I walk through campus with the weight of the Atlantic Ocean in my lungs: pressuring my body, asking my body to taste the salt of the tears and blood and ancestors stacked on that far away ocean floor where they crossed in chains, carrying keys. I tread carefully on the red bricks and slide on the wet Earth and taste the sky salt in my eyes while the rain pours Whispers, Whispers, Whispers.
On my first day of class in American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, we read “38” by Layli Long Soldier. I learn from Layli Long Soldier that real poems don’t need words. I learn from Layli Long Soldier that the man who freed the slaves caused the largest "legal" mass execution in (what is now referred to as) the United States’ history. I knew Abraham Lincoln only freed the slaves so there would be fewer bodies in Southern fields growing crops that might benefit his enemies. I knew Abraham Lincoln only freed the slaves to weaken the South. I knew Abraham Lincoln only freed the slaves because it benefitted him at the time. I knew he did not deserve the accolades heaped upon him.
I did not know that the man people think of as the greatest U.S. president also hanged 38 Dakota men who’s act of resistance was fighting to feed their People. I learn that the grass was a poem. I did not know that the Dakota 38 + 2 Riders travel 325 miles each year to memorialize the Dakota 38.
I did know that sometimes a poem must swing, swing, swing, amen, into the open where everyone can see the strange fruit.
The water on my face is poetry when it drips down, down, down and I curse in the face of the young men who call me “Nigger” as they pour out a water bottle over my head. When I touch the waters meant to drown me, separate me from my ancestors, meant to keep me “separate but equal,” I remember who I am. They say black people can't swim. They say our black skin contaminates their pools. They say Africa is a dry place and we are dry and they hose us down to hurt us when we protest - but I keep going to the water day after day because it's part of me. My kin were born in the crossing of the water, they survived in the bowels of ships, and they were thrown overboard.
"38" introduced me to the tremendous pain and loss Sovereign Indigenous Peoples and First Nations Peoples have endured at the hands of colonizers. It was while reading this poem that I began to understand how far what is now called the United States had gone to make their crimes invisible. I feel disgusted and betrayed that my education excluded this historical event. While “38” taught me about loss it also taught me about resistance and agency: The 38 Dakota men who were hanged at Abraham Lincoln’s order were part of an organized retaliation against the violence that caused the Dakota people to starve. The story of the Dakota 38 is as much about resistance as it is about loss.
I learn from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States some of the true histories of the United States. The horror of what the United States has done is fathomless. I cannot begin to explain the loss. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States may be the most important book I have ever read.
If you want to know the truth, (the painful, difficult truth) please read
On the bus, I sit in the very back with my head so low my chin rests on my knees. I look out the window and scroll through the songs in my MP3. I’ve memorized every song. It was a Christmas gift from the food bank. When I had opened it, I felt like I had won the lottery. Songs are like waves, they move through you. Songs can drown you. Songs can take the stings out of your cuts and wash away the bacteria growing in your mind. I flew away into the place where the songs lived and closed my eyes.
I dream of Luna. She’s just like me, but younger and more naive. She doesn’t understand herself, or perhaps she can’t. I hear her cries in my sleep. I get the sense she must cry herself to sleep often. I can understand why she would cry. When I close my eyes, behind the curtain I can find her surrounded by PAIN. It aches in my chest. It lacerates my intestines, raking my skull with jagged fingers and teasing out the meat to flick from cheek to cheek like bubblegum. Bubblegum, a memory Luna left lying around and I found. I hated the taste, but it was satisfying to chew.
A boy dumps his entire water bottle over my head, opening the curtain and taking me far away from Luna.
“Niggers aren’t supposed to swim you know,” He shouts.
I frantically bury my MP3 in a dry pocket and swipe the water off my hair with my sleeves. I turn to the bus aisle, curl up into a ball, and rest my back against the window. I turn up the volume so loud that I can’t hear the boy anymore and wait for the bus to start and stop seven times before I look up again. When I get home I throw up my dread and flush it away. I crawl into bed and fall asleep. Somewhere below: what was stolen from me washes into the cracks in the sewers where they rot.
I think Luna might be a ghost. I get the impression she hasn’t fully noticed me yet. She’s self-contained like a fetus. The pain surrounds her like an amniotic sac. I learn so much when I open her memories - it doesn’t seem fair. I bend over her motionless body, and I scream with every fiber, every molecule, every atom. I need her to wake up so I can stop dreaming her memories.
I tell my therapist about my fantasies, and she says that they are possibly a response to trauma. I half-smile, thinking about the ambiguous blur that separates my reality from TRAUMA.
How can I heal when it keeps happening? Where am I supposed to feel safe? A response to trauma is not the right phrase. It sounds too clinical. Whatever is happening in my mind is much bigger than that. It’s a goddamn awful scream that I hear in the pipes, in my veins, in my dreams because it is the sound I make when I remember all the ways people have chewed me up and picked me clean then spat pieces of me onto the ground. They’ve cleaned their teeth of residue from my soul.
A side note: Do not call my pain trauma as if // it is already happened // when it happens over and over again. Do not ask me to heal while you are hurting me. Do not call yourself helping when you are picking your teeth clean as we speak. If you want me to stop hurting; if you want me to heal; STOP HURTING ME!
My grandmother informs me that many of the women in our bloodline were put in institutions because of their mental health; locked away. How many of them screamed in their dreams too? How many nights did the moon drown on the horizon like they drowned in their fears? How many of them were lost beneath the rolling waves of screams?
Alicia Elliot wrote, "I struggle against colonialism the same way I struggle against depression — telling myself I'm not worthless, that I'm not a failure, that things will get better." Elliot's words stay in my mind a long time, rocking back and forth like waves. I watch my fingertips shake with anticipation as I dogear the pages where I find my mind. I go back to the page where Elliot wrote, "Things that were stolen can be stolen back." It is there that I find my hope.
I get a prescription and a college admittance letter and push all of this pain into the soles of my feet and walk carefully for years and years and years and years and years and years and years. I tread carefully on the red bricks and slide on the wet Earth and taste the sky salt in my eyes while the rain pours Whispers, Whispers, Whispers.
On the first day of class in American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, I feel like crying for the 38 because I know the rhythm of a body swinging the way I know how strange fruit tastes. I'm sick of being asked to be grateful for this trauma so I misunderstand my instructor and feel the stitches in my wounds pull tight against the swelling in my heart.
In frustration, I think what good is a college degree when I find myself buried under memories that suffocate me? What good is education when I am asked to use it to hold up the system that crushes me? What good is it to live here when everything hurts and the water in my lungs reminds me of the many ways this country has tried to drown me? What good is living here when my being here is the reason the water is polluted, the sky is smog, the night is bright with artificial light, the birds sing in confusion? Why should I be grateful for the stolen land my stolen people have found themselves on?
I learn that as bitter as that memory of colonization tastes that I still benefit from the occupation of the land I tread carefully on. The water of my poems and in my memories comes from the Columbia River. The water on my skin and in my mouth comes from the Salish Sea. The medicine I get from the people I meet in these stolen lands helps me let go of my anger and start seeing the truth: I owe my life, my knowledge, my relationships, and my dreams to the people who cared for these waters and these lands. I watch my anger float across the sunset as I sit down and form relationships with people who change my mind in ways therapy never could and I thank the Duwamish in my heart for giving me a place to heal by caring for the land and caring for the water that forms my poetry.
Original Artwork by Midori Friedbauer
My writing and my artwork were greatly influenced by Shapes of Native Nonfiction, edited by Elissa Washuta & Theresa Warburton. The form of this written piece was inspired by the Introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction "Exquisite Vessels" written by Washuta and Warburton.
Artwork by Midori Friedbauer; Inspired by Shapes of Native Nonfiction, edited by Elissa Washuta & Theresa Warburton