One of my brother’s earliest memories is of him watching me in my father’s van while our father drank out by the river. My brother said I was only a baby, and he didn’t know if my dad would come back, so he sat in the cold van, feeding me an empty bottle. The trauma within my family runs deep and wide, and we’ve been healing for years. Part of that healing is telling the story, regardless of its implications concerning culture or community.
As a baby girl I was brought several times to my uncles home because my father had broken ours, searching for drinking money. Several times I was forced to witness my mother’s body being broken by my father, a man I loved in spite of his monstrous nature and proclivity for pain.
My narrative is not unusual, and some part of me feels like it is betraying itself by saying in public forum that abuse within Native communities exists and hurts. My own sister can barely keep a job or maintain a home without a small breakdown, where she realizes just how much she was subject to before her first moon time.
Recently I decided to be unabashedly honest about this trauma: my mother made mistakes, loved the wrong men, learned from it, and now we’re all still healing. Even in death, I feel my mother’s spirit journey with me while I reconcile with the very real pain of what I witnessed.
With our voices we can heal. I encourage any Native woman who witnessed abuse to not feel cliché, or undone by the trauma. What you witnessed was common, but also individual. Your pain is something to own, to journey through, and voicing the truth of your journey can heal the generation before you.
My counselor, a rather hokey woman, forced me to cry for the first time about the sexualization I experienced as a child. I came to her afraid to breathe. She said, “Terese, what will happen if you breathe?” I told her I would cry. “So cry,” she said. For the first time in my life I found myself weeping, grieving for my own childhood.
The next step was reconciliation. She tapped my kneecaps, one after the other. My eyes moved like a pendulum. She had me remember a safe place in my mind which was the corn stalks outside my childhood home. I remembered the place, a place where wild dogs run now. My childhood home: 40 acres of corn, blueberry bushes, healing wild strawberries and plum trees. She told me to go there every so often, to give levity to the very hard things I was dealing with: the past.
I am in the midst of my healing, but I wanted to share that with my readership. Heal, women and sisters. We can heal from our trauma, and yes, it does damage a continuum of Native writing by acknowledging we have drunken fathers, complicit mothers, and problems with alcohol. But through reconciliation we can develop that continuum by sharing what’s beyond our very common pain: individual narrative and experiences that make us human. I am so much more than what my father did to me.
Native men, witness my story. Some of you were the brothers, feeding your little sisters empty bottles, throwing yourself in front of fists to protect your mothers. I see your pain as well.
One task I’m currently on now, thanks to my counselor, is dealing with my ‘inner child,’ a hokey term, I know. She had me buy a teddy bear, about the size of my six-year-old self. I am to hold the bear as I would hold myself, to say everything will be okay, and that the trauma is over now. I urge women in healing to do this as well. There has never been anything more liberating than holding my small self to say things will get better.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I simply want to share my human journey with you. I suspect many Native people are dealing with generational trauma. I can’t say why my father hurt me. I learned months ago that he had been incarcerated for abducting a girl of fourteen before he had me. I can say that he was born into a home of violence himself. I can say that as Native people, we have been subject to tremendous degradation, and that our men have been emasculated by the law, the treaties, and the missions. As I work to understand my own pain, my fathers, and my culture within this problem, I want to say this is a journey worthwhile. If only all of us Natives could hold ourselves, witness our struggles, and see that the reconciliation is part of our progress. I believe when I come out of this, I will somehow understand white supremacy and my own identity better.
All my relations to those women and men who identify with my story. You are not alone.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in The Offing and Burrow Press Review. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an SWAIA Fellow.