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24.0 Lessons from the outhouse

11/23/09

Corporal punishment apparently was not enough in my family.

I was a very spooky kid, always hearing stuff and getting scared and quickly burying my head beneath the blankets, not wanting to look up. My family is sensitive to spooky things – some folks call us “superstitious.”

Now, my family is certainly spiritual – probably even religious. We believe in spirits, a Creator, and getting “ghosted.” Perhaps as a natural extension of those beliefs, the kids in the family tended to think spirits were responsible for some rather mundane scary things – e.g. things that go “bump” in the night; boogiemen. My sisters always told me these boogiemen would get me when I was bad.

As if the spirits/boogieman didn’t have more pressing business to deal with; like making pottery with Demi Moore.

Anyway, looking back I’m not sure which was the scarier proposition – that there 1) WAS a boogieman or that there 2) was NOT a boogieman. Sure, the idea that there WAS a boogieman lurking around, trying to bite our fingers off like Armour Vienna Sausages for no apparent reason was pretty terrifying. Still, I found the idea of some arbitrary and vindictive monster relatively comforting compared to the idea that I could somehow have caused my own discomfort and pain.

An example of this boogieman/non-boogieman duality were those terrifying trips to the outhouse. Or, as I like to refer to them, “the Outhouse Hauntings.”

STORY

When I was a kid we lived in an area simply called “the Bottom.” The Bottom was a river bottom near a place called Cut Bank Creek. Unlike much of the rest of the surrounding areas, it had a plethora of trees, and tall foliage. There were four homes in the area – our trailer, my grandpa’s trailer about 500 feet away, some cousins of mine who lived about half a mile away, and a family who lived directly on top of the hill looking down at the Bottom. They were the ones who did not have to contend with driving up the hill in the snow or flooding in the spring and had running water.

Yuppies.

We lived some ways off the main road and quite a ways outside of town, so it was always pitch black there at night. Additionally, there was also no irrigation. For drinking water, we made trips to a mountain spring at least once a week. For baths, we got buckets of water from the creek and bird-bathed (a term I learned off of MSNBC’s “Lock Up: Raw”) and would occasionally (VERY occasionally) take a hot shower at the pool in town. I was a little kid, so the less frequent the baths, the better.

Like many little boys, I truly liked stinking.

In any event (or scent), I think I can speak for my family by saying that we were comfortable with our lack of modern comforts.

Anyway, both my grandpa and our household shared an outhouse. The outhouse was about a quarter-of-a-mile of treacherous terrain from either of our trailers (gotta have a nice buffer of space because outhouses tend to smell), full of gopher holes and cow pies.

You learned to really control your diet when your bathroom was a quarter of a mile away. Especially during the winter months (cold seats AND a long walk in the pitch dark). Our dinners were always pretty early so everyone could do their business before it got dark. And, you know, that’s healthier than eating late. Forget the South Beach Diet or Atkins. The Outhouse Diet is the way to go.

Maybe there’s money to be made there?

But I digress.
Anyway, I remember one particular time that I didn’t follow the mantra of eating dinner by 4 p.m. I think we had spaghetti. My mom, at that point, was not a particularly good cook so her version of spaghetti left my stomach feeling somewhat volatile. And I procrastinated on communing with nature for hours – not really making my move to the outhouse hoping it was just some passing rumbling. But it wasn’t.

I asked my older sisters to walk with me over to the outhouse so I could release the hounds. As fate would have it, it was one of those days when a surprise snowstorm hit and we didn’t plug the car in the night before, so we were stuck miles away from the main road – no school! However, when there was no school, I had many more opportunities to get into disagreements with my sister. This particular time, I think I stole my sister’s money to buy a book at one of those Scholastic Book Fairs. Therefore, she didn’t have any real interest in helping me out by walking with me through that snow and cold and dark to listen to me whilst I caught up on some reading.

Darn spaghetti. I walked over to the outhouse, stomach hurting something fierce. It’s already spooky outside, wind howling. With every single step, the snow crunched and a little bit of the snow crept into my pant leg and made me colder. The snow, combined with my “spooky” chills, ensured that I had the chills the entire walk to the outhouse. Crunching snow in the dark always makes it sound and feel as if someone is following you. I kept looking back at the lights in our trailer to see if someone is looking out the window to make sure I made it safely.

They weren’t.

As I finally reached the outhouse ready to send some cigars back to Cuba, I took one last glance around to make sure nobody was following me. Darn boogiemen. I closed the door and tightened up my hind quarters to sit down – it was going to be very cold! Ahhhhhhhhhhh … relief!

Suddenly, I heard some running around outside, and whispers! I knew that nobody followed me from my trailer – I looked back many times IN HOPES that somebody came with me. I heard things pounding on top of the outhouse. BANG, BANG!! I KNEW the pounding on top of the outhouse couldn’t have been a joke. How could they reach up there to do that? It had to be eight feet tall.

Oh my God – I was terrified! My stomach violently seized up – I could no longer let the dogs out, no longer punish the toilet. But I also could not go outside – the boogiemen were waiting for me. I closed my eyes tightly and prayed that God did something to get me out of this stinky situation. And it WAS stinky.

ANTICLIMAX

I stayed in that nasty, stink little outhouse for three hours – freezing, praying and holding my breath – until my mom started calling for my sisters to leave me alone. Turns out, this was their opportunity to teach me a lesson about stealing and being dishonest. Both my sisters, the people I stole the money from, and my mom – whose spankings just weren’t as effective at that point – had a vested interest in making sure I learned a lesson and was scared. They bribed my cousins down the road to help with the sounds and throwing snowballs on top of the outhouse. It worked brilliantly, and my mom paid off my cousins with juice boxes. Brilliant and terrifying.

REFLECTIONS

I try to apply all my childhood lessons to life; even when they were stinky and terrifying. In the “Outhouse Haunting,” I created a situation where my sisters and mom wanted to teach me a lesson because of my bad behavior. I was responsible, ultimately, for them doing these horrible things to me. No one else was accountable. Me. My family realized they could use our earnest and honest belief in the supernatural (a belief we carry until this very day, mind you), for their own benefit. That belief was rooted in reality and something substantial. But like most beliefs, that belief can be exploited, abused, used as an excuse, etc.

For example, I realize that we as Native people often have boogiemen folks exploit for their own benefit. As a lawyer, I realize how we play into tribes’ collective fears and insecurities to make an easy buck. But it’s not just lawyers. Its tribal councilmen, consultants, parents who make excuses, who, like my sisters did to me, fill our heads with these scary stories of evil creatures that will destroy us. We are told that all these boogiemen – Slade Gorton, the BIA, National Labor Relations Board, “The White Man,” “the racist school district” – prey on the weak like us and there is nothing we can do about it. Like me in the outhouse, we’re told all we can do is pray and ask for mercy (and hire the lawyers, consultants, tribal leaders for a large fee).

The truth is, sometimes we really DO need to pray. Sometimes the spirits really DO mess with us, and sometimes there really are boogiemen out to get us. Sometimes Slade Gorton, the BIA, National Labor Relations Board, “The White Man,” and “the racist school district” are all out of line and we need help dealing with them. Sometimes outside forces really mess things up for our tribes. In those situations, we should certainly hire the best help we can.

And obviously certain people – rednecks, racists, Catholics, Christians, generals, presidents, etc – have historically hurt Native people. They have functioned as “boogiemen.”

But what if most of Native people’s problems TODAY are NOT caused by boogiemen, but the real culprits were our own people, our loved ones, our own elected official and those positioned closest to us? What if the most frequent boogiemen were our own people throwing snowballs on top of our outhouses and making a lot of noise outside.

Alternatively, what if it was us who created our own bad situations, like me stealing my sisters’ book money making my sisters want to teach me a lesson? Or blaming the racist school district for giving Native kids failing grades, but really it was lazy parenting and lack of supervision by us Skin parents? Or cursing our child’s father/mother as being worthless for not being a part of our child’s life, but not acknowledging that we made a conscious decision to have unprotected sex with that worthless person? Or what about the time when we blindly voted for our cousin – who we knew was unfit to be on council – and he robbed the tribe blind?

What about when the boogieman is us, and people who look like us?

Like me in the outhouse, if we just had the courage to walk outside – get our wits about us, take some accountability and think rationally – we could probably see that there’s not a whole bunch to be scared of.

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 gyasi.ross@gmail.com.

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