An Indian Life Is a Celebration: The Epidemic of Early Death on the Rez

There was another funeral on the rez last week. This time it was my cousin, Sonny Bobb.

This is the fifth death this year, and it’s only April. I’m tired of death, and there’s no respite.

I had never felt like a statistic until I realized my family is falling like flies to all of the plights that take our people: chronic illness, suicide, stress and violence. These people in my family are not nameless figures to be accounted for, but dynamic humans who had full lives and warm hearts. My mother was famous for her activism and wild streak. She fell in love with a prisoner named Salvador Argon, and their story was immortalized in the Paul Simon Broadway play, “Cape Man.” My mother didn’t drink, and she didn’t do drugs, and she gave up men when she realized they weren’t any good for her kids. She died of a brain aneurism at fifty-one, and I believe it was because her body was just exhausted, after raising four kids and never earning enough to keep the house warm and the fridge full.

Sonny Bobb, my first-cousin, died of a heart attack. He was a tribal officer, youth worker, and fisheries authority. Most knew him as a good dad to three, who could quote “Smoke Signals” ad nauseam. His death was a tragedy, and I think it broke all of our hearts when the casket dropped and the final song sounded on the hand drums. I remember him as the cool cousin, who used to have a water-bed, a Farrah Fawcett poster, and a killer drum set.

These people shaped my life. Without my mother’s rebellious nature, I wouldn’t have a story to tell. Without Sonny, I wouldn’t have an affinity for Sherman Alexie’s work, which compelled me to become a writer and apply to the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I work-shopped with him. When I worked with Alexie, I couldn’t help but think of Sonny, with all his quotes and laughter. In many ways I worked to go back to the rez with something to show for it, but now nearly everyone is dead or gone.

We die too often, and I’m sick of it. How can I prevent this, I ask myself. But nobody could tell my father to stop drinking, and nobody could have foreseen the beating that would take his life. We just knew he’d never change, and it tore us up for years. I couldn’t have saved my mother, because I was just a kid without a job. I couldn’t have known Sonny was unwell, because everything was seemingly fine before the night of his death. Death strikes us, and leaves us polarized, asking why. The only thing I can discern is that we die because we are Indian, and being Indian isn’t a preventable thing.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m proud of my heritage, but not of our mortality rate. I think we should be intolerant of unjust death. In every day discourse I tell my brother I love him, and when I know my cousins aren’t well I reach out. It’s an uphill battle, but my legs are strong. Every day I am fighting to keep my loved ones close, and let them know their health and heart are important to me, and to the collective of people who rely on their success.

Sometimes it feels as though I’m at war as an Indian woman. It seems as though our people are being attacked from all sides, and all we have is each other. I can’t tell you how to prevent early death among us, because nothing I’m doing is working. I can tell you to value the life you have, and adore those close to you. An Indian alive is a celebration, a possibility.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and the Fraser River. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work, “Heart Berries,” can be found in Carve Magazine, and her story, “House Party,” is forthcoming in Yellow Medicine Review.

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