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AWOL From the Rez!

Leaving the rez is a lot like defecting from the army. Being an Indian is a lot like being drafted, for that matter. We’re chosen people, fighting for our nation’s sovereignty, and a dying breed. I once thought in my naiveté that I would go to school, then move back to fight the good fight, only to realize my own self-betterment didn’t begin or end with school.

The rez can be tough, growing up without, receiving a lackluster education, and dealing with the disparity Natives are subjected to. People often comment that one makes the best or worst out of the circumstance they’re dealt, but being on the rez is hard-knocks. Curtains are sparse, having a well-manicured lawn is not typical, and most Christmases my mother depended on the Turkey and food rations we were given by the tribe.

I rarely go home, because I can’t afford it, but when I do it’s usually for funerals, of which there are far too many. On Friday nights back home I still heard the same drunk dialogue of Native youth, along with people fighting, people I knew. I still saw all my same cousins at the grocery store, and nothing had really changed. The land is essentially the ghettoization of a people, ala the WWII Polish Ghettos force on the Jews. The Indian Act forced us to elect governments in a way that was unnatural to our collective. The European government construct has been nothing but a nightmare to our social structure, and it’s hard to imagine it ever getting better. Some of my friends and family were doing well, but it seemed like they were doing well in spite of the disparate circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong: the rez can be a beautiful place. I remember beautiful ceremonies in the deep forest of my nation, sitting outside my porch watching my grandpa skin a rabbit, running through endless acres of corn, giving offerings to the river, and biking to the gas bar for movie night snacks. We had elders, real elders. People who carried the stories of the first tribal members, and who knew the land and who owned what on the river basin going back generations. My first sewing class was in the basement of my old tribal school, a building that later became a community center where the very same woman who taught sewing to children, taught sewing to young mothers some decades later. Auntie Eve sat next to me as I quilted my first blanket for my first born, and without her I wouldn’t have my sanity. She provided young mothers a place to go, and she didn’t let them just sit around. She introduced them to art. Without the rez, I wouldn’t be as full a human being. It is a sacred place.

But there was too much death when I left, and drama, and politics. It was all too much. I was stuck in a cycle of grief that felt all too familiar on the rez. I left with good intentions, that I would go back after I got my degree to work for the people, but that went into question when I realized the life I created in New Mexico was safe, thriving, diverse, and I had a job I could count on. I contemplate not going back, because I don’t want my son to see the street on Friday night, but what he’s missing out on is substantial. So, I ask myself, what is culture worth? The answer is everything. I’ve been searching for jobs close to home for about a year now, and there’s nothing out there yet. I figure, maybe if I get a decent job I can live close to home to be where my culture is thriving, even if it’s still a place where poverty is common.

All of this feels like bartering with myself. “Rationalize and justify, just like a drunk,” my mother used to say. Maybe I’m nostalgic for my past, to hear the language spoken, to see my old home and the people I love, for everything that has now changed forever. Everyone who raised me has passed on. My own brother stayed on the rez as long as he could, but the unemployment forced him out in his thirties. I’m not sure yet what my plan is, but currently, it’s the Holidays, and all I want to do is be home to trash talk the day, and hear the wild kids outside smash bottles. 

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian Band. She has been featured in Carve Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, and Burrow Press Review. She’s a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and she is an SWAIA Discovery Fellow.