I am committed to uplifting our people with story. I have attempted to stop re-telling tragic stories that bring us down, and instead I aim to awaken and shine light on the rich narratives of Indian Country’s resilience. I want you to know that I’ve consciously endeavored to keep my own personal opinions, struggles, and challenges somewhat private on this blog. Until now. I want to get a little raw with you.
Maybe you’ll be able to relate.
Maybe by ripping ourselves raw, we open ourselves to healing.
Before I started Project 562, I worked in tribal schools in Washington State. In the four short years that I taught, I buried nineteen of my own students. The toll of addiction, abuse, and unnatural deaths overwhelmed me. After so much loss of goodness and potential, I’d sit in lodges with my fellow teachers and pray for our children, feeling hopelessness and despair; and it was there, in those classrooms, that I recognized that old familiar sentiment: our bodies aren’t safe.
Our children are surrounded by real colonial trauma presenting itself as poverty and addiction, as violence and rape, as depression and low life-expectancy. All of which fall directly on the physical body.
This is not who we are.
This reality is the result of a structure, designed to cripple and assimilate our people so as to pave the way for the ‘American Dream’.My mentors helped me to understand that in order for us heal and move forward, it’s essential that our children know the truth of how we came to know so much suffering. Not to place blame on the colonizer. Not so our children can feel victimized. But to equip them with truth and empower them with the vision of a better future. A vision that our people are realizing all over the country, every day.
So I took all that pain inside of me and decided to do something. If all we are is stories, if our constitution, our laws, our policies, our curricula, and all that governs us begins with narrative, then it is time for us to start writing.
So for the last five years, I’ve been traveling around Indian Country in an effort to create a new curricula, a collection of images and stories from the sprawling variety of contemporary Native America. I’ve stayed committed to that original idea. I’ve remained steadfast. But this last year has been one of the most challenging years for me on the road.
Last Super Bowl, my Step-Dad Ian passed away. Then around Thanksgiving, my bestie Josiah died. Then my Grandma Loretta went to the other side on Christmas. And just the other day, I went to a march for Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous teenage boy, unarmed and gunned down by a white man, the killer found not guilty. As I write this, my feed has been overwhelmed with #justicefortinafontaine, a 15 year old First Nations girl whose body was found in the Red River. Again, killer found not guilty.
All this sorrow and loss has made it difficult for me to be a good story teller. Every time I’ve sat down at the computer to write, I’ve only wanted to talk about death.
I’ve been thinking about the justice of death and the lack of justice for Indian death. I think about the difference in the funerals I went to this year. About the cruelty of an untimely death or the ways our bodies betray us in the end, terrorizing our last breaths with pain or worse, dying before the opportunity to realize an inkling of potential.
When Josiah died, he was only 25 years old.
I met him in Mashpee, Wampanoag a few years ago. He was young, wild and free, beautiful and hilarious, vulnerable and clever. He could dance like Usher, and write the most breathtaking, twisted poetry. We met at one of those infamous Cape Cod fires where untamed 49s paint the sky red.
For a brief moment we discussed the potential of being lovers but decided to try something radical instead, we agreed to be friends. The kind of friends that love each other forever.
Surprisingly, after I left Wampanoag country we kept in touch. He called me all the time. We’d share adventure stories. We’d gripe and carry on as friends do. Sometimes he’d call and ask me to read him whatever I’d been reading. We’d talk about the red road and the best way to stay there. The conversations went on for hours. They always ended with “love you forever”.
Eventually he joined me on the road. We had a blast. We visited tribes in Southern California. We went to Joshua Tree and all over Cahuilla Country. We desert dwelled. We danced under the stars, roasting marshmallows and laughing until our bellies hurt.
After about a month on the road he decided he wanted to move to Seattle to pursue a career in music. He worked maintenance, construction, and retail sometimes logging 100 hours a week just to be able to afford Seattle’s rising housing costs. In between jobs, he would sleep in his car. We didn’t talk much, he was working all the time.
Then one day, he called and confessed that he’d been struggling with opioids. He was embarrassed and wanted sobriety. We set forth a plan of action. He committed to trying out twelve step meetings.
At Thanksgiving, we made homemade pumpkin pies together - the fancy kind with real pumpkins and maple syrup. We snuggled in and watched three Harry Potter films. Soon the weekend was over and I had to leave for New York for a talk I was giving at Columbia. I drove him to the train station and before he got out, he looked over, grinned and said, “Love you forever, kid”.
Three days later, in New York, my phone rang several times. A hysterical voice chokes out, “Josiah died”.
I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a mistake.
The next day I rented a car and drove to Massachusetts. In Wampanoag traditions, it’s customary to light a fire as soon as somebody passes away, and the fire stays lit until that person is put to rest. I needed to go his fire.
I felt so terrible when I met his Mom and brothers for the first time, especially under those circumstances. They were so kind to me. His Grandma said, “He just laid down and went to sleep, he was so tired”.
My Wampanoag friend Mark said something I’ll never forget, “You know, it’s not just the loss of one young man’s life. It’s the loss of future generations for our Wampanoag people.”
I don’t think I fully understood what he meant by that until I was sitting at my Grandma Loretta’s funeral a month later.
She had 110 grandkids and I think all of us were there; I couldn’t have been sure though, the gymnasium must have had 1000 people in it. Story after story was told about my Grandma’s life. She was a judge, and she spent her life dedicated to bringing restorative justice to Indian people. She was one of the first Native American women to receive judge’s training at The University of Washington, and during that time she managed to raise seven children as a single mother. One of those children is now the Chairwoman of our Tribe. I looked around at my Aunties and Uncles, cousins and nephews, and felt so proud to be a part of my family of doers, shakers and loud laughers. I felt proud of my Grandma. I felt proud to be her grandchild. I felt proud of my family that gave her such a respectable send off and honored her legacy.
I realized that Josiah wouldn’t get to have a funeral like that, surrounded by children and grandchildren. And neither will Colten Boushie. Neither will Tina Fontaine. Neither will the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women whose great-grandchildren will never have breath. Their lives dismissed by our broken system.
I think of the ways that all this death has inhibited my ability to feel fully functional. I wonder how many of our people are going through the exact same thing right now. How does this trauma stifle our potential? How many of us have the courage to fight the darkness? Where is the light?
Our people cry out for justice. We are met with silence.
I am not a policy maker. I am not a politician. I am not a community organizer. I’m a photographer. I tell stories. These are a few of the stories that need telling, and they need to be told to our children from an indigenous perspective that understands the root cause of these deaths, a perspective that reinforces that being Native American is not inherently impoverished, or bad, or violent. They have to know that their life is valued and worthy of breath. And we can’t be the only ones telling them that. The standard curricula, massive media messaging and critical consciousness has to join that effort. Only then can we cultivate change.
We have to ask ourselves why brown bodies are at such a high risk? We have to ask ourselves how we got here? We need more of you to join us in solidarity.
What happens to one of us, happens to all of us.