by Jake Arrowtop
The white woman I’m forced to talk to calls it dissociation, I think. “You struggle with feelings of not belonging.” I see it as the Heat Death. The big chill of the self where in the end, my atomized particles decay and ossify as I float through an unfeeling universe. It’s appropriately dramatic; a confluence with my people’s star stories that explains how something came to be. Many stories are. Sure, Napi diving for berries has something to say about swimming safety the same way that the cease of free thermodynamics explains my drinking. A process of collapse that breaks my grandma’s heart again and again.
Yes, I googled heat death in order to explain my state of mind. My selfish intellectual flex to show this white woman that I am not dumb. An insecurity foundational to my very being like the carbon core of a dying star, eventually laid bare. I can know things beyond being Indian, even if it’s passively. But if anyone else asks me about the intricacies of the grass dance, I’m gonna blow my brains out.
You know, usually, Indian men hang themselves, I’ve always wondered why. Maybe another flare for the dramatic. Is it a part of the indigenous unconscious collective? A ritualistic fulfilling of prophecy. Just plum lynch yourself before the world can. See? I can know things.
Starting the session off with “how are you feeling” feels trite. How do you explain that you hate yourself so deeply that it doesn’t even make sense? Sure, it was boarding school. It was my grandma being forced to say “Hail Mary” a whole bunch while she kneeled on a broom handle. You wonder where the story came from and if your grandma ever actually told it to you. Or was it something that you heard so much that it became yours? A portable tidbit of trauma to whip out when the cops tell you to go home.
Actually, it was the genocide. Yep, ethnic cleansing can indeed create a few hiccups on the road to a 3-bedroom house. “270 Blackfeet died here,” the old timer would say and the next time I heard it, it’d be 300 people, half of which were babies whose heads were smashed against rocks. What would that look like? Is there an explosion of baby blood or would it be sort of underwhelming like when you string up a gopher on a telephone poll?
I have a saying I like to regurgitate. I always tell the white woman: “It’s like I know intellectually what I’m supposed to feel but emotionally, I just don’t.” Why do I say it? It sounds good. Clear, concise, to the point. But I know the real reason, the universe.
The conflation of certitude with my life’s trajectory is a tale as old as time. Since time immemorial, one might say! The session should follow a similar path.
“Have you spoken to your mother?” She asks. Huh. I thought we’d start with something a little more on the nose. Ease me in a little. Maybe talk about my absent dad.
“No, we haven’t.” I’d answer and the white woman’s familiarity makes the whole reservation shrink into the office. I’m not in the mood to say I can’t stand her voice like I can’t stand my mother’s. No, not gonna talk about the way mom’s face reddens with each put-away bottle of merlot or the way I see that familiar dying star in her face every time she smiles her sloppy smile.
I’d rather talk about my dad. Before he drank himself stupid and disappeared, we used to go fishing a lot. It’s kind of funny, we’re not a fish people but there we were chucking lures to catch a fish we didn’t want to eat. I was always half afraid of the fish. Their spasms and spindly fins repulsed me, they might as well have been aliens. “Walleye taste like chicken,” my dad would say, and then he’d drift off into a story when he and his grandpa, Brown, raised sheep 10 minutes south of the reservoir. He’d tell the same story every time, pausing to take a pull of his thermos. Mom was classy with her merlot, dad went for the devilish delights of Thunderbird, also the name of some goddamn sky spirit.
“Me and the donkey, Bill, would have to sleep with the sheep. Every night I’d hear the trains, but there’s no track. I’d shiver all night, scared out my mind until grandpa picked me up. Bill was old, grandpa said he was gonna make a drum out of him when he died.” And my dad would laugh his throaty laugh. “I’d sit there with nothing but a dead donkey walking and the stars for company.”
Accompanied by the six brothers that endured abuse and disdain from the tribe and decided to go live in the sky. The brothers asked Natoosi, the sun, to punish the people for the treatment they received. Another lesson. Treat others well. Would I choose to punish my people?
By this point he’d be slurring his words and would eventually ramble on about how that bitch in the land department swindled the family out of their allotment. Another reason for the dying star and another reason to hate my people.
I say that with all the shame in the world. A deep embarrassment like when your friend knocks on the door and is greeted by your ripped mother. Or when your cousin shits his pants because he can’t control his facilities after he rolled twice in his new pickup. Is it cliché for an Indian man to say that he both hates and loves his people? It’s a connective burst like tumultuous cosmic rays, sailing forth from that life-giving Natoosi. Sure, I’m here bathing in light but I’m also drowning in the radiation of my kin.
I say these things pointedly, straightforward like a creation story and like the stories, they are mine. You see Napi made the first person out of clay but I think he molded me out of malt liquor and star dust.
Here I am laid bare, dissociated as the white woman says. But I feel the connection in my being just like the constellations. My flaws and self-hatred shining bright like Scarface’s Wolf-trail illuminating the night sky. I know things.
Jake Arrowtop is an alumni of the University of Montana's Creative Writing department. He teaches ELA on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana where he was born and raised. He strives to write culturally relevant stories that reflect his Blackfeet heritage and the beautiful place he calls home.