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Surviving Racism Through Storytelling - Pacific Standard
A Native writer struggling against the ignorance of white culture finds that her stories are her lifeline, her wounds are her power, and though the scales have been weighted against her in almost every way, there are many reasons to survive.

I used to will chaos into my life. It was a gift of sorts. Mother said I was born to Thunder—which is an element of chaos and liberation in my culture. I have always believed that an electric chaos ran through my blood.

"It's a gift to be born this way," my mother said, the first time I told her that I had a terrible dream of a large wheel spinning before me. It would not stop. "That is Thunder. This is a gift."

She saw the world differently, and I by proxy. Her willful nature to name the world as she saw it, not how they wanted us to see it, made me believe in the power of being an indigenous woman.

On one of our drives along the Fraser River, I asked her, "Is Sasquatch real?"

"His name is Sásq'ets. That is your brother," she said.

Mother's chiding brought to mind stories she gave me as a child. "Bigfoot" was a complicated man as I knew him—a thief, but part of an animal world. When he stole food from the fish camps along the river, my people recognized that was just the Sásq'ets tax. Like when a baby black bear climbed the tree in our front lawn on the rez. He was eye-level to my mother and me from the living room window. He watched us as we waited for his mother to come and get him. When his mother showed, she sat around. My mother took out her drum and started banging it, and then the pots and pans. Still nothing. We just had to wait for them to leave, and then my mother said, "I guess this was their home first." The bears left us alone and did not come back that way again.

She believed the natural world was familial. She saw our stories and myths as realities, and regarded every thing as a property worth protecting. I no longer know the beauty in that mindset; I only felt the power of it when I was in range of her. She felt a sense of belonging in the mountains, and would go alone to fast for several days at a time. No cavern or dark bothered her. She built her own fires, cultivated her own spaces, and never took from the land without making an offering first. It was a practice of power—as I know power to be: knowledge and understanding, with certainty and without shame.

I stopped believing in our power, in our Creator, and in our ancestors' looming spirits when my mother passed because I could no longer feel them—not the beating heart of the Earth, nor the surging of the river, nor my ancestors. My mother was my medicine bundle, and the blood of my holy life—and I felt the slip of the Earth, watching her pass.

And then, at a dinner for authors, where I was asked to present my first book, a memoir, and sign 150 copies, I met a man describing his research on "bigfoot."

"Is this about the mythology behind bigfoot?" a children's book author asked him. "I love myths."

"In some ways," he said.

This photograph originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

This photograph originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

He was an elderly man, who was generous and sweet to me, but as he started talking about his book, he kept prefacing with, "The Native Americans believe...," over and over, as if we were one homogenous group. It struck me as mildly offensive, because I was uncertain if he knew at least one Native American was at the table sitting next to him, cutting her bread and buttering it. This man had done extensive work with indigenous communities and was, most likely, only trying to impart knowledge to non-Natives in their language: coding for a room that doesn't appreciate the distinction between different sovereign nations in North America, and how our stories and beliefs are sometimes similar, but never the same. Native people are often absent from or uninvited to events like these, so it might not have struck him as insensitive, but I wondered if he would ever say, "The whites believe...." I often have to couch statements in this framework before I speak, in order to choose my words correctly, or decide if the offense is even worth noting. Because Native people are so underrepresented, and so often forgotten, I must ask myself, "What if anyone spoke like this about white people?" Like how is it possible to have a racist caricature like the Redskins, so overt and publicly defended, and where is the outrage? Is it because we're so underrepresented nobody is concerned with offending us?

When someone said: "Terese is First Nations. Isn't that right?" the white authors around the table all turned to me.

"Yes," I said. "Bigfoot is a pejorative in my culture. He has a name."

As I said it I became angry. This "myth' was my brother, and a white man was utilizing our stories without respecting our sovereignty. I was upset that discussing "the Native Americans" was so interesting, and such a novelty, as if we weren't living and breathing at that very table. We don't even call these stories myths, unless we are speaking to people from outside of our culture. The invention of myth is a white thing, and it's often used to diminish the dynamism and functions of our work as storytellers and artists.

But then it rung true: I claimed my brother in this moment. I claimed our people. I felt my mother's presence in the room, and then felt her fade away as the white people moved on to discussing their favorite myths: fairies, leprechauns, and the like. What entertains them is not entertaining for me, but my lifeblood.

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In my creative writing program there were Native and non-Native faculty teaching us how to cultivate our stories. During our graduate residency, I heard a Hopi-Laguna man defending his thesis. He was talking about how to incorporate myth into our contemporary fiction, which is a delicate thing. Native writers must sometimes adhere to protocol when using a story from our nation, or we must get permission to use a story from the speaker we heard it from, and sometimes we come from nations like mine, which accepts that story is meant to be shared. As this man was imparting the very delicate nature of honoring a story, and how high the stakes are, and why he's chosen to use a certain myth, a white author who wrote speculative fiction raised her hand and said: "I love myths. Look at my screen saver!" It was a unicorn.

She looked to me like the epitome of an East Coast writer: impeccably dressed, sharp, and content with herself. Of course I resented this, stumbling as I am when I walk into a room or try to impart why her sharpness confounds me. Her being able to enjoy fanciful things somehow intrudes on my sensibilities, because I suspect that people like her have never had to walk into a food bank where everyone knows your whole family. It shames me to be this judgmental, but it's always there in my mind—scanning the room for people like myself, and people who won't understand. Some part of me resents how angry I am with white women who love unicorns, who don't see the true nature of our stories, or consider what we do as something more than ancient.

Native writers tend to avoid the word sacred, as we have marked it "too familiar," because we don't want to write the expected, or border on cliché, but these stories are quite sacred to me, and they have been maltreated for some time.

There is power in the reclamation of story—in the remembrance that these stories are real and tangible things, like my mother.

What Native writers do is art, both practical and sacred, as I know sacred to be.

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We have a story in my culture about a "Wild Woman" or "Mosquito Woman" or "Cannibal Woman." Her name is Th'owxeya and she came down from the mountain with a basket on her back. She took children away, and, if they were rotten, she ate them in her cave.

The stories vary, but the one I grew up with, the one told to me numerous times by my elders and the women in my home, was that Th'owxeya would take me away if I was out when the mosquitoes came.

They told me that little children were playing by the lake and then fell asleep on stones in the daylight. The eldest boy woke up to see Th'owxeya coming down her mountain. He could not wake up the little children, so he stayed behind to help them survive. The eldest take care of the younger ones, no matter what. This was a lesson I was taught early, from this story, and from babysitting my nieces and nephews—who were newborns when I was not yet a woman—protecting babies while their mother was out drinking. And I was happy to do it, for what felt like years. Soon after, I had my own babies, too young—and I say, with some pride, that I have taught myself, through story, how to do better by my children than those who came before me.

I remember one time the story of Th'owxeya was told to me in a circle, among other children—my cousins—and even though the story was about cannibalism and loneliness, the elder was soft-spoken and eager as she told us how Th'owxeya came down the mountain and put the children in her basket. Th'owxeya had a magical speed and strength, but a little boy in the bottom of the basket held a clam shell in his hand and began to carve a hole in the bottom to escape. He fell through, and, one by one, several little children followed. One boy, he could not fit. The children above him understood their fates if they did not devise a plan.

Th'owxeya took the remaining children to her cave, and had them line up so she could glue their eyes shut with pine pitch. The eldest was the smartest, and he whispered that they should not shut their eyes so tight. Some of them squinted, and therefore were not blinded by the glue. Th'owxeya danced around the fire and the eldest encouraged her, telling her how much he loved when she sang—when she danced. He whispered to all the children that when she came around close enough they should push her in—and they did.

She cried and asked them to pull her out of the fire.

"We are," they said, but they did not.

Some people say she sang her song in the fire. When the flame took her, she became a cloud of mosquitoes.

Rule of thumb: When the mosquitoes come out, go inside. The buzzing is her song.

We know now, as a people, that though she is gone, there are many others who take our children away—the truckers and lecherous men who asked me if I needed a ride every time I walked along the highway to school or town, the social workers who still do not believe we are capable of raising our children.

When I was a child, I was intelligent enough to know a story does not breathe without engagement. Stagnant myths, or stories that exist without an active audience, they lose their power. When I was a child in the circle, I assumed Th'owxeya was not all bad. I assumed she had been raped, and that's why she lived up in the mountain in a cave like that. As a girl, from a reservation like mine, I assumed most women around me had been raped, and that most stories were burdened with that implicit truth.

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In many ways, I am "Wild Woman," as the white men call her. In many ways, I am the eldest child, and the boy with the clam shell, and the fire itself. In many ways, these icons, deities, beasts, and holy beings are my only family now. Invoking them conjures my mother—admiring the beauty in my culture seems to conjure her too.

I've always been drawn to the story of "Wild Woman," because I feared it was my own. I often felt like an outcast as a child, and found solace in isolation. To escape the brutality of my home life, I often locked myself in our basement. In my mother's darkest moments, I could hear her outside my room, behind my door, shouting obscenities and telling me I wasn't anything at all. On the worst days, the only thing I could do was lodge butter knives in the doorway to keep her out—many children I knew did this.

Finding shelter in my dark room made me a more sinister character, I think, when I consider my origin and cannot remember any good stories to tell. Some people can't come to the light. I was the victim of sexual violence, and could not speak out against my father, not even to my mother. She was never ready to hear how she had failed to see the signs, or never thought what we endured was enough to leave him, until it was too much—and the police got involved. I understood, in my silenced time, how a woman could leave her home and dwell in a cave, and eventually learn to resent the beauty of children—to resent their innocence, even. There was a time I couldn't look at happy children because I couldn’t bear it. I saw Th'owxeya's nature as one cultivated by the brutality of the world around her.

In many ways I am a broken woman who serves as a reminder that the world can be brutal to Indian children, and women. I often feel as if that is my role in my communities. My history feels brutal, unspeakable even, and sometimes carrying the weight of it makes me feel like a monster who refuses the cave.

My mother on her best days was constantly making an inventory of her children's gifts and traits, trying to discern how we would serve our community when we grew up. To prepare me to be powerful, she often took me to women's ceremonies. She taught me songs and asked me to sing them as we drove from valley to valley to pick medicine, or visit elders. She raised all of us this way—traveling with us in our formative years to understand where we shined and what our interests were. When my father left, she became a better mother tenfold. I believe he stifled her with his presence, and she became liberated by his abandonment of us.

My father was incarcerated when he met my mother, who was doing outreach at the time. She encouraged imprisoned Native men to write and draw, or seek an education. It was always rumored he was in for assault. He was a monster, according to many.

I look at myself and see a lineage of monstrous desire and compulsion and beauty and power. When my mother said I was born to Thunder, she believed life would be hard for me, because Thunder is a liberator, and liberating is hard and thankless work. She believed I would disrupt things, but the world would be better for it. Thunder shakes and re-forms the composition of the space it occupies, and lightning is the product of its music. It is disruptive and wholly welcome.

It was a gift to have a mother who believed a disruptive woman is a gift to the world. Now that I am older, I've embraced my power in a room.

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Some white people, after they find out I am Native, say things like, "I knew a Native American once." Or they impart to me some story about attending a powwow, or they ask probing questions I feel unprepared for about my culture or language. I tend to feel angry or resigned in these forced conversations. When I get angry, I become a type of brown battle-axe, and I resent it. I have learned to avoid these conversations at all costs.

In my creative writing program, there was a teacher, a white woman, who had always been polite with me, but we rarely spoke. Perhaps I avoided her. After I graduated, she wrote a blurb for a white man's book, a friend of my husband's, saying the book was like, "Wallace Stegner on peyote, Nathanael West in a sweat lodge, Larry McMurtry on a vision quest." I was raised to practice sweat lodge ceremonies, and my mother was a healer, a pipe-carrier. She was a woman who built a sweat lodge for her community, and practiced the traditions. The woman who wrote that blurb, I believe, used those traditions as devices to inject something wild into the Stegner-like craft of the writer she was promoting. She was making an allusion, intentional or not, to the supposed savagery of Native cultures, and how they liberate ethnic enthusiasts in need of a "vision quest." We call people who do this cultural tourists. They appropriate our practices to serve their own liberations.

I confronted the issue of the book blurb in a public forum, and it spurred a discourse that eventually resulted in her stepping down from my school's faculty. There were other reasons for her departure, but my complaints were much more overt and public than those other complaints or rumors. The only thing I heard, constantly, was that I was being harsh, or cruel, to not "fix" this, or speak out against her in a less public way. I felt like it was my fault she left. I felt monstrous. As if it had been my duty to bring her into the circle, like an ambassador, to help her understand, and speak to her like my sister, but, instead, I chose to be angry, to speak brutally, or be self-righteous. I felt savage.

Even Indians were upset with my callousness. Some told me that in the old days we'd have executed restorative justice and healing with her. But I knew Salish women did not operate this way, not where I'm from. I had watched my mother live through things like this—experiences with white people who deemed her too harsh, or callous. Which she might have been, but racism is harsh to witness—it callouses us. My mother experienced a lot of racism as she was growing up, where we were relegated to a reservation and bused in to the white town for school. She used to tell me about the white children throwing rocks at her and her mother. I witnessed much of that racism myself. As a child, I remember my mother and I often weren't served quickly, if at all, in certain stores, and doctors rarely believed we were ill when we were, and my mother was often patronized by hairdressers, mechanics, or service-people who seemed to resent having to serve a Native woman. My mother did not tolerate this treatment, and lashed out, every time. It was exhausting to watch. She swore at people, called them out, or she complained to managers, who could not acknowledge racism, but sometimes apologized for the lack of service or outright disrespect.

It's difficult to acknowledge this, but I find myself experiencing this same exhaustion as a woman now, when my child and I are followed in certain stores, or when someone will serve my white husband before they acknowledge me.

Where I'm from, women received clubs and nets as a rite of passage, one item for protecting ourselves and the other for providing. We take care of our own, still, and are not so welcoming to those who betray us. When white men embezzle money from our nation, they are asked to leave, and when someone in our community hurts our children, and isn't registered to our band, that person is asked to never return. My father was forbidden from returning to my land after he was forced to leave my mother. We banish where I'm from, and, at worst, have been known to maim. There is a story that my grandmother had tried to pay for the murder of my father, when he would not leave our house. I think of all of this when I consider how difficult it is for me to be fair, or calculated, or good to someone like the writer of the culturally insensitive comment now gracing the cover of a white man's book.

The natural progression of my mother's beliefs is that this woman is part of this natural world. She is my sister. I've had to come to terms with this now—that, while my anger was warranted and my voice valid, the way in which I treated my sister was not good for the world. It brought me pain, where it could have brought peace.

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On the day I sold my book, my cousin Tyler, who had been adopted out, and, like me, wanted to know who our family was, wrote to say he found out why my father went to prison. Tyler said that my father's sister had turned him in because he, along with other men, were frequently—for a long period of time—sexually abusing children in the family home, where my paternal grandmother was often incoherently drunk. The duplicity I carry in myself, in having these two stories laid out so incongruently alongside each other—it is how I believe Thunder works. Disruptive and natural—part of me is chaotic, and I cannot escape it. I felt as though the myth of myself had been born on this day, when I could have the things I strived desperately for, but would always carry with them the weight of my history—and that, in order to liberate myself and women like me, I must acknowledge that my history is my gift. It disrupts the good in my world, but with purpose.

Sometimes the myths and stories get mixed up. Sometimes "Cannibal Woman" and "Mosquito Woman" are different myths, with separate stories, and sometimes white men take our stories and make them their own. I think about this when I think of my father, Ken—a name that still terrifies me when I see it or hear it—and Th'owxeya, these figures who serve many purposes, some brutal. All of these stories are maltreated, or used as moral tales: Don't go outside, or Th'oxweya will get you! Don't end up like your father, a drunk, an abuser of people. Don't die violently, like your father did. Don't love bad men, like your mother did. The stories serve their functions.

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My work became my power. After finishing the book, I was offered the first Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellowship at Purdue University, where I'm paid to simply write, to generate work. No more food banks, only abundance. I send money to my family, and we plan vacations—no more food banks for any of us.

I was also offered a faculty position at the institution I graduated from. "Your stories are your power," I say to my students. But on my first day back on campus as a teacher, a white man pointed his finger at me and indicted me for being cruel with the writer of the book blurb, among other things. In front of our colleagues, he shamed me for participating in call-out culture, but it felt as though what he was really saying was, "Shut your mouth." The man had been my mentor once and wrote me letters of reference. He was one of the first white men who ever really called me intelligent. Who asked to read my work. And now I was someone he saw as a problem. I realized then that the work I had been doing to make people who believed in me proud wasn't always going to make them proud. I did not have the courage yet to own that I wouldn't be everyone's success story. I had experienced this type of shame before, but not as an established woman—not as the woman who broke away from violence, poverty, and silence to become one of the first Native people to graduate from the program and get a book deal.

I cried in the meeting. I was humiliated and scared. I was a reckless, overly emotional brown person on her first day, already a problem. After I cried, two white women expressed how they needed safe spaces to make mistakes. None of the white people openly empathized with me. They seemed offput by my emotionality—they could not make eye contact, except for the man, who still seemed angry. Later that week, in front of many indigenous students, one of those white women dedicated a reading to the woman who wrote the blurb. It didn't provoke me. It hurt to feel that outcast in a space that exists to serve Native writers. It felt like the cost of noting racism, and never doing things the right way, for being Thunder, for being human too. I know that I am discordant, but then, maybe all Indians existing after an attempted genocide feel like a disruption or an anomaly.

The experience only hurled me toward my power. My outspokenness was a hindrance, I knew, but why write, I thought, if I would not be a disruption?

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There was a moment at the river with my mother long ago, when I asked her why we pray. She told me that prayer was not begging, or asking for things, but an expression of gratitude for the way things are. She looked at me, and behind her the river was not rushing. There were so many spirals in the current of the river, and many undertows.

She saw what I was staring at. "That is your power too," she said. "The undertow can drown people." I knew she was pointing to the chaos of what we cannot see, and that the undercurrent—the chaos and conflict beneath every surface—is necessary.

Sometimes, all I have is the power that she gave me—and the stories too. There might not be some mythological magic to me as a human being, but there is a reason I am drawn to spirals, to spinning things, to the disruptive nature of story, and to speaking out.

I am Thunder Woman, born to brutalities against me. I am Silence Breaking Woman. When I am told not to speak, by my father or anyone, there is a wielding thing turning inside of me that cannot be contained. It is a calling to be gifted with voice.

As an Indian woman, I feel a responsibility to be hard on the world, but love it as familial. I feel a responsibility to be hard on myself as well. I am both fallible and a gift. Even our perceived heroes are monstrous and imperfect sometimes. How easily Th'owxeya's story could have been different, had she made her cave a sanctuary of safety for children who needed a home. How different would the world be without mosquitoes or men like my father. In every person there is a myth, waiting. There are many reasons to survive.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. It was first published online on April 18th, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members. To receive online versions of our print stories in advance, join Pacific Standard Premium.

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