“Who killed me?” I asked.
“Do you want the name of the actual person or the asshole who gave the order?” he said.
“I suppose the latter,” I uttered, gripping my neck.
“That hypocritical sot!”
Like many Native people I began my career working for my Tribe soon after graduating with my undergraduate social work degree. The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 because of the high removal rate of Indian children from their traditional homes and essentially from Indian culture as a whole. Before enactment, as many as 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were being removed from their Indian homes and placed in non-Indian homes, with presumably the absence of Indian culture. In some cases, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) paid the states to remove Indian children and to place them with non-Indian families and religious groups.
Testimony in the House Committee for Interior and Insular Affairs showed that in some cases, the per capita rate of Indian children in foster care was nearly 16 times higher than the rate for non-Indians. If Indian children had continued to be removed from Indian homes at this rate, tribal survival would be threatened. Congress recognized this, and stated that the interests of tribal stability were as important as that of the best interests of the child. One of the factors in this judgment was that, because of the differences in culture, what was in the best interest of a non-Indian child were not necessarily what was in the best interest of an Indian child, especially due to extended families and tribal relationships.
In October of 1987 I was hired in the first Indian Child Welfare Position in our Tribe’s urban office in Duluth. I loved this time in my career and loved working with our Native families. I learned so much from them about resiliency and survival. I honed my skills and my ability to walk in two worlds. It was an exciting time in Indian Child Welfare in the 1980s. We were pioneers in implementing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. I quickly learned that once Native children were removed they were placed in non Native foster homes which were often far away from their biological family and there were no services being offered to the family to aid in returning the children to their families. The advocacy I provided had a great impact on the high removal rates of Native children from their families. In addition, I was able to work closely with families to help them comply with court mandates for reunification or to identify relatives to care for their children so that the foster care system could be avoided altogether. One glaring gap in services in the foster care system was the lack of Native foster homes. When the opportunity to do something about this arose I accepted the challenge and left my position with the Tribe.
In July of 1993 I was hired by a private, non-profit foster care agency to recruit and license Native foster homes. This was a large agency with offices in all of Minnesota and eventually all of Wisconsin and North Dakota. As a Native person going to work for a dominant culture agency there are inherent risks involved. I was initially viewed as a representative icon rather than as an individual. There is always a fine line between being treated as a token minority and implementing cultural competence standards in an organization. A culturally competent program demonstrates empathy and understanding of cultural differences in treatment design, implementation, and evaluation (Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, 1994). Nowadays cultural competence is increasingly a requirement for funding and accreditation. For many years I was the only minority in the entire organization. I began licensing Native foster homes and before long I had several foster homes and for the first time our community had safe, same race homes for Native children in need of care. During the 18 years I was with this agency over a thousand Native children were cared for in the homes that I licensed. I worked my way up in the organization from case manager to lead social worker to area director to regional director in charge of the northern one third of Minnesota. I had great success in developing a long-term, ongoing cultural competence process within the geographic area that I served. I had a great staff of social workers that, although non Native, had an understanding of the cultural nuances of the Native people that we worked with. Over the 18 years that I worked for the agency I was recruited by competing agencies to work for them. Competing agencies also attempted to start their own Native foster care program in my community without success.
Through my volunteer work and as a member of the board of directors for various agencies a needs assessment showed a gap in services for chemical dependency and mental health services for Native people. The agency I worked for was not willing to diversify to provide services to meet the unmet needs in our community. In hindsight this left me vulnerable to offers from these competing agencies that lurked around the community like vultures. In April of 2011 I was approached by the CEO of a competing agency and I met with him in my office. He offered me a chance to work for his agency and to provide any services that I wanted in the Duluth community. In fact, this agency already had successful chemical dependency and mental health programs in addition to foster care services. I agreed to discuss his proposal with my staff but I asked that he also hire my entire staff as we were a team. He agreed to these terms and within 48 hours my staff and I resigned from our current agency and went to work for one of our competitors.
One by one the Native foster families that I had worked with for many years followed me and my staff to the new agency. Cultural competence starts with the program’s administration although competence requires that people of all levels in an agency learn to value diversity. It was obvious from the beginning that this agency had no desire to achieve cultural competence. In June 2012 it was announced that I was the new Cultural Director for the agency. I was not asked if I wanted to be the Cultural Director. I knew right then that this was the beginning of the end for me.
Being the only Native person in an agency that has 150 employees and then be asked to be in charge of cultural competency for a rigid hierarchical organization is a set up for failure. At the same time my responsibility for the budgeting, marketing and personnel was taken from me and I was reduced to a token status in the agency. For the next ten months I was the cultural director for an agency that was seemingly bent on cultural destructiveness. I was determined to give it everything I had. I did a cultural competency assessment of the agency and came to the conclusion that there was resistance throughout the entire agency. On May 7, 2013 I was notified that my position had been eliminated and I was escorted from the building. The staff and the foster parents were told my termination was because of budget and poor marketing of the office. They seemed to ignore the fact that I wasn’t in charge of the budget or the marketing of the agency.
It was midnight, and I decided to sacrifice some virgins.
“Why not?” I shouted. “What’s the point of being found guilty of a crime if you don’t even get to enjoy committing the thing?”
“What’d you say?” he said.
“Never mind,” I blistered. “Keep looking.”
I just ordered another, and I don't want to look at the goddamn note—the bill—the one in my pocket. Not again. I'm doomed. Oh well. Que sera sera.
The bar is almost empty. Sinatra croons out of speakers unseen about the “wee small hours of the morning.” And that's what these are, the maudlin hours. Midnight – when lonely souls hug inanimate pillows and beasts with venomous crotches prowl and thieve the light from once-wondrous eyes. But I'm not brooding on that now. I have the note in my hand, my hand in my pocket, and I'm about to read it again. ...
Close to $100,000 in the hole, it reads. Signed, -Your Masters and Bachelors Degrees. ... Shit. To hell with apple pie and baseball, Jack. American as debt. Right. ...
The bartender wipes down a glass with a rag, and then, with his fingers, gently massages a lipstick stain off one of them. Did he know her, the patron with the lips? The poor bastard. He's lovesick. I can spot these sad sacks by their red, rheumy eyes, their slouched backs and how they consistently eye their phones in a desperate hope that the love lost, the heartbreaker, will call any minute and say, "I love you. I made a mistake. Come home."
But no. That's not reality, folks. So he continues to wipe down the martini glasses, the shot glasses and now the bar, sniffling here and again. He's probably waited all night long, his shift, to let out a good wail, and it would appear that now I'm the only wiggy skull left between him and it. Time to go.... Yes. The poor bastard. Let it out, man. I've been there. We all have, and damn the liar who says he hasn't. The prat.
I hailed a cab, crawled in claws first and found a crumpled New York Times on the seat. Like a good friend with bad news the paper seemed to have been waiting for me, so I thumbed through it, ignoring the bill still in my pocket. "Where to, sir?" the cabbie said. "Her house!" I blurted. "She's expecting me." The driver examined me through his rear view mirror ... me, this excited passenger speaking in code and wrestling with a day-old paper in the back of his sullied cab. "Where?" he asked with a tinge of concern. "Her house, man! Her house. In Wash Heights. She does yoga. All hippies do."
"OK," he responded. "Take the West Side Highway then?"
"Good idea. Yes. The West Side Highway. Go now. We’re out of time! The hour is late and I have a date!"
And for 30 or so minutes the driver in red slammed on the gas of the yellow bee and zipped in and out of late-night New York City traffic, leaning on the horn and damning drivers and drunk jaywalkers in skirts and loosed ties until we got to the elevated freeway on the bank of the whipping Hudson.
We arrived to her apartment building with a loud shrill of the tires. The mad cabbie kicked me out of the car and, as quickly as he could, sped off into the bright lights of the city. He slowed the sedan as he approached an intersection—the red lights, but kept on his way, not stopping, only checking for traffic on either side, and then he was gone, a blur in the distance and a memory of mine to forget with all the rest of the trivial shit that happens in life.
I rang the buzzer to her shoebox apartment. No answer. Try again, I thought. No answer. Damn. No date then, and the bill continued to weigh heavily in my slacks. So I sat there on the corner outside of her flat for a bit and brooded intensely. Lie back on the concrete, maybe, stare at the stars, possibly, I thought – at least until the fuzz comes and barks at me to “move on” or a mutt comes to piss on me. And this is when the ugly ruminations chewed at my skull and dragged my mood into the gutter:
It’s a bastard of a situation when you’re $100,000 in debt to Uncle Sam yet insufferable citizens of the Know It All Nation continue to hit you over the head with, “Oh, you’re Native American? Well, shit then, you guys don’t have to worry about tuition. …”
I don't know if Woody Allen did it. I'd like to think the four-eyed filmmaker didn't sexually assault the girl, Dylan, but only he knows the truth, and she does, too – and maybe also the fly that was on the wall that fateful day in 1992.
This week I had a personal experience that was simultaneously painful and shocking, involving betrayal and a peculiar form of racism that exists in Indian country.
I'm in no mood to write today.
He limped into town in the middle of the night, beaten and bitter. He’s an asshole, really, and a good person.
As the holidays near, many Americans start planning how and where they will travel to meet up with family all around the U.S. It is a foreign concept to me.
As a researcher, I talk to other Native people about shared social issues. Sometimes we discuss the history and impact of federal Indian law, tribal politics, or the “real Indian” meme.
You have 24 hours, 1,440 minutes, or 86,400 seconds in a day—what do you do with your time? Do you find yourself spending it on the wrong priorities and activities? Time is precious. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. We can never get it back, but we can invest our time for the future.
I grew up in the white world. Anyone not white was a minority. In school we learned that Christopher Columbus was a hero who discovered America. Indians fought cowboys in the Old West, and Custer was tragically killed by a huge group of “bad savages."
If you spread it thin enough, a 40-ounce jar of peanut butter can last a long time. Ramen noodles can feed a whole nation for the cost of a box of Sailor Boy crackers.
It was summertime in the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo rez and everyone was living up in their sheep camps. There were some boys who had put in a full day of work and were heading back down to the valley below. It was 1968.