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'Why Am I Crying?' False Lightning and Buried Emotions

I remember being dragged to Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) meetings when I was a little boy. My mom would bundle me up and take me on the bus to downtown Seattle and from there we’d transfer to Madison Park or Beacon Hill or Rainier Valley. I never knew where she was taking me. The meetings were held in different homes each month; every member took a turn hosting one.

Usually they were held on Saturday afternoons, but sometimes on Friday evenings. I hated going to the evening meetings. Traveling by bus when it was dark scared me. I couldn’t tell where we were going. I would look out the window into the darkness of some strange neighborhood and wonder if we were going to get lost and never be found.

Sometimes we took trolley buses that were connected to overhead wires. In the darkness the connecting pole would send out sparks as it crossed other wires at an intersection, momentarily producing a mini lightning flash. The bus would lumber around a corner and I’d hear a muffled crash and pop and there’d be a flash. I’d look at my mom’s face and she’d smile.

The Alaska Native Sisterhood and the Alaska Native Brotherhood were once powerful civil rights organizations that fought for Alaska Natives. Back in the 60s they mainly fought for settlement of the Alaska Native Land Claims. My mom served for several years as the president of the Seattle Camp and was an active member for as long as I can recall.

The meetings were held in working-class homes. My mom and I would arrive and give our potluck dish to the hostess. Then I’d look around for other children and I’d run off and play with them. I only remember male children at these meetings. I’m sure there were daughters within the families of the members, but they never came to the meetings. Only little boys like me were dragged to them.

The children were mostly the grandchildren of the ANS sisters. I never once saw any young parents with their kids. Not one young mother. Not one young father. Just older people and kids. A whole generation was missing. I thought that the children at the ANS meetings were somehow bad and had been abandoned and left with their grandparents to be raised.

Somewhere out there lived the missing young parents, out there in the world the TV showed us, the world dominated by Caucasian models who showed us what to buy to be happy. Somewhere out there was the real world we saw in the commercials, filled with beauty and youth, where money bought status, fun, and excitement. The missing parents had somehow been sucked away by this vacuum cleaner of consumerism.

And “us boys” were left behind to work out our frustrations. My father was Caucasian and old. He was 47 when I was born. He worked nights as a janitor and I rarely saw him. So I fit right in with the abandoned boys. I did not want to be one of them. I’d remind myself that I had a father. They didn’t. I wasn’t like them!

But I was just like them, no different. That’s why I hated them so much.

My memories include a fight that starts up among us boys. Two brothers struggle over a toy as I watch. There’s yelling and scuffling. The outburst frightens me. I back away. Tears leap up from my gut, but I push them back down. I want them to stop fighting. I feel anger all around us like water in the sea. It must be kept down. It can’t be let out. Don’t let it out. Be good or…

Or what? I knew the answer but never spoke it out loud. Be good or father will abandon you, too. Be good or you’ll become just another lost Tlingit boy like the boys at the ANS meetings.

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My mom and two other moms burst into the room where we’re playing. They separate the brothers and sort out the conflict. When things quiet down they discover me in the corner, crying. My mom asks me what’s wrong.

I can’t tell her because I don’t know. I just want to get away from this horrible house and go home where all our secret feelings are kept locked away, buried underneath TV, radio, and magazine ads. Paradise taunts us with its caucasian images of beauty and status. We pretend it doesn’t bother us that we look different. We’ve become good at pretending. We pretend so hard we begin to believe that we really are normal and happy.

But at the ANS meetings it’s not so easy to pretend. The boys look like me, not like all my white friends at church and school. They’re marked by their high cheekbones, black hair, and dark complexion, just like mine. Their fathers are physically absent, just like my father is emotionally absent. They have anger inside just like I do. Only they let theirs out now and then. I never let mine out.

I struggle to give my mom an answer she will accept. Why am I crying? She looks me over to see if I’m hurt. I look into the annoyance in her eyes. We’ve interrupted the meeting. What can I say? I can’t tell her the truth. I know why I’m crying, but the feelings don’t form into words. The feelings stay stuck in my throat, unformed.

I open my mouth. The words are almost there. I look at my mom’s chubby cheeks and wide nose. She knits her eyebrows waiting for an answer. Can I say it? I’m almost there. The feelings are becoming words. I tremble as the words start to form. I push them out of my mouth but they won’t budge. The other mothers and their boys are now staring at me. I have to say it. I may never get another chance!

I hate you! I hate you 'cuz you’re Indian! I hate being Indian! I hate you ‘cuz you made me Indian!

I wish I had really said those words, but I never did. I just choked up and resumed crying. Finally, one of the fighting brothers said, “The other boys were hitting him.” My mom accepted this and hugged me. I hugged her back, sobbing into her shoulder, reveling in the wave of love that followed the moment of venting. I cried at how much I hated her. I cried at how much I loved her. I cried at being in this prison of love and hate. It was the prison that the missing, young parents of my playmates had escaped from long ago.

My mom let me spend the rest of the meeting out in the living room with the grown-ups. They were electing delegates to go to the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood convention in Alaska. After the meeting we eat from a potluck buffet that includes dry fish and herring eggs, some of my favorite Indian food. I resume playing with the other boys. They don’t hold it against me that I was crying. The look in their eyes seems to say, “Hey, coulda just as easily been one of us crying. We understand.” In this way we become our own fathers.

Finally my mom and I disappear into the night. The trolley bus lumbers through the darkness, clicking and flashing on the overhead wires. The false lightning illuminates the empty intersections like flashes of hidden emotion. Click, click, click go the wires above. Flash, flash, flash goes the false lightning. Don’t let it out. Keep it inside or…

Or what?

Frank Hopper (Tlingit, Kagwaantaan clan) is a freelance writer born in Juneau, Alaska. His work has appeared in the Tlingit website, Lingit Latseen; in the political website, Attack the System, and in Autonomy Cascadia, a Journal of Bioregional Decolonization. He lives in Seattle.