Heal, Women and Sisters! You Are Not Alone!

Terese Mailhot

One of my brother’s earliest memories is of him watching me in my father’s van while our father drank out by the river. My brother said I was only a baby, and he didn’t know if my dad would come back, so he sat in the cold van, feeding me an empty bottle. The trauma within my family runs deep and wide, and we’ve been healing for years. Part of that healing is telling the story, regardless of its implications concerning culture or community.

As a baby girl I was brought several times to my uncles home because my father had broken ours, searching for drinking money. Several times I was forced to witness my mother’s body being broken by my father, a man I loved in spite of his monstrous nature and proclivity for pain.

My narrative is not unusual, and some part of me feels like it is betraying itself by saying in public forum that abuse within Native communities exists and hurts. My own sister can barely keep a job or maintain a home without a small breakdown, where she realizes just how much she was subject to before her first moon time.

Recently I decided to be unabashedly honest about this trauma: my mother made mistakes, loved the wrong men, learned from it, and now we’re all still healing. Even in death, I feel my mother’s spirit journey with me while I reconcile with the very real pain of what I witnessed.

With our voices we can heal. I encourage any Native woman who witnessed abuse to not feel cliché, or undone by the trauma. What you witnessed was common, but also individual. Your pain is something to own, to journey through, and voicing the truth of your journey can heal the generation before you.

My counselor, a rather hokey woman, forced me to cry for the first time about the sexualization I experienced as a child. I came to her afraid to breathe. She said, “Terese, what will happen if you breathe?” I told her I would cry. “So cry,” she said. For the first time in my life I found myself weeping, grieving for my own childhood.

The next step was reconciliation. She tapped my kneecaps, one after the other. My eyes moved like a pendulum. She had me remember a safe place in my mind which was the corn stalks outside my childhood home. I remembered the place, a place where wild dogs run now. My childhood home: 40 acres of corn, blueberry bushes, healing wild strawberries and plum trees. She told me to go there every so often, to give levity to the very hard things I was dealing with: the past.

I am in the midst of my healing, but I wanted to share that with my readership. Heal, women and sisters. We can heal from our trauma, and yes, it does damage a continuum of Native writing by acknowledging we have drunken fathers, complicit mothers, and problems with alcohol. But through reconciliation we can develop that continuum by sharing what’s beyond our very common pain: individual narrative and experiences that make us human. I am so much more than what my father did to me.

Native men, witness my story. Some of you were the brothers, feeding your little sisters empty bottles, throwing yourself in front of fists to protect your mothers. I see your pain as well.

One task I’m currently on now, thanks to my counselor, is dealing with my ‘inner child,’ a hokey term, I know. She had me buy a teddy bear, about the size of my six-year-old self. I am to hold the bear as I would hold myself, to say everything will be okay, and that the trauma is over now. I urge women in healing to do this as well. There has never been anything more liberating than holding my small self to say things will get better.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I simply want to share my human journey with you. I suspect many Native people are dealing with generational trauma. I can’t say why my father hurt me. I learned months ago that he had been incarcerated for abducting a girl of fourteen before he had me. I can say that he was born into a home of violence himself. I can say that as Native people, we have been subject to tremendous degradation, and that our men have been emasculated by the law, the treaties, and the missions. As I work to understand my own pain, my fathers, and my culture within this problem, I want to say this is a journey worthwhile. If only all of us Natives could hold ourselves, witness our struggles, and see that the reconciliation is part of our progress. I believe when I come out of this, I will somehow understand white supremacy and my own identity better.

All my relations to those women and men who identify with my story. You are not alone.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in The Offing and Burrow Press Review. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an SWAIA Fellow. 

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tmsyr11's picture
The R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-I-E-S fell upon your father and your family and your community to seek and achive and maintain alcohol recovery (abstinence). If I get stopped and pulled over in Santa Fe, NM for a DWI/DUI, i can't blame the NM State, the SF Officer, my Ford Truck…..unfortunately though, i may blame my family or friends for….."making me drink"! This is how your article is perceived, don't blame the family, but blame the State of New Mexico! I had told a relative "NO" to staying in my house because of his house arrest. This was his 3rd driving incident related with alcohol. When word got back to our indian families, of me saying "NO" and he had to go back to Jail, I was instantanously the BAD GUY. Of course never mind the fact, that he had 3 prior arrests and charges (he obviously has alcohol problems). If I had to do over again, I would say NO! Its not just the Drinker (the one charged) that is under house arrest - its the entire family house-hold and by LAW, State or City officials can decide to rummage through you cabinents, trash, clothes, to find or locate anything in the house-hold that has alcohol. Until relations as yourself and communities begin to take responsibility and stop blaming the white supremacy or generational trauma-thingy, the alcohol impact isn't going to subside. Your obviously taking opportunities (SWAIA) that better provide personal achievement so the 'white' isn't totally….bad or traumatic. What are tribal governments (ex: SeaBird) doing to administer alcohol/drug treatments, recovery? What are the tribal governments (NM Pueblos, Apache nations, Navajo Tribe) doing to monitor and/or assist New mexico in the drunk driving, alcohol sales, etc.? Basic questions for indian communities to ask than dwell on the past….
Ohoyo Chahta's picture
I applaud your courage and wisdom, Terese. You are so right to point to historical events as the source of abuse in our communities, for it is well-known that such abuse was extremely rare among our peoples pre-contact. Yet abuse has a long, long history in the Old World. It was brought to our lands by those people. And once it started, it kept going because that is the pattern of abuse. (Again, this is well-demonstrated by research.) Alcohol and drug abuse are not the real cause of abuse, but its result. Trauma research strongly suggests these substances are used to self-medicate the excruciating pain of abuse that has already happened. But of course the people who use those substances were abused and so they in turn abuse others, and the alcohol and drugs reduce their ability to resist the impulse to do so. It is a tragic connection. Yet although abusers are acting out abuse done to them, it is also well-known that people who are abused can stop the cycle and not abuse others in their turn. That's why your words are so important. We must face the situation, which takes courage. We must talk about it and get it out into the open to deal with it. And we have to support each other because being the person who stands in the "it goes no farther" place -- of having been abused but not carrying on the pattern -- walks a hard, hard road. I am proud of you for doing what you do, and being true to the vision you have been given. Yakoke! I pray right this moment that the spirits will bless you and those you love.
Ohoyo Chahta
ReneeH's picture
Terese, I really enjoy reading your articles and I wish I knew of a way that I could read more. This piece by the way has touched more than anything else I have ever read, thank you. ICTM- Is there a way I could block tmsyr11 from my own feed?
FreeRadical's picture
Terese, I so admire your honesty and drive to heal. It troubles me so that Native People have been so despicably attacked and degraded simply for living right. The alcoholism and the tribulations would naturally arise from the horrible genocide that was cast upon tribes people. However, tribes people are closer to nature even though everyone has pretty much been "white washed" by now. This gives us something strong we can all work with which is starting a new system that is completely separated from this stupid system we live in. I notice that tribes people are adopting the same government and hierarchal structures that the white people have! That is essentially spreading the virus. It is my belief that women are being called to step forward now. We have allowed the men to dictate everything and we have stood by and followed. We need to muster our courage and our unity and start new systems that are doable NOW, TODAY. We need to notice our strengths. Nobody needs to be put down or degraded. We can develop systems that elevate everyone. The greedy maybe not so much but even for their good because this system definitely enables the greedy, the self-interested, the exploitative types to rise to the top at the expense of everyone. I would love to visit an Indian Reservation. Oh boy what your people could do with your own sovereignty!