Native American Lives Are Tragic, but Probably Not in the Way You Think

Photo of Native American Lives Are Tragic, but Probably Not in the Way You Think

“Healing requires acknowledgement,” says Lisa Schrader, a student at St. Joe’s Indian School and Red Cloud Indian School in the 1970s and early 1980s. “And when we were taken away from our homes and we lost our language, and we lost our culture, and we lost our identity, no one ever told us, ‘Welcome home. I’m glad you made it back.'”

Danielle Zalcman

Back in June, activist Shaun King tweeted out a colleague’s Intercept story to his million-­plus followers: “All over this country, for decades on end now, indigenous women have gone missing at an alarming rate,” he wrote. “Authorities are just now truly acknowledging the crisis.” I remembered then to ask around the rez whether Roberta was still missing.

Roberta, whose name I have changed to protect her privacy, is from my reserve on British Columbia’s Seabird Island. It’s a small community, and it only took a few Facebook messages to learn she’d been spotted at a 7-Eleven. I’d seen her myself a few months earlier, and she wasn’t looking well. When I was young I used to babysit for a friend of hers, and I still remember how hard they partied. Someone close to Roberta told me she had been trying to stay in recovery—she was “lost but not lost.” Just putting this to paper perpetuates a negative stereotype: We’re doing this to ourselves.

In March, Roberta had posted on Facebook, “Do you believe in me? acknokwledge me please.” She was reported missing April 13, and for weeks I would stare at her profile picture, then at her “missing person” photo. She eventually re­surfaced. Then a woman from my father’s nearby reserve went missing. Her name is Shawnee and she’s 29 years old.

Native people are familiar with brutality, with our histories. We bear witness firsthand, and then again via media reports articulating how bad we have it—if they notice us at all. It seems like all I see in my news feed are missing-persons photos and stories about racism against us. I empathize with Roberta’s circumstances. I think it’s easy to fall in a hole where I’m from, easy to give up hope. People will be mad at me for saying that.

My friend Tommy Orange begins his debut novel, There There, with a prologue about the circumstances Native Americans once faced—the brutal truth: “Some of us grew up with stories about massacres. Stories about what happened to our people not so long ago.” He describes how white people tore unborn babies from our bodies. How they danced with our dismembered parts and displayed our heads in jars. A Globe and Mail reviewer warned that his novel could be weaponized: “I found myself wondering how non-Indigenous people would read this book,” she wrote, “and whether they would interpret it to reinforce their stereotypes of Indigenous people.” But I don’t know how we can be artists if we’re worried about what white people will think of us.

I believe all good stories are tragedies. I also realize outsiders see our plight differently. They see it as voyeurs, hoping to affirm something in themselves: that we are braves humiliated, or wild savages from a lost time, people who were ravaged, and what is left is only a mirror of what’s been done, a vessel for a white person’s imagination.

The tropes are porous and easy to get lost in. Last year, the Native American Journalists Association and HighCountry News issued a bingo board designed “to catch overused and hackneyed ideas employed by newsrooms”—alcohol, poverty, “vanishing culture,” “dying language.” This may be helpful for reporters, but what of us Native authors and artists who want to express the truth of our lives, which are sometimes affected by, yes, poverty and alcohol? These conditions are not unique to Native people, of course, but when they are applied to us it feels definitive.

No matter what we write, white people can turn our stories into weapons, an excuse to be paternalistic. If we depict ourselves as educated and self-­sufficient, they might advance the narrative that our tragedies are long past, that we should dust ourselves off and move on. If we are portrayed as poor or dysfunctional or prone to alcoholism, they can use that to take away services or argue that we game the system. No matter what we do, we’re still Indian, and often we don’t get to speak for ourselves.

“You have no time to think for yourself,” says Bessie Randolph, who attended Albuquerque Indian School from 1952 to 1962. “Wake up at 5:30, clean the building and make the beds, breakfast from 6 to 7, report to the school building at 8, lunch at 12, out of school at 4, dinner at 5:30, asleep by 8. Ten years of following that routine and we didn’t know how to live like real people. We were told when and how to do everything. How do you apply for a job? How do you use the telephone? Are you supposed to go to college? We left school completely lost.”

Danielle Zalcman

I grew up thinking about the tragedy of my history. Elders used to say we were stewards of the Earth, close to creation, divine in intellect and body, and living in abundance like Adam and Eve before the fall, before “contact”—a strangely puritanical ideology, no doubt violently ingrained in us by Christian influence; call that a tragedy, too. There’s plenty of content about our misfortune now. Search YouTube and you can find a “drunk Native” subgenre—dozens of videos of our people, obliterated by drink, speaking nonsensically or fighting in the street. Some of the titles include the word “funny.”

It wasn’t until graduate school that I heard the term “poverty porn” and realized non-Natives were titillated by our misfortunes, and that indigenous people were consuming it too, albeit for different reasons. Maybe, like me, they were just happy to be seen, finally—not as mascots or advertising icons or mystic ghosts, but as people, alive and still struggling in the aftermath of colonization.

Another friend, Blackfeet writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, wrote on social media this year that “1 in 3 Native Americans will be assaulted by statistics in their lifetime.” It’s the kind of joke we sometimes use to flick at stark truths: More than one-quarter of Native Americans live in poverty. The latest numbers show roughly 1 in 5 lacking health insurance—8 percent are jobless. Gross underfunding of Native health care has resulted in life expectancies that are, in some states, about a decade shorter than the national average. A staggering 60 percent of children on Canadian reservations are impoverished. Native women are raped and assaulted at higher rates than any other group. The numbers go on to show, from every angle, a gap in service, a grave injustice. The statistics are burdensome but a little redemptive. They prove we aren’t crazy for thinking our communities face disparities most couldn’t imagine, a violence most cannot see.

I resist an identity fixed in grief, but I welcome tragedy. To me the word is pregnant with meaning. I don’t mind a tragic life in which there is a magnitude to my character, my loss, and it is all toward some end—a denouement.

In my kitchen hangs a print my father made. He abused my mother, my sisters and brothers, and me and then left when I was six. He was a drunk. He didn’t have a home. The only good parts of him were his artwork, exquisitely symmetrical and Salish, experimental with form and color. I don’t know why I keep the print on my wall. Tragedy, I think. I want to see the human in the work.

Across the house, my first book is displayed on our mantel. Sherman Alexie wrote the introduction. Then he was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting Native women. (He later apologized vaguely and said he did not recall physically or verbally threatening anybody.) Now I can’t look at my book without knowing that, even in triumph, I can’t escape the statistics, the violence surrounding Native women.

Oreos Eriacho spent the entire 1960s at Ramah Elementary School and Ramah Dormitory. “Your spirit is kind of broken when you’re told you’re not supposed to act like a Native American,” he now says. “We’ve lost our identity—my kids ask me who we are and I have nothing to give them. But I’m teaching my daughters how to hunt, how to cut up the meat, how to use plants. I hope it helps.”

Danielle Zalcman

But I am not a hopeless illustration, something for non-Natives to witness. This world is larger for us in it, because we saw things the white settlers didn’t—we had maps and taxonomy, an interior knowledge of the Earth that our colonizers willfully tried to erase and negate. Amid the land allotments and limitations and government schools aimed at molding Native children, as one historian put it, “in the image of White America,” we see the histories forgotten, the matrilineal societies, confederacies and prophets, infighting and clans, and stories the world is richer for. We discovered medicines, saved lives, and carried things we still hold in our minds. Thanks to secret knowledge and secret ceremonies, at least some of our cultures and people survived genocides. I feel we are failing when we allow the majority culture to burden us with its binaries: left behind or assimilated, saints or heathens, savages or healers, warriors or drunks. I don’t know what to do with my definition of tragedy in the face of theirs. But I think the answer is always story. The duplicities in our identities as indigenous people are key.

At a Naval Academy graduation in May, President Donald Trump told cadets, “We are not going to apologize for America,” and he claimed the nation’s ancestors had “tamed a continent”—as if those who came before were savage. Where my people are from, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is fighting with First Nations people who oppose a pipeline expansion that would triple the amount of tar sands oil shipped from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.

My family now lives in Indiana (“Land of the Indians”), where my son was told by his middle-school bully that America is for whites only and Indians are dirty. They said the same to me, I told him, and to my mother when she was a kid—except they threw rocks at her when she walked into town, and my grandmother experienced worse. I wanted him to know things aren’t so bad as they used to be, but that they won’t get better anytime soon. The age of Trumpism seems hell-bent on walking back progress to a time when white people enjoyed the benefit of even more brutal and explicit discrimination than they do today. I acknowledged the way defeat is useless, and hope might be, too. By the end of the day I had no conclusions to make—he went back to class.

I used to fight for awareness only to realize that once a system, a friend, or a teacher learned of our circumstances, they leveraged it as proof they should be paternal, or they did nothing but pity us and revel in that pity. For much of my life, outsiders have been telling me how sorry they are about what happened to Indians, or telling me to get over it. I’m hypervigilant about how I talk about myself and my people because we aren’t a monolith, and while pity can feel like empathy or kindness, it’s ultimately of no use.

Tommy Orange and I are close, personally and professionally. Together we went from poor to secure, grad students to teachers, unknown to critically acclaimed. So I messaged him to get his take on all this. He replied that he thinks most Indians don’t view themselves as mired in tragic circumstances: “We become what we most don’t want to become, and sometimes that is tragic. I think we should resist pity, and monolithic, static thinking regarding who we are and what we’re about. Tragedy is unavoidable for humanity. I just always hope it’s balanced with humor. I think of life as a tragicomedy.”

Tommy is right. I’ve heard Natives, academics, and people on Twitter extolling joyous indigenous futures. But I like joy that’s earned, because what good is it without the threat it can be taken away? The symmetry of the Salish artwork I grew up around beckons me to consider the whole story. My father’s work redeemed him in the eyes of some people—it complicated him for me, which is what good art does. I don’t want a joyous future nearly as much as I want the freedom to present the tragedy in our lives—and not be bound to it.

In the 1880s, the newly formed Canadian government built a network of residential schools intended to assimilate indigenous children. “Signs of Your Identity,” a project of photographer Daniella Zalcman that was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, features multi-exposure portraits of former students still plagued by memories of those forced family separations.

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