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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."

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.