We boiled water most of my life on the rez because that’s how Mom said she got hepatitis. It could have been the walls, where we often saw black mold, only to have the tribal office say we needed to, “wash it is all.” After years of hacking coughs, the tribe finally paid for renovations. There were a lot of reasons to feel broken and dirty where I’m from.
It was that broken and dirty feeling that perpetuated so much generational pain within me. I grew up feeling broken. I was the kid who overstayed her welcome. I lingered after the community gym closed and latched on to every youth worker I could find. It was only a matter of time before a social worker took notice and realized how broken my home life was. I was neglected. And when my mother was around, we were fighting about her boyfriend, who often drove me to school with a beer in his cup holder. I grew up fast, spent too many nights out, and moved from foster home to foster home until I aged out. I couldn’t go back to my mother’s and admit defeat, so I shacked up with a guy and started a broken home of my own.
From 18 to 21, I struggled to build a family. There were so many young couples like us: raising a baby on welfare or minimum wage, fighting, making up, and then vowing we would do better, only to have it all fall apart with a past-due bill or a thoughtless word. The verbal aggression, the struggle and the anguish were cyclical, and felt generational at times. Our fights escalated to the most awful words, actions, and reactions. It wasn’t long before I became pregnant again.
I vowed that the pregnancy would be a turning point. I enrolled in an educational program offered by my tribe, and my husband and I attended weekly couple’s therapy sessions. I felt myself growing from a stereotype into a woman with hope for an education, a steady income, and a husband who was willing to grow with me. The fights lessened and the bills started to get paid on time. All the progress was too much for me. I had acclimated to chaos after so many years in crisis, so I sabotaged my marriage at every pass. We started fighting again, and soon we found ourselves in a “domestic disturbance” so bad that the police threatened to take away our son if they were called again. My husband left to return to his parent’s house in the US, and I wouldn’t let him take our son.
It wasn’t long before my husband and his parents called social services, concerned about our child being raised in a “broken and dirty” home. The social workers were kind when they took my child from me. They didn’t assess the house, or ask my friends and family how I was as a mother. They simply came in and politely asked me if there was a place my son could go to until they were done investigating. Not knowing my rights, I let them take my son to my sister’s, where he stayed for several weeks before I was informed by my lawyer that my son was still legally under my care, and social services had no say over the matter. I wondered how a system could do this to a child. I wondered how many Native women they treated with such judgment, such callousness. I had done nothing, but was Native enough for them to assume I didn’t deserve my child. As soon as I brought my son home from my sister’s, my husband filed for sole custody.
My lawyer’s outlook was bleak. My ex-husband’s parents were well off, and able to throw seemingly endless amounts of money at the case. My mother had passed away the previous year, and my estranged father was barley scraping by selling his art on the street. We like to think that everyone has access to justice in our system, but the desires and dispersions of certain people can be amplified by money; they can be made so loud that they drown out the truth, and the voices of the poor and dispossessed. I won in Provincial Court because I was determined to prove my child belonged with me and his brother, who was still growing in my womb. I wanted a full life, not with my husband, but alone with my children. I wanted to be someone with an education, someone who could give fully to her children. My husband’s parents threw more money into an appeal, and then I won in Superior Court. It was unheard of for a Native woman to battle the system and win. I felt lucky, and then they filed for an international appeal with the Hague Convention. I lost on the same day that I delivered our new son, Isaiah.
The day I brought my baby boy Isaiah home, I lost my son Isadore. My family watched him leave with his father, while police officers stood by to see that it was all civil. I dealt with the loss, feeling broken and Indian. It felt like no matter what good I did to keep my family, there would always be a system to take us down. I believe this sentiment isn’t uncommon for Native parents. My ex-husband didn’t fight to keep Isaiah. I don’t know why he didn’t fight, but I am grateful. Because of my unique status as a Native born in Canada who can pass freely between borders, I’m considered a flight risk. My visits with Isadore are supervised, or in diners with my ex husband waiting in the lot. I wonder if my son will ever know I was a good mother. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to have Christmas mornings with him before he’s grown, or if I’ll ever be able to give him the story of how he was named after the medicine man Isadore Tom. Since the awful day he was taken away, I’ve gone back to school, received my GED and BA, and years later found love again with someone strong enough to deal with the nights I can’t breathe, because I remember my son’s small body next to me in my sleep. We even have a new baby boy, who makes our family so much brighter. My son and I call Isadore, and I often find myself at a loss for words, because there is too much to say and I don’t know what he should hear. We’ve acclimated to the grief.
I realize this story is unique, but it feels too common when I look at the statistics of how often children are removed from Native homes. I know there are Native women being torn apart by the system, assumed to be bad parents because they are from “broken” communities. I share my story with the knowledge that I’ve overcome so many socioeconomic barriers. I’m now a college instructor. I live in a big, warm, adobe home with Isadore’s two brothers and my husband, and I’m a published author, working on a second degree. I wonder how I could live through such trauma without telling my truth. I believe there are women, living just how I lived, afraid they are too broken or dirty to keep fighting. There’s power in controlling my narrative. For most of my youth I was labeled in case files as “high risk,” and when I defied odds they called me, “proof anyone can succeed.” In academic communities I’m still called a “non-traditional student,” who’s a testimony to “resilience and dedication.” I am proud of my resilience, and my success, but it’s hard not to find those terms reductive. Life gets richer, and I refuse to let my story be finished at broken and dirty, and I encourage the women who read this to control their narratives and find solace in the story.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, and The Offing. She’s an SWAIA Discovery Fellow and studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.