Once on the rez I was walking my baby to a Christmas dinner when a matriarch in my community scolded me for not putting a blanket on my baby. I was shamed, and rightfully so, because nobody with a good grandma would let their baby leave the house uncovered in the cold. The woman put her jacket on my baby, who was already wearing a little jacket and hat. This offering made me feel thankful to live on a reservation, where people cared enough to be generous. Three days later I heard an ugly rumor that I was abusing my child. Lord, I didn’t know what to say because it all stemmed from this small encounter. I decided not to pay it any mind, until an administrator at the Health Department on our rez asked if everything was okay. I couldn’t explain the situation – I felt beyond that. This is when I realized lateral violence could jeopardize my right to make mistakes and live in my own community.
We’ve all been in a conversation where someone looks excited to talk about a community member’s personal struggles. Their pupils get large as they’re talking about someone’s inability to raise their kid, or stay sober, or stop eating etc. On the rez that talk is dangerous: it can get social assistance pulled, unemployment taken away, children taken away, jobs ruined, or families broken up. Lateral violence stems from one’s inability to overcome the obstacles of oppression. They feel trapped within the confines of being an Indian, poor, and angry. They resort to hurting the most vulnerable people around them: their own.
There’s a difference between a concerned community member and a gossip. It’s a necessity to know who’s dealing or who’s exhibiting predatory behavior on your rez, but most of the gossip I hear isn’t about that. You might notice a kid on the rez who’s never home, always walking or taking care of their little brothers, and maybe their clothes don’t fit or are dirty. Ask yourself how you can help. My grandmother often brought clothes to people in-need, she fed them, and she even deloused kids back-in-the-day. Simply asking people what they need and if they’re doing okay is enough sometimes. Child Protective Services takes Native kids into custody at alarming rates and I don’t believe it’s because we are bad parents. I think it’s because many of us lack the money to litigate if our children get taken away under dubious circumstances.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone bash a community member for drinking, yet they’re drinking with that person every weekend. Lateral violence typically comes from people who project their own insecurities in the rumors they spread. It’s a mother who doubts herself who criticizes mothers harshly, and it’s the person battling with substance abuse who can’t stop judging the ‘drunks’ on the rez.
Imagine how beautiful our community would be if we were stalwart supporters of each other. Imagine if we could name a woman’s accomplishments before her struggles. Try praising someone and watch how she lights up. When I talk about how educated my cousins are they start praising me, and then we have a love-fest going on. I am by no means a positive person. I’m critical of institutions, skeptical of rez politics, and I am my own biggest critic, but it’s a political act for me to disengage from lateral violence. The people who forced us on reservations, and tried to strip away our culture are the real enemy. They want us to break each other down.
Growing up I went to my elders’ house when I was hungry, or had nowhere to be. My late Aunt Edna would hear me knocking and I’d patiently wait the six minutes it took her to get to the door. She’d feed me, and we’d talk about how school was going. I’d always lie, and it didn’t matter to her. She was a force of kindness, even though she carried great pain from the past. I live with her in mind. I imagine my elders are watching me when I talk and that has kept me somewhat honest. It’s not easy to see so much disempowerment and pain, and then be expected to shine with love or benevolence towards our own, but I think it’s necessary if we’re going to create better homes and communities.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and Fraser River. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Juxtaprose Magazine, Burrow Press Review, and is forthcoming in The Toast, and The Offing. She’s an SWAIA Discovery Fellow and student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
This story was originally published on August 26, 2015.