From one poor Indian to all others: Rising out of the gutter is possible
Being a poor Indian was like being invisible, or worse, they notice you and your shoes, your lack—of cash flow, or car, or insurance, or leisure. There was a point in my life, well, most of my life, when being a poor Indian was more familiar than being anything at all. That lack is the reason why I’m here. I did things in spite of it all, to say something explicit that I don’t need to state here.
Poor was taking the bus with my Walkman on, listening to LL Cool J’s I Need Love at five in the morning, to start my hustle at six. Being a poor Indian was exposed, cold cement floors where my bed was, with no frame—worrying about how the mold would affect my body. That constant cold in the night felt like a ghost.
Nobody saw me until I had a degree. Nobody gave a damn about me in foster care, or worse, they tried to save me—to show me how horrible Indians were, and that I should assimilate into the culture of normalcy, the every day: the middle class default.
I remember so distinctly—as a foster kid in a new home—asking to see Maury Povich. They put it on, and observed the culture of lie detectors, chaos, dysfunction, and family scandal (what is most familiar to me), and my foster dad said, “No wonder they call these people animals.” After that I knew I was never going to identify with the default, and my place was with the ‘savages:’ the people the majority could not understand. The people who were guileless, honest, and pulled no punches—I decided to embrace the Indian in me.
I considered this era a Wu Tang era. Songs like Wu’s Gravel Pit, Ghostface Killah’s Cherchez LaGhost, or Wu’s Can it be all so Simple, were what pushed me through. Not because I could identify, but because it was the only music that acknowledged the poor had feelings, and were intelligent enough to articulate them. Ghostface’s All That I Got is You, was on heavy rotation at every rez party, on our stereos after school, and everywhere else.
“Daddy left me at the age of six,” Ghostface said, and that’s the age my father left us. The song hits levels of poverty that are too personal to name, but I had to bake food at other people’s houses, and when Mary J Blige came in with the bridge, I knew that I could overcome—that having bugs in your house, invading your food before you could, dealing with struggle, it was not in vain and people could make it out.
When I became of age I started the trajectory of success, but in the Indian way, which is the hardest way and takes twice as long. Now I’m here: a teacher, awards, a future, a book coming out, and food, finally. And still, I act like every meal is the only one I’ll have until tomorrow, or the next day.
People act like the poor aren’t intelligent. Well, I say we are more intelligent than anyone in any position at any institution. When people debate identity, they don’t ask the people who depend on their identities the most: poor people who have to identify themselves on forms every month. They’re forced to acquiesce to whatever social services wants them to be to get the check, the bed, or the food they need. They understand identity in a way that academics do not. They understand the implication of a check box, and have the pride to resist, or do what they have to.
Do any of those academics quote people from their rez who deal with the struggle of identity every day? No. They don’t. I don’t have any issue with those academics, but I’m trying to make a point.
Poor people think abstractly about everything: we have to in order to cope with the absurdity of being a poor Indian. We have to fill forms out to receive canned food that is within arms reach. We give up personal information, and we give up our pride to stand in line on welfare Wednesday, or whatever day they get in line on your rez. We have to think about our place in the world in abstract terms, that we are bigger than our circumstance. We are people yet to be acknowledged. Our greatness, or talent, has yet to be witnessed. We need this rhetoric to push through the next day.
I had never been busier, philosophically, than when I had to contextualize why I was living on the rez, instead of just dying. It was an existential crisis that is never written about. You think the absurdity of life is written well in Camus’ The Stranger, consider the Indian.
I look at my success, and I know without the struggles of my life I would not be where I am, and inversely, those traumas of my past wake me up at night, and make the dark more menacing.
I’m dedicated to sharing the stories of the people who matter more than me: the people on the front lines, in social work, my spirit sister, Denise Baldwin, who has served communities for almost 20 years. A girl I partied with, giggled with, shared my poverty with. She’s changing lives and I carry her story. There are more, many more: women living on the rez, unsure if the housing department is assessing their mold problem accordingly. My brothers, who raised me, are dealing with unemployment. These people matter as much as our ideas, our discourse, and, until we include them (beyond articles about poverty) in our discourse, we can’t decolonize a thing.
It feels like a contrivance to even say this, but it must be said: who depends on identity the most? Who has to ascribe meaning to her actions more than anyone else? Who struggles most through our absurdity? From one poor Indian who made good to the rest, I know your work is more meaningful than mine. I know what you do in your community is more impactful than my pontification.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.