I used to be the rez chick dropping off my baby at subsidized daycare to study for my GED. I used to be the single Mom on the rez, bumming for rides to buy formula, and then calling my ex to ask why he never helped out. I used to be the rez chick who thought, if only the tribe would hire me, I could have a secure life.
People looked down at me when I lined up for my check on Welfare Wednesday. People looked down at me at the local shopping mart when my baby fussed. I survived off of chocolate bars from the gas-bar on the rez. One a day kept the pangs away. I was Rez. All my clothes were from Wal-mart; all my son’s clothes were from Wal-mart, and none of my dreams were any larger than making 20,000 a year.
My sister, who had five kids of her own, had to bring me around town to pick up diapers and wipes. It was her I cried to when I asked, what do I do without a man in my son’s life? What do I do alone? She told me to hustle and get over myself. And, I did.
I got a job in the white town next to the rez, a highly segregated area. I worked at the local pharmacy. I also waited tables. I biked every day to work, because, although I had a car, I had no license. My car was only good for rez-cruises to the gas bar, where tribal police often shook their fists at me, telling me this was the last time I could drive around without a permit. Those jobs ended as soon as they came when I realized minimum wage wasn’t worth getting off welfare for. I technically made more on subsidy and social assistance.
I put my efforts and dreams into working on Indian land. When I finally got a job at the tribal office, I thought I had hit pay-dirt with enough money to finally buy cable, and real food. I worked hard. The job didn’t last long, because in every tribal office there is a Rumor Department, where making one false move can be crucial. I’m not good at rez-networking. Since preschool I’d been known as ‘big-head,’ and, ‘the girl who talked white.’ Granted, I do talk funny, and my head is big, but c’mon. My own people weren’t into me.
I struggled. My son started to talk and he started to look at me with perception and reverence. In his eyes I saw my own potential. I began saving my checks, starving myself even more than I had already. I survived off of one can of mush a month, and sold everything I owned to my friends and family. Someone proposed with my wedding ring. I left the rez with a one way ticket and looked back every day.
Some days I cry for the familiarity of a tribal office, the laughter of my cousins, community center dinners on Christmas, but I needed to leave. I couldn’t survive on the land, because it was nothing but trouble and subsidy. There weren’t any jobs. There wasn’t any hope, and the drop out rate was 80%.
I’m the rez chick who had a dad always at the bar, and I’m the rez chick who had a mom trying to make the most out of a dollar. I’m the rez chick who was taken into custody after being neglected, and right when I got out I ran off and shacked up. Can I tell you I just wanted a safe home? Would you understand? Or would you judge me for being uneducated, pregnant, and stupid?
I left with a one way ticket, got myself through school, graduated with honors, won thousands in scholarships, and became a teacher and a mentor. Sometimes, though, when I’m in line with my new baby at the store and he starts fussing, I see the looks and wonder if they know deep down I’m still a welfare mom without a GED. Sometimes, when I see my work in a literary magazine, I wonder if they know how abject I feel being where I’m from. Or how I’m writing it for the women struggling back home.
I’m not saying to stop judging a book by its cover. By all means, judge us. We’re used to it. We don’t stop hustling, and it’s a struggle. This is dedicated to the rez chicks who are working towards something, knowing what they’re worth before everyone else does.
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 Carvemagazine, and her story, “House Party,” is forthcoming in Yellow Medicine Review.