Roland W. Reed, 'Tribute to the Dead,' 1912

Native Family Reunions (A Classic Revisited)

Gyasi Ross
10/16/12

My family doesn't really have reunions. Not pre-planned family reunions, anyway—you know, the kind with hats, t-shirts and what have you. The matriarchs in our family always try to set them up, but it's difficult. It's mainly money problems and logistics that prevent true family reunions from happening in my family—we're in a lot of different places, and so it's difficult to get everyone together at one time.  Plus, my family is big and somewhat transient in nature: lots of phone numbers change, people move and disappear for long periods of time without notice. We tend to catch up with each other when we catch up with each other—usually at some pow-wow, or IGA, or Wilma Faye or Wanda's house. It’s important to note that we don’t love each other any less simply because we don't see each other.  No, my family is very close.  But most of us are, for lack of a better word, "poor."  I mean, we love seeing each other and we're slobberingly affectionate with each other when we actually do get to see each other.  It just doesn't happen that often, and when it does, it's usually not under the best of circumstances. So, oddly (and somewhat morbidly), funerals have thus become our default "family reunions." Miraculously, the hardest-to-find members of my family are always somehow contacted when someone dies. I'm still not sure how (Skin GPS?). Likewise, everybody in my family manages to scrape together enough finances to make it to the wakes and funerals. We take funerals very seriously. I remember one cousin's funeral in particular. This was a cousin I grew up very close with, since I was a baby. In fact, I used to stay at his house often—playing Atari and, yes, breakdancing in the basement (we were very much into breakdancing on our dusty streets, and we'd breakdance for free video games at pow-wows). My cousin and I watched a lot of movies at his house; his family was one of the few Skin families that I knew of who had two VCRs and could record movies.  Yet, attending his funeral services, I realized that the only real firsthand knowledge I had of him is leftover from childhood, all those years ago.  I literally had no new memories of him.  And that was troubling. I could describe in great detail the places where we used to catch frogs and the fights that we got into when we were kids.  Sometimes we fought other kids, and when there were no other kids around, we'd fight each other.  For example, one time he hit me with a two-by-four during a game of kick the can. Ouch. Still, despite those vivid memories, I couldn't tell you the names of his 3 children or where he'd lived for the past dozen or so years.  I mean, when I go home, I only visit his parents' house—the same house where I'd stay the night at as a kid.  I'm a creature of habit; I just never took the time to go see my now-adult cousin in his "grown-up home" or learn anything about him since our childhood. But I learned a lot "grown-up" facts at my cousin's funerals. "Oh, he was actually married?  When did that happen?" As often happens with funeral for cousins who are around my age, I met his wife and children for the first time.  It was heartbreaking and embarrassing; my cousin's wife introduced me to his beautiful little children as "Uncle Gyasi."  That caused me to feel even worse because my role should be as their uncle; I should have a strong relationship with these kids.  I should not just show up at their dad's funeral.  Yet, the truth is that I've never had a meaningful conversation with these kids, they've never even seen me with their dad while he was alive.  And I'm supposed to be "Uncle Gyasi?"  Shameful.  Still, they hugged me tightly and looked to me as if I could give them some comfort.  His wife tearfully filled me in on the past dozen years of their lives—the important things that I missed in my precious cousin's life.  I ended up learning more about my cousin after he passed on than I knew about them while he was alive. And that's a shame. I realized that showing up at the wake and funeral and ceremonies was not merely a matter of protocol and custom; this is where I should've been the whole time.  I should've kept this relationship pure and close.  We were very close at one time.  I realized that I let circumstances dictate my relationship with a loved one.  And now I simply do not have the opportunity to repair my relationship with my cousin during this physical life.  I will never have that chance again.  That chance is gone. The artificial line between "urban" and "rez" Skin ceased to have meaning—now I just miss my cousin.  He was in Montana and I was in Washington, but so what?  We both had cars and phones and e-mail. At the wake, I realized that I missed him painfully and that all the horrible demographic information about the unemployment, domestic abuse and poverty on the reservation had no meaning.  It was secondary.  I didn't care if I couldn't find a job at home; I wished that I had been there to hang out with my cousin.  Breakdancing in the basement should have turned into playing basketball together.  Playing Atari would've transformed into playing Nintendo Wii.  We would have matured and our fighting would have turned into hunting and fishing together. But when I viewed his stiff, embalmed body, I realized that I will never play basketball or play Nintendo Wii or go fishing or hunting with him.  And I got very sad upon that realization. I was heartbroken.  I realized the sad irony of the situation—I missed him painfully.  Still, three weeks prior, it wasn't a big deal that we had been missing out of each other's lives.  I mean, my life didn't feel any emptier being apart from him for all of those years until I heard that he was gone.  Truth is, he probably didn't feel any emptier from being away from me. But now I miss him. And then I started crying.  And the tears were real.  The tears were not a matter of protocol or custom.  They didn't happen just because I happened to be at a funeral and I was expected to cry. I guess it's true that you never, ever realize what you have until it's gone.   I realized what was gone at our "family reunion." So, I resolve, to the extent that I can control it, that funerals will not be the only time that I spend meaningful time with family members or friends.  Funerals will not be my family reunions. I will randomly call my family and friends. I will annoy them with attention. They will get tired of my text messages. Funerals will not be the only time that I see Skins eating and talking and spending quality time together.  Our reunions may be humble and imperfect—drinking Kool Aid, bologna and red hot dogs if need be—but I will do my part to help my family take my family back. (Author’s note: Reprinted from the former Indian Country Today—certain circumstances have made me realize that this piece is just as appropriate today as when I originally wrote it. God bless everybody out there dealing with loss. Comfort to the Ray family, and RIP Lyman Bullchild.) Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in 2012 appropriately called The Thing About Skins, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi

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talyn's picture
talyn
Submitted by talyn on
Having lost four family members in the past two months, I have to say that this was painfully appropriate right now. One I had visited just two weeks before he died, before we knew he was dying, and I am grateful I got to see him while he was still alert and oriented. The others were as Gyasi described: I did not realize I had lost contact with them until I heard they were gone. One I was astonished and ashamed to discover had been in a long-term care facility only fifty miles away, and I did not learn of it until she died. That I deeply regret.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Before I left home for Montana, I had been to two funerals involving relatives in the space of several months. I know we make promises to change all that but time and money constraints preclude that. I hear of other young people in my community that had passed on but it didn't hit me until I asked about a certain person I had been friends with and someone commented he passed away two years ago. Yeah, it seems like our family reunions are funerals, I'm not the most popular person in my family, they call me Grumpa, but I do love my relations. But I will bother my relations from here on in.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Well said words. Sometimes we CAN help from doing the same ol safe stuff.Not a lot of money but there are the things we can do to show our families we DO CARE for them though we are not physically near to hug them.Enough...Gyasi Ross you have said it all so very well.Thankyou!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Bless all those who mourn and bless those who realize it ain't too late. It's only too late when we are six-feet under. Lost my cousin, a cousin in-law, and had my adopted father get critically ill all within ONE WEEK. It made me appreciate my humble life and celebrate each day with love, laughter, and patience. Peace out.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Closed fist over my heart, The whisper of the steady wind, Hear these chains, that steal my part? A part yet to be known, until its been, I am revealed, stripped, and hurt.... I stand, closed fist over my heart, No one told me, showed me, bestowed to me, I just stand closed fist over my heart.
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