I’m not blaming it on my mom, but she often said white people brought genocide and disease. “We didn’t even have rats,” she said. “They brought them on their boats!” Smallpox this, she said, colonization that. She was right, and the truth was everywhere around us, but, as I’ve gotten older, carrying around my resentment has become exhausting.
Her greatest pain was white women. “Take your time, white woman!” she’d shout when they’d cut in front of her (it happened a lot). “Go to hell!” she’d yell at the white women who followed her at the grocery, or any store, really. They were constantly ignoring my mother, insulting her, or giving her the wrong change. I saw firsthand how they looked us up-and-down every time we went clothes shopping. I wasn’t sure where that disgust came from until I became friends with a white girl.
My first sleep over was at my friend Leigh’s. She was blond. Her clothes weren’t covered in animal fur, like mine. She always had lunch, along with the teacher’s favor. Her house was immaculate. It had realcurtains and white walls, unlike the tasteless 70’s wood paneling of my house on the rez. I was in awe of her place. I kept thinking, ‘Is this how white people live?’ I went home hating my dirty clothes and my thrift store shoes. I hated our rez dogs and the rez cat litter that lived in our broken down car. When Leigh came to my house for a sleep over one night, she took one look at my sheet curtains and called home. She looked downright fearful of my poverty. I had never been more ashamed, or felt more dirty.
In my adolescence, I watched my mother get a haircut from a white woman. My mother rarely treated herself. It was the first time she had gotten a haircut in years. She was once known for her hair, long and brilliant black. She started losing it in clumps after years of chronic illness and fatigue. She sat in the chair, happy, until the hairdresser said, “Why are you losing your hair, girl?” My mother was well into her forties. She coiled in anger and then walked out. I watched my mother cut her own hair at the bathroom sink, and felt an anger that only grew.
It wasn’t just when she was in town that she experienced such cruelty. Our band office hired a bright white woman to help with unemployment on the rez. My mother was known in our community for raising hell. Mom gave this bright woman a hard time, holding her accountable in front of Chief and Council, demanding reports on progress and such. After this, my mother suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak. Shortly after, the bright woman exclaimed in a meeting that my mother’s stroke was a blessing of sorts. Our family was not shocked, only angered that our own community had been infiltrated by such hate.
I battled that anger for years. I told myself to be reasonable when white women barged in front of me in line. I told myself, ‘This is an isolated incident,’ every time a white woman said she was part Cherokee, or every time they said, “It’s so sad about your people. All that alcoholism.” I tried to remove myself from the animosity my mother carried, until my ex said, “I met someone. She’s really nice.”
“Is she white?” I asked.
Of course she was. He said she was so normal, not angry like me. She was “no trouble at all,” he said. She even left the toilet seat up after she peed. She thought dogs were people too. She played tennis for god’s sake. It was then I had to ask, who was I really mad at? Yes, being born Indian meant I would have a harder time navigating the world. Yes, white women had it easier. They’re looked for when they go missing. My ex hit a nerve, because my fear all along was that my brown skin was not enough, and it somehow told the world I was not to be protected or respected. Looking back, Leigh was the greatest friend I could have asked for. When I had no lunch, she was right there with a Fruit Rollup. I had held so much animosity that I couldn’t recognize all the goodness that came from the people around me.
We are discriminated against, and it’s painful to be invisible or looked at like we are the help, or we are going to steal something. I can’t carry the burden of that anger anymore. I was raised in anger and resentment, and who could blame my mother when she witnessed segregation or was told she was a “dirty Indian.” Every time we picked up a newspaper, there were caricatures of Indians as wagon burners, or an editorial about Indian poverty. Yes, Indians have it rough. Indian women are statistically unsafe. Yes, white women have it easier, but they’re not the problem.
What is the problem? This mentality my mother passed on to me, and the mentality her white classmates had when they threw rocks at her on her first day of school. I imagine her small face in tears, wearing the dress my grandmother sewed just for her. I know she had a right to her anger, but I am denying myself my own because it doesn’t work for me anymore. I can scowl at the gentrified area I live in, and make fun of the white tourists as they come in droves, but what will my sons think of that? I just can’t burden myself with prejudice anymore when I think of my children uttering the words my mother did or carrying her anger. And I believe that’s progress.
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.