Everyday Adventures On and Off the Rez

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I live and sleep in the mountains. Been living this way for a year now, so I guess that technically makes me homeless. I know an Indian who was similarly homeless, but she got a PhD and now does research at MIT. So there's always hope for Indians in my situation. If the weather is warm, I sleep outside the truck surrounded by mountains all around. The truck belongs to a relative but she lets me use it. The mountains are spectacular, so my “home” is far more awesome than the million-dollar Hollywood mansions that celebrities sleep in. There are deer, cougars, coyotes and rattlesnakes around but they have left Indians alone for millenia. The cops are the ones who bother us, not the animals. So I don't worry about the bears around me but I do sometimes worry about carbon monoxide poisoning when the snow blankets the mountains and I occasionally keep the engine running to stay warm.

After a quick splash of cold water on my face from the stream, I try to start up the truck. The last couple weeks, the truck has been giving me problems. I park on a slope so I can push it easily if it refuses to start. This morning it starts without any problems. So I drive down from the mountains to my grandpa's super-tiny extended-stay motel room and get there a little before sunrise. It may be many months before a housing spot will open up for us on the reservation, so the cheap motel room will be grandpa's home for now and the mountains will be my home. Grandpa was approved for a loan of a little over $5,000. The loan company held on to most of our id's and documents to ensure that we will pay back the loan. Because Indians are sometimes protected by tribal laws that prohibit lenders from garnishing wages or repossessing financed merchandise, these predatory lenders hold on to our birth certificates, SSN cards, id's and other documents. Without those documents Indians just don't exist on paper, and the lenders thereby ensure that their loans do get repaid. The Border Patrol does not make it any easier, and Indians from the southern states who have had to relinquish their documents to predatory lenders live in fear of being deported to Mexico. Handing over our id's, birth certificates, SSN cards and other documents is in the contract we sign with them, so the only way to move on with life is to pay back their loans.

I put that loan to good use though. Inspired by Coursera-Stanford video lectures, investment articles in ICTMN and textbooks used by financial engineering graduate programs at the top schools, I buy a security—some security that costs $5 a share or less. I do the exact same thing each morning: I put in a buy order for 1,000 shares, which executes immediately when the stock market opens on the east coast. Then I quickly put in a limit-sell order to sell the security when the price goes about 10 cents higher. Next, I step into grandpa's shower because a homeless Indian still needs a daily shower! By the time I have stepped out of the shower, the security has likely been sold and I have safely exited the market, making grandpa $100 for that day. Given my limited resource of the $5,000 loan, my investment strategy is extremely simple: find a promising and underrated security that has a volatile daily range, buy low, sell a few cents higher—and the most important—protect the principal and safely exit the market as rapidly as possible so that grandpa makes $100 for that day. All of which goes to pay his past loans, his current loan, and his bills and medical and other expenses.

Then I hop into the truck and drive down to the reservation. I first check out the job postings—as always, with the exception of temporary fire fighting opportunities, there are no permanent jobs. Only the tribal corporation has three job openings. But the tribal corporation, which is run by whites, has an express policy of not hiring Indians. Says CEO James Stanton, “We are in this business to make money, so we have an express policy of not employing Indians.” The tribal council loves this policy, so the only enterprise on the rez does not employ Indians. Unfortunately, the tribal enterprise does not make any money either but they do pay themselves really fat salaries. It is no wonder that many Indians I know hate their tribal governments and the way their tribes are run.

Later I go down to the tribal library to check my voicemail. I am homeless, I don't have a phone but I do have a phone number, thanks to Google Voice. The funny thing about Indians is that some of us won't have a phone but we will have Facebook! To me, there's no point in having a phone when I always seem to run out of minutes and when I can never get a signal in the mountains. The first voicemail is from the administrator of the local medical group. I wanted to assist in their clinical research that used randomized trials but she says that is not possible. I need research experience to get into medical school. The administrator also says that because I refuse to cut my long hair, I cannot shadow any physician nor can I volunteer at their clinics—and every single one in the region is affiliated with this medical group. The next voicemail is from a friend inviting me to sing at their upcoming powwow up in Canada. Then there's the voicemail from a sleazy and corrupt Band Chair who is trying to sell me a medallion he has beaded for $110. Even if I had the money, there's no way I will buy a medallion for that price when the local tribal store sells better ones for $50 and when Brandi will sell me her beautiful medallions for $30. Sometimes she gives them to me for free but then I always give them away to someone else. There's a voicemail from Brandi too – she wants me to make her a cradleboard for her niece. I am the only one here who knows how to make usable cradleboards, so I have an assured demand for my products, but I will make a special one for Brandi for free because she often treats me to delicious meals.

That is one thing I love about Indian reservations: You always get free food on any reservation. And there are many reservations around me, which means I get quite a few free meals each month! This morning there is a diabetes workshop, so I head down to that workshop, listen to the talk and help myself to free breakfast before going down to the surplus store because I need a computer for school next semester. The surplus store has a used laptop for $45 with a tiny 20 gig hard drive and no operating system. I buy that and load the free Fedora operating system on it that I carry on my flash drive; it loads in minutes and my laptop is instantly spunkier than the brand-new Windows machines they sell at Best Buy. Tomorrow I will dual-boot this Fedora with Scientific Linux that I will use for all my college work.

Marjorie needs a ride to the clinic, so I drive her to the clinic as I always do. Many Indian elders never had a car, so they never learned to drive. Others have grandsons who have DUI'd their driving privileges, so when they need a ride for their dialysis, the responsibility of taking them usually falls on people like me. The elders also like me to be around when they go down to the hospital. Hospitals are scary places for Indian elders – the doctors are intimidating of course, but in their dreams some elders also hear from the spirits of patients who have died at the hospital. I convey the elders' medical concerns to doctors and translate what the doctors say in plain language to elders. I also love driving elders to the grocery store and helping them shop; they tell me wonderful stories about their past – things no one ever reads in history books. Like how Indian families scavenged for food at the dumpster behind the Culture Center for thirty years because of a single ill-advised action by the federal government. The elders never pay me for rides but I am always delighted to help them. However, I am occasionally nervous about giving rides to able-bodied, younger Indians who need to get someplace. Because if a cop car with flashing lights pulls up behind me, one of them could hide the drugs they have in their pockets somewhere in my vehicle. Which would mean I am the one who will be saying goodbye to medical school forever because of somebody else's addiction issues. But I help elders like Marjorie almost every day. Someone has to. The tribe took away the minibus, which was their only form of transportation.

I head down to the valley to work with the Barnes family sheep, as I usually do. My border collie, who either lives with grandpa in his cheap motel room or with me in the truck, is an excellent herder but today's task is different. We have to herd sheep up a mountain and onto the Barnes' second ranch a few miles away. It is very difficult for a single border collie to push several hundred reluctant sheep up a mountain, so we use horses instead. It is hard work and takes us the entire day, but it is harder on the horses. At least I make some money at the end of the day; the horses have no such luck. Like most ranchers in this region, the Barnes family does not feed their horses well. So the poor horses have a really rough time but at least my border collie enjoys the experience thoroughly. After we herd the sheep, the Barnes drop me back at the rez. There is still sunlight left, so I go up the mountain trail where there's plenty of water. This is where the willows grow. After checking to see there are no forest ranger trucks around, I pull out my shears and start cutting willows for the cradleboard. For millennia Indians used this location to make cradleboards but the Forest Department made this illegal and arrested Indians, so the cradleboard-making tradition has died out in this region. I am trying to revive it. I cut only a few willows from this location because I want them to grow again next year. It gets dark as I head back but I spot an old mountain lion kill. There's only bones and teeth left now. Next semester, I need to drive to the east coast to start school, so I think to myself that I can make a few good tooth necklaces and get some gas money that way. But today is a special day and not a day when I should be touching a dead animal's bones. So I only note the location of the remains and head back to the rez to sing at the Jones funeral.

The Jones family is worried because no funeral singer is around. The spirits have to be gently persuaded to depart to the spirit world through traditional songs sung only in Indian, otherwise they hang around their loved ones or spend time lingering near the mountains. Sometimes they cause trouble by scaring people. These days hardly anyone knows how to sing funeral songs. Carlos, another traditional funeral singer like myself, still hasn't been able to get a ride down here from near the Mexican border where he lives, so the Jones family heave a sigh of relief when they see me. They first feed all of us really well to prepare for the all-night ceremonial sing and they also load me up on frybread to take back to my grandpa. After dinner when everyone is relaxing, I briefly duck back to the tribal computers to check if they need any prerequisites for the new Genomics course that is being offered next semester. Which makes the Jones' family a little nervous; they think I have left. But singing funeral songs is my job and responsibility, so I take it seriously. I feel really bad for tribal members who lose their loved ones, and while funeral singers offer them great service, sometimes we don't make it any easier on them. Sometimes we cannot get rides to the funeral location because getting rides from a rez in one state to a rez in another state isn't easy. So they have to proceed with the funeral without the traditional singers, which is horrible and quite traumatic for the family. Occasionally some singer shows up semi-drunk to funerals. At the end of the funeral, the family shows their gratitude by showering singers with gifts. They also pay the singers, which is often our only source of income. Some families can afford to pay us only gas money while families who are better off pay us what they can spare; some families are so poor they cannot afford to pay gas money. All such expenses add up and are hard on families that have lost their loved ones, so I always decline the gifts families give me. Sometimes, depending on the tribe, declining gifts is offensive to a few families. In which case I accept the gifts but give them away to any other singer who may have traveled a great distance to sing, or to some poor elders. That is what we did traditionally; Indians almost immediately gave our gifts away to others who were more needy. I suspect this is why they originally called us “Indian givers” but later the media - whether intentionally or unintentionally - completely misused the word.

We sing funeral songs until 4:00 in the morning after which we make our way to the deep pit the family has dug at the foothills of the mountains. There the family burns all clothes and items belonging to their dead relative while we singers sing more funeral songs. In the old days, we also burned down the home of the departed one but these days many ordinances from the state and border towns prohibit burning down homes. While whites become richer because of inheritance, Indians become poorer over generations because we burn items belonging to the dead relative. There are deep and complex spiritual reasons for burning everything but that is not something I should be talking about. There are also more practical reasons why we burn: for instance, it keeps families close-knit; if you burn something, the survivors don't get to fight over who gets what and how much. There are Indians who still tear up cash belonging to their dead relative and burn the money during the ceremonial burn. After the burn, we return to the Cry Room where other members of the family cook a hot and delicious breakfast for us. With more frybread of course! It is now a little past sunrise, so I drive back to my grandpa's motel room, put in another buy/sell order, jump into the shower and get ready for yet another Indian day.

For privacy and religious reasons, names, tribal and ceremonial details, and parts of the narrative have been disguised. Mike Taylor hopes to serve as a physician on some remote and isolated Indian reservation.