We call it "Indian sick" where I'm from. It's when your body and mind are overcome with hurt and fear. It's when your spirit is overtaken by the ugliness of the world around you. Your heart sinks into your gut and your breathing is slow and arduous. What spirit you have left is spent on getting through the day. It is a cancerous illness that matriculates through the mind, into the blood and makes you run cold with grief and anger.
I'm Indian sick over the loss of a precious Indian girl named Paige. She was found overdosed in a public bathroom stall, according to the article, “B.C. Youth Representative Criticizes Province for Aboriginal Teen's Death,” which was featured in the Huffington Post. The article also states the girl had slipped through the fingers of authorities 17 times. Columnist, Laura Kane states that Paige “…was found unconscious on sidewalks and transit buses. Once, paramedics pulled her from a basement with a 14-year-old friend who was naked and covered in blood. A police officer warned she may be hurt or killed while drunk.”
This isn't simply a problem for Native Americans born in Canada. According to the White House's 2014 Native Youth Report, “... among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of substance dependence or abuse was higher among American Indians/Alaska Natives than any other population group. … an estimated 38.7 percent of Native adolescents aged 12 to 17 years had a lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use. Compared with the national average … Native adolescents had the highest rates of … non-medical use of prescription-type psychotherapeutics.” They credit these disparities to the lack of genuine tribal control, lack of Native languages and culture within Native-serving institutions, and the insufficient systems of care to better address the needs of Native youth.
According to Kane, “'Paige's files are rife with examples of situations in which workers seemed to throw up their hands and declare: 'What can we do?' rather than doing everything that was in their power.'” The wanton disregard for Indian life is creating a sense of fear, distrust, and anger among Indian women throughout North America. I see my nieces in every photo of an Indian woman who has gone missing, or was found dead in a river. I rock myself in tears, between these lines I write, at the thought of an Indian girl in the street or walking along a highway without a fierce protector.
I have to fast. I have to pray. I have to donate to Our Sisters in Spirit, so they can use their medium of film, to call for the inquiry of our missing women. I have to continue to keep an eye out for the faces I see on the posters. I have to tell my cousins they're sacred beings, whose potential is unmatched by our adoration. I have to do all this for the sake of my sanity.
What's more, I have to raise my sons to be warriors. I have to encourage them to fight against the sexualization of our women. I have to tell them that when someone calls them girly, or disrespects our women, they have an obligation to our lineage to explain how powerful we are. For the sake of their spirits and my own, I have to give them courage and not a sense of defeat.
In ceremony, in discourse, in activism, in unity, we can save lives. When you see a young Indian girl on the street who has the bright searching eyes of a lost child, give them your gaze, give them your compassion. No Indian girl should be in the street, feeling indifferent about her livelihood, because nobody cares where they are, or if they're sleeping in a bed that night.
According to Kane, Paige had a devoted Aunt, who tried to work through the system to protect her, but the system failed her just like it does for many of our kids. In her adolescence, Paige had a keen look about her, as if she had seen the world in all its darkness and light. In her girlhood, she had a look of vulnerability and excitement. I've seen so many Indian girls fall through the cracks.
Who of us hasn't met a street-smart Indian girl with intellect, whose spirit is vulnerable to exploitation and brutality. These young survivors are on the front-line of the socioeconomic war against us. They struggle every day, searching our eyes for respect, compassion, and protection. These women are my sisters. When I was in foster care, we stayed with non-Native families. Many of us were from broken homes, impoverished homes, homes with loving parents who were too damaged by the world, homes with no love and no regard, or homes where they had to be the mothers to themselves and their brothers.
We are very much a collective people. I only see my sister happy when she knows her siblings and children are okay. My cousins are only content on holidays, when the whole family is present. I never saw my mother as happy as the year she was able to buy gifts for all of her family on Christmas. My cousins pride themselves in coming back from a salmon-run with a stockpile to give out to everyone they know. I tell all my friends back home that my success is theirs. My strength is from their light.
The beauty and reverence of our people is struck by the ugliness of violence against us. It strikes me down once again, with the death of this beautiful girl. What I wouldn't give to have run into Paige at a bus stop, or to have seen her smart eyes alone and wanting. I would have given her a safe place to rest her body. I would have given her an ear, even if her words were of anger and bitterness towards the people who failed her. Maybe she would reject my compassion, because she sees danger in every stranger. All I can do now is pray, fast, communicate, protect the Paiges I see, love harder and give more. I'm in mourning at home, looking to my people for strength. Asking my sons to smile, because it has to get better. We have to value each day because our people are leaving the earth too soon. Our women are walking on too quickly, before they actualize their potentials, before we can revel in their light, before we can tell them we're here. This sickness in my being can only be rectified by love and action. I'll be sick today, until I act against the illness that tells me it is our lot to go missing --- it is our lot to be hurt. Injustice won't break me down, only inaction can do that.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and the Fraser River. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work, “Heart Berries,” can be found in Carve magazine, and her story, “House Party,” is forthcoming in Yellow Medicine Review.