I often think about how so many of us out here in the world don’t have any true sense of cultural identity! Being such a melting pot of cultures constantly crossing paths through relationships lasting and failed often leads to many young ones with multi racial heritage, myself and my own son included!
Yet unlike my son I was put up for adoption at birth and adopted by a “white” family! Off the reservation and away from anything related to my bloodlines other than the occasional indians we would meet here and there.
From a young age I knew I was different from my siblings and soon figured out I was “Indian”, that I was adopted and somewhere out there in the big ole world I had a sister and a mom and possibly a whole other family out there!
And from a young age I felt lost and alone and displaced! I never felt like I fit in anywhere, even within my family.
A little brown kid in a white family. So I read everything I could get my hands on about “American Indians” and filled my head with daydreams and nightmares about a people I didn’t know but felt a strange sense of connection with. My mom and stepdad would encourage me and would help me get books about all sorts of tribes and personal stories. I was fully immersed in the gathering of knowledge, at least in what was written. I found that some stories are harder to find because they contain truths that some would rather just forget, because they are shameful, tragic and just downright sickening!
Stories of massacres, Indian schools and the atrocities committed within those walls, stories of constant struggle and hardship that can’t even be defined with words!
Somehow I could relate, somehow that pain was embedded into every cell in my body waiting to implode.
I moved here and there with my mom and my sisters and her various boyfriends all throughout MT, ID, and WA. I finally ended up moving in with my Dad in a little town of Lincoln, MT. My first taste of prejudice towards me!
I remember walking into the store, I had a few bucks in my pocket, was about to be rich in sweets and comics. Then the guy behind the counter said I had to go, only paying customers. I showed him my money, he didn’t care, he called me a nigger and chased me out.
I remember wondering what I had done wrong and what was a nigger? I just knew it was wrong and it made me feel wrong inside and all over! I held it in and didn’t tell anyone, least of all my Dad cause I wanted him to be proud of me, I didn’t want him to have a nigger son.
Then I started school! Wow, felt like everyday I was playing cowboys and indians and by the time I finally got to be a cowboy everyone else wanted to be an indian so couldn’t win for losing.
At least I wasn’t the only brown kid in town, there was a Hmong family there and we clicked pretty well! I was there a lot.
I remember this kid in my class invited me over to spend the night at his house. We were playing outside and his mom called him into the house and I could see her pointing in my direction and she didn’t seem to happy. He came outside and told me his mom said I couldn’t stay the night and he put his head down and ran back inside. Again I was left wondering what I had done wrong!
In school I got into a lot of fights! At least once or twice a week before, during and after school. Some kids didn’t like me and called me a wagonburner, spearchucker, and the worst of all…… prairie nigger! First time I heard that one it took me back to that day at the store, maybe that guy was just too stupid to add the prairie to it but either way it hurt!
I felt ashamed to be indian, even if I didn’t know what that even meant at the time.
My first summer I met Maxine, she was Colville from Washington. She was an older lady who sold fireworks out of the back of her car around the fourth of July. She made me feel comfortable being just me when I was around her. She had a nephew named Billy who was schizophrenic and had two different personalities, so it was like having two friends in one! So it turned out I wasn’t the only one in town like me. There were others but it seemed they had all forgotten what it was like to be indian so they couldn’t teach me much other than go to school and do as I was told or there might be trouble. They had assimilated.
For a small town there was a lot of trouble brewing here and there within the hearts and minds of the youth. Broken windows, vandalism, the usual youth in revolt type stuff, the only thing was I seemed to get the blame for the most of it. The sheriff always came to my house asking questions. So I always felt guilty even if I hadn’t done anything. Seemed like everyone in town thought I was a bad kid, after awhile I believed it as well! So I figured in my young mind if that’s what they thought then so be it! I learned to live up to others expectations! I became a walking, talking, stereotype of sorts.
I became mean and my words became arrows that could pierce those weak hearts and make them cry tears of blood! I became angry and outspoken and it didn’t matter who I said what too as long as they hurt like me! School became a prison and often I would skip school and go down to the river.
I found a bald eagle’s nest high up on this broken ponderosa and sometimes I would spend a whole day watching her soar around. She was my solace from the pain of school.
Funny, I don’t think I ever got in trouble for skipping school.
Trouble came easy, especially if I didn’t have to do anything to get in trouble. The things I did do were petty and it wasn’t til I was twelve that I got in “big” trouble. I didn’t really do anything other than scare the shit out of some people in the middle of the night but it was enough. The sheriff told me I was going to the juvenile detention center til I was 18 so I ran. First I ran to the end of a bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet, nothing happened right away so I ran to the end of a short piece of rope but that fell out of the ceiling and I lay there gasping for breathe, scared and alone. I ran away from home. I was going to go live in the mountains like the hermits in the area, except I would be an outlaw and raise all sorts of hell and live off the land. I could’ve, my dad, and a lot of the old timers in the area taught me how. I was going to steal a horse from the neighbors but I couldn’t bring myself to do it cause they were good people and were always nice to me. So off I went, funny though from almost everywhere I was at I could catch a glimpse of the house. After eating a gopher and falling out of a tree I went home. I think that’s the first time my stepmom ever gave me hug.
Went back to school and life went on other than having to go to a group home for an evaluation during the summer.
While there I met other indian kids from broken homes without any sense of identity just like myself.
I met Kenyon and I thought he was pretty cool! He didn’t seem to care about much of anything and did what he wanted. Rules didn’t apply to him, I wanted to be like him. He was indian like me and like me he had been adopted by a white family and like me he was probably too smart for his own good. He was abandoned by his mother though in an alley way and somehow he knew that and it fueled the fire inside of him.
He was a couple years older than me and we hung out a lot. He taught me two things the first being “It doesn’t Fu@#ing matter what others think of you, it matters what you think of you!” His words exactly! The second thing he taught me was how to smoke a cigarette! I never saw him again, maybe he was just a dream.
Life went on and I was in and out of trouble and eventually it added up to being given an ultimatum by the youth court judge! None of the choices seemed too appealing so I chose to go to jobcore. That’s where I met Leo and a bunch of other indians.
That place was crazy intense! People from all walks of life from all over the place and they were all divided and separated into subgroups because of gang affiliations, skin color, race, ignorance and divided and subdivided again! Invisible lines that if crossed could cut your throat or never let you go!
Leo was from the Navajo reservation and he taught me the value of friendship, laughter, silence, unity and self respect.
I went to my first pow-wow down there in Utah and ate my first piece of frybread and kissed my first Native honey and all in one night!
Getting to know the other natives was interesting because for some reason they would open up and tell me things about their lives that they hadn’t told anyone else, such as being adopted out and raised by “white” families! I learned I wasn’t alone and there are many out there like me, displaced and trying to find their ways home.
I also learned a lot about drugs of all sorts and realized it wasn’t the best situation for me so I left. When I made it back to Lincoln I had learned there was an indian family that had moved there. We clicked right away. They were from the Rosebud reservation. We grew pretty close and when they moved they wanted me to come with them. Sometimes I wonder how life would be different if I had?
So back to school and living up to expectations of what people thought of me! Eventually I got myself kicked out of high school a few months before graduation because of my outspokenness! What was I supposed to do though? Not say a word after the teacher had sat there and told my friend not to hang out with me cause I was bad news and that I would never amount to anything and that I would be stuck in that town forever? What kind of teacher says that about their students? Mr. Roland Croghan that’s who! After hearing everything he said I confronted him and told him exactly what I thought of his advice. I got suspended until further notice.
He wrote up some kind of petition and had the other teachers sign it, all verifying what a bad kid I was! I read the petition because his pass word was too easy to figure out and the majority of it was complete and utter B.S.! I was even more surprised to see some of the signatures on the petition!
I remember I had to meet with the schoolboard for some kind of hearing to see if I could come back to school and graduate! No such luck!
My parents kicked me out since I got kicked out of school! Pretty harsh time to be homeless in the middle of winter, alone and scared and shunned by my peers.
That was my youth in a nutshell! No happy graduation moments or prom pics, just disappointment and anger!
No sense of self whatsoever! No sense of pride! No sense of belonging to anyone or anything! Just misguided anger and frustration followed by separation and loss and sadness! Followed by more of the same!
Then after I had gotten into trouble once again, this time as an official young adult, I moved to Spokane. My sister helped me get into this Native youth program which still runs today. Here I met Vaughn and he introduced me to the sweat lodge and to Abraham.
The night before my first sweat I had this dream of this old man sitting in an empty framework of a lodge. He invited me in asked me to sit with him. I couldn’t see his face but i could hear his voice clearly. He a said I had a choice to make that would effect the rest of my life then bombs started dropping all around us and I woke up wondering because it had all seemed so real, I could even smell the smoke from the explosions.
The one thing constant about my life is that everynight I dream when I sleep and often times I’ve dreamed of my future, almost as if part of my life was predestined. I wondered if this was like that?
So I went to my first sweat and Vaughn had me buy cigarettes to give to Abraham. When we got there I met the tribal chairman and his family and friends and I remember having this feeling of belonging! They treated me as an equal, they treated me as family, they treated me like they had known me all their lives or all of mine. Then this elder man came out and I gave him the smokes I had bought and he smiled! He said “so your Chad huh? Your family is from the Flathead reservation eh! Your Kootenai and Chippewa Cree huh! Welcome he said and as I heard his voice I realized I knew it and the dream came back and I knew it was him and he smiled as if he knew somehow.
The whole night was surreal and I was told I had a choice to make, I couldn’t walk in both worlds at the same time and I had to choose which world I would be a part of!
I’m pretty sure I made the right choice!
Today I know who I am and where I’ve come from! Sure, occasionally I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in but not as often.
Today I am only stronger because of everything I went through yesterday!
By Chad Hiatt Chippewa Cree/Kootenai