frame the face. Eye to eye, you never see it.

“You got that look.”

“What is that?”


She hands him back his paper.

“You know they found that in a deserted place.”

“My mom likes sayings.”

“Yeah. So does my sister.”

He’s the left foot. She the right. A wave of water rushes over.

“Oh shit.”

The blue horses of morning.

He jumps. From left to right, making his way over to the knee deep concrete hedge, he sits. The bay immersing her calf deep inside it. Offerings she has none. Olokun. Yemaya. Even Oshun gathers here at this seven point juncture. One minute piles upon another and she follows him over to the seat and sits like she’s expected.

The cold gets colder, wet pants, shoes, socks. His jack rabbit jumping has him dry. She’s wet. A slow soggy slopping over.

“How long you been sober?”

“Four years.”

“You guys have a real problem with that.”

“With what?” She’s ready to leave, but doesn’t.


She’s a lump of floured water. Poorly figured. No breasts, just flaps of skin, nipples like birthmarks. No suckling children or jealous lovers. Just an empty gnawing ache. Emptiness, fill it.

“I smoke crack, but I don’t do heroin.”

His speed picks up, or hers slows down. It’s difficult to judge the shifting perspectives. Cold water, darkening sky. The soles of her shoes sponges she can’t wring dry. Her back beneath the jacket, growing wide, loosing shape or absorbing it.

“See. That’s why I came down here. I told this woman to get me some and she brought me this.”
He holds his fingers out, palm up, in between them a swatch of air. He shakes his hand up and down.

“A balloon. And you know what’s in that shit.”

He drops his hand.

“I threw it away.”

Cars rush by. The night is on, not announcing it’s arrival.

“Fuck that shit. Excuse me, but no way. Not me.”

She breathes. Words. She has none. Wet feet, she had two.

“So I came down here. ‘Cause I know where it is and you know I might just go back and get it. So I come down here. Get me some air. That’s when I seen you saying your prayers.”

She keeps breathing air into the wordless mass. Two or more gathered together, this is a meeting. They are inside it.

He pours out of himself, “I wish you could see me another day. This shit makes me all paranoid. I’m not like this. Mean and paranoid. I’m a nice guy. If you could see me another day you would see. I’m not like this.”

His hands long strands of black thread. He wraps them around his words. They keep spilling forth, but like the girl they don’t hold water.

“Can I ask you a question?”


“Why do they do it?”

She waits for him to finish.

“What I want to know is how can they? I understand people like you and me. Why we use. We need it. I gotta have it. We’re hooked. But these people that sell it. How can they do it? Make their money off of other people’s misery. I don’t understand.”

Thoughts can smother even the strongest fire.

“I don’t know.”

She’s tired. Narcotics are high heeled shoes. She don’t use them.


He says, extending his hand. She takes it, puts her inside. Names, she don’t give one.

“If you see me on the street, and I look like this, don’t come up to me. I’m mean.”

She don’t answer. It’s a gift and doesn’t require a response. Recognition takes many forms, in the intimacy of what to do and when to do it. Whodini rings in her ears, “One love, one love, you’re lucky just to have, one love.” She likes the slow decay of fermentation. One drink is too many, one hundred not enough.

At the corner she throws her shoes and socks into the trash. He melts into the unlit night. Her father. Her brother. The beaver who likes living down at the piles, his head on the pavement, a bottle at his hip.

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.