"Imagine me. I was born to die. I know that. If I could have found what I needed at thirteen, I would not have lost so much of my life chasing vindication or death. Give some child, some thirteen-year-old, the hope of the remade life. Tell the truth. Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you there is magic in it, and if you show yourself naked for me, I'll be naked for you. It will be our covenant." Dorothy Allison, In "Survival Is the Least of My Desires" originally given as the keynote address at OutWrite Lesbian and Gay Writers conference in 1992
Dorothy Allison delivered these words a lifetime ago. 16 years. Some of us do not live to see a 17th or 18th birthday.
In Native America, suicide is the second largest leading cause of death for people between 10 and 34. The Navajo Times reports that the Thoreau Chapter lost a 14 year old last weekend.
Last week on Navajo we had a fever of activity. We held primaries for our Presidential elections, the Navajo Commission on Emergency Management and President Shirley declared a state of emergency due to the monsoons and flooding, and we saw a tornado touch Many Farms and Chinle. Many spoke about prophecy. Some looked for rabbit brush, to make sure it was still growing, here in this world we walk upon.
On the 29th, in Winslow, 12 of the candidates met to discuss the youth.
The, our, problems:
2 out of 5 children have experienced domestic violence.
Addiction and public drunkenness.
Suicide (several youth have taken their lives in just the last few months).
In a special to the Navajo Times Bill Donovan reported on the meeting. http://www.navajotimes.com/politics/election2010/072910forum.php
I was particularly affected by two of the responses:
"We have to look at what is going on in our family that triggers this kind of action [addiction]."
"Many of our children's hearts are empty. . .We need to fill them with our faith."
I come from a broken family, and I am an alcoholic. The summer of my freshman year in high school I laid on my bed singing to Al Jarreau's "Just Believe" in my own personal effort not to kill myself. I continue to struggle today and still listen to Al.
My heart, then, was not empty. It was full, full of self hate, full of terror, full of debilitating pain I did not think I could survive. Thirty years later I can start speaking, writing, articulating the fact that, for me, wanting it—that fullness inside—to go away was what I searched for in those moments when death presents itself as the only answer.
These are shameful words I was taught to never share. I am a notoriously private person. Information trafficking was, and continues to be, a wanton practice of great emotional and spiritual violation in my life. I speak now in the hopes that admitting these truths before you, shi diné, and all my people, we can together acknowledge some things no matter how ugly.
During the Winslow forum on youth many people concluded that solutions should and could begin with parents (greater involvement, education and as role models) but I kept wanting someone to admit that not all parents love their children (many do not even love themselves).
The legacy of absence and/or rejection by one's parents is something no one wants to discuss, at least not openly.
People freely and eloquently talk about the importance of our cords and the places where they are buried. Fighting for access to these, our own bodies, in western hospitals and taking great pain and effort to fly, drive, ride cords back to Navajo for a proper burial site and ceremony. Devastatingly for many, the corresponding bond between mother and child, when broken, is not acknowledged—our lives silenced.
This silence can fill a person and smother their soul.
In Tiana Bighorse's book, Bighorse The Warrior, she writes: "In Navajo, a warrior is the one who can use words so everyone knows they are part of the same family."
Looking to parents may be worse than inadequate. Telling a child, like myself then, and now, to look home only left me more isolated, terrorized and hopeless.
We, as people, have always balanced the need for individual autonomy with our responsibilities to each other and to the earth. Somehow it has become taboo to speak or reach into these places that exist in that balance—the public and the private. Our homes have never been characterized by closed doors and thick walls.
Like every Navajo, I hate to be told what to do, but in this moment I am only asking to be seen.
Domestic violence, suicide, alcoholism and addiction are not easy to hide, and we are not a stupid or unaware people. I know how shame and propriety work to enable violence and despair—this is a legacy we pass down, a response to the wars of extermination and coerced conversions. Seeing and being seen are awkward and painful; I believe we must begin there.
"It will be our covenant."
- ► 2009 (13)