13.0: Legacy of heavy breathing woman
Growing up on the rez, you kinda get used to the separation between Skins and non-Skins. You take it for granted. But, I remember the exact moment when I realized that there was also a stark divide between different types of Skins as well; those Skins who spoke for other Skins, and the “spoken-for” Skins.
In fact, I remember the day very clearly: It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and I had messed up my ankle in a “Lawyer’s League” basketball game the night before. (Yes, there’s actually a “Lawyer’s League” – bunch of chubby used-to-be/never-was ballplayers, like myself, who are too scared to play in a real league for fear they may get hurt). On that fine Tuesday afternoon, I kept resetting my game of Solitaire because I just couldn’t get a good set of cards.
Then “it” happened – The Moment.
Picture it, Sicily (ok, ok, “the Rez”) 2007: I sat in on a conference call – speakerphone on – slipping between a) playing Solitaire and b) falling asleep (I promise I don’t usually fall asleep or play solitaire on conference calls. This one was an exception: It was particularly boring. In fact, I may have actually been absent for about 63 percent of that particular call). It was one of those silly little conference calls that everybody’s been on – y’know, the ones where some Fancy Skins unnecessarily drop other Fancy Skins’ names and keeps on saying “in terms of” and “promulgate.”
On this conference call, there was a woman who just kept on talking. Wow! – I once watched “The Fountainhead,” where Gary Cooper made a six minute speech – that’s kind of how this lady talked. Incredible. And now I may be alone in this, but when I talk to someone on the phone and I’ve never met them, I start to imagine the way the person on the other end looks. Sometimes, they’re hot. Sometimes, they’re not.
She wasn’t. At least not in my mind.
I envisioned this particular woman as a short Skin lady who liked smoking her Benson & Hedges and wearing Aquanet bangs with Photochromic tint glasses. The reason that I imagined her as a heavy smoker, by the way, was because of the way she mouth-breathed – DEEPLY! In fact, it was her rhythmic, deep, heavy breathing that almost made me fall fast asleep. Still, I found it disturbingly soothing. And although I have no such authority to give people Skin names, I am the boss at my phone – so I unofficially gave her the Skin name “Heavy Breathing Woman.”
Now, Heavy Breathing Woman was on the verge of putting me to sleep. However, just as I was about to pass out, “The Moment” happened – that is, the moment that let me know that the people who speak for Skins don’t necessarily know that much about Skins; even if they are Skins. And “The Moment” caused me to laugh out loud (LOL) because I thought what she said was so sadly hilarious.
Some Fancy Skin: >heroically< “We have a vital message to deliver to Indian country!” (I can’t remember what it was.) “We must take on this battle for tribal sovereignty or economic development or something important!”
Another Fancy Skin: >inquisitively< “But how do we do it? We only have $10,000 dollars with which to save all of Indian country!”
Practical Fancy Skin: >valiantly< “We must spend money on tribal newspapers and reservation radio!” (Shout out to KGVA, KSHI and other tribal radio.) “They will deliver our message!”
Heavy Breathing Woman: >confidently< “We don’t need to spend money on advertising from radio or tribal newspapers! I know Indian people and I know how to communicate with Indian people – the Moccasin Telegraph will carry the message for us to our beloved Indian people!”
Everyone on the Call: >like Scooby Doo< “Rahrrr????”
Me, Stupidly Thinking that my Phone is on Mute: “Snort!”
Now mind you, Heavy Breathing Woman has lived in a major East Coast city for six centuries. And although she is undoubtedly a “Skin,” some would argue that she can’t necessarily relate to those Skins on the rez. Her idea of keeping in touch with Skins on the rez is, well, having a conference call with some Skins who used to live on the rez but then got tired of the rez not having Chinese food or adult book stores or dry cleaners. Like me!
That’s right, go ahead, call me a yuppie.
My point, however, is that outsiders and non-rez Skins and non-Skins seem to have a completely different idea of rez life than the people who actually live on the rez. From my conversations with non-rez types, they usually have one of two perceptions of how your life must have been on the reservation: either 1) sympathy or 2) romance.
Me, stupidly letting Ms. White/Black Liberal know that I’m from the reservation: “Sheila, do you like these shoes? I bought them on eBay. Technology’s crazy – I remember when I was a kid, we used to have to travel so far in our beautiful red pinto to get shoes. And the storeowners could tell the rez kids by the Copenhagen imprint in our jeans, and they generally thought any kids from the reservation were dirty thieves! It’s so cool – now I don’t have to travel anyplace!”
Ms. White/Black Liberal, with Birkenstocks and turquoise toe rings: >SQUEALS< “Oh my gosh – you’re from the reservation? It must have been so hard! How did you get out? Y’know, I know you hear this all the time, but my mom was part Chickasaw, but she was stolen away by her Uncle Jude who was a dairy farmer and made her bathe in milk every single day until her brown faded away.”
Me, noticing that she does kinda smell like milk and maybe she’s not lying: >Sigh< “You didn’t hear anything else I just said, did you?”
Me, thinking I made a new friend who wants to buy me free hot cocoa: “Yeah, I got in the habit of drinking hot cocoa when I was a little kid. It was so cold where I come from.”
Ms. White/Black Liberal, drinking chai tea: “Oh that’s delightful. >Looking at my braids, smiling< Where did you say you come from again?”
Me, not paying attention to her smile because she just saved me three bucks: “Oh, a few different places – but mainly the Blackfeet and Suquamish reservations.”
Ms. White/Black Liberal, happy as can be: >SQUEALS< “Oh my gosh – you’re from the reservation? It must have been so beautiful! Just to see all of that nature every day! I bet you grew up in a really close family. Y’know, I know you hear this all the time, but my mom was part Algonquian, but she ran away to work at a chalk-making factory and eventually married the owner who made her roll around in chalk every single day until her brown faded away.”
Me, getting done with the whipped cream: >SLURP!!!<
When it comes to misinformation about the Rez, it’s an “equal opportunity” phenomenon. It could be non-rez Skins – who think they know what’s best for the rez, but never go to the rez – like Heavy Breathing Woman. Or it could be non-Skins whose only knowledge about reservations stems from romance novels. Either way, reservations only merit romance or sympathy, but never familiarity. There’s never an effort to increase understanding or to inquire what the reservation truly needs – just assumptions and guesses based upon. … nothing. And unfortunately the misinformation and assumptions are not inconsequential.
Like Heavy Breathing Woman, these unfamiliar Skins and non-Skins make decisions about our futures – about law enforcement, school programs, health care and housing on the reservations. Although these unfamiliar Skins have never seen drug abusers in IHS parking lots trying to score Oxycontin, methadone or other pain pills, they make determinations about how money should be allocated for programs intended to cut down on drug abuse on the reservation. These unfamiliar Skins who have never seen a young Skin – emaciated from a meth struggle – die from heart attacks at 27 or 28 years old, still make decisions about how health care dollars will be spent to care for those addicts. They determine whether the intended beneficiaries of those programs will be notified by tribal newspaper, tribal radio, and/or only the Moccasin Telegraph.
And many of these people, like Heavy Breathing Woman, never go to the reservation. Some do – God bless them. But most don’t go very often.
And maybe it doesn’t matter if they visit. But maybe it does.
Should federal agencies/intertribal organizations require their employees to visit reservations on a regular basis? Or does it even matter if these federal agencies/intertribal organizations’ employees visit reservations? Will that help them make better decisions on behalf of Skins?
What do you Skins think?
Gyasi “Fancy Skin” Ross is a member of the Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet Nation) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. His Pikuni (Blackfoot) name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is co-founder of Native Speaks LLC, a progressive company owned by young Native professionals which provides consultation and instruction for professionals and companies. Gyasi is currently booking dates for his newest presentation, “Mother Lovers: Poetic (and Musical) Justice.” E-mail him at email@example.com.