Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption took home two awards from the 2019 High Plains Book Awards – Indigenous Writer and Creative Nonfiction. It was indeed a humbling moment, because, like any event, it doesn’t sit alone and isolated, but is mixed and kneaded with so many life-changing events around it. One such event occurred prior to the awards.
I was asked to present a reading and discussion at the book group of the Pre-Release Program in the Women’s Prison. I can’t say I wasn’t a bit nervous. I was going to talk with a population of women who is ‘othered,’ daily, in our society, set apart, talked about, discussed, moved and removed, assigned and controlled. Drugs and DUI are the top reasons for women to be incarcerated, as well as things associated with those, i.e. child endangerment. As I looked around the room of 30+ women who attended the talk, I saw ages range from 18 to possibly 50, I saw mostly American Indian faces, and I saw myself – there but for the grace of God, go I. I saw women nodding, I saw women crying, and I saw women in their vulnerability.
I spoke about what it felt like to grow up as an American Indian in Montana. It was embarrassing, shameful; it was not having many, if any, expectations of me in the academic system; it was the stereotypes of lazy, government-subsidized, stupid, addicted. I saw too many women nodding when I talked about my drinking and drug days in college – I’d become what the larger society expected me to become, and as a result I felt like I let my family down, myself down and my culture group of birth down. But then I studied about our American Indian history, its sordid past and policies that were designed to frame how we were to see ourselves, trained us to be ‘less than’ and to be unquestioning of that. In such a strong, patriarchal structure, women and children are at the bottom of the ‘pride’ scale. So when I shared this information, and I spoke truth to power, I saw the nods, the tears, the bent heads, the faces filled with thought.
The thing is, I wondered what strength could my words possibly provide? But then the humbling mantra came – there but for the grace of God, go I. I hope my words provided a pathway for women to reflect on the ways we think about ourselves, talk about ourselves, construct ourselves, and define ourselves. Are these thoughts, conversations, constructions and definitions coming from our hearts, our history, our souls and our dreams? Or do they come from the outside, from how others think we are, or should be, including those of us in the indigenous circles? How do we guide and not judge? How do we share our wisdom instead of hoarding it as power? Our awareness is that pathway, and we have to walk that pathway daily, to look beyond our feet at the flowers, the streams, the trees, the mountains, the world that has existed for eons long before us to understand why we are going in the direction we are going.
And that direction is not just one-way, there are twists and turns and intersections where we become aware of the choices we can make. We might wake up one morning and state “I’m done living life the way others want me to live it.” Or we look at our grandchildren, our daughters and sons, our grandmothers, our sisters and remember how badly we wanted to add strength to these generations, and that although we may have stumbled, our dreams of doing that have not died. They’ve been smothered, but they have not died.
I implore all women to take back the power to dream, to define, explore your heart and your soul for those ideals and beliefs, values and attitudes that will make each generation a little stronger. Pass those on to future generations, so their pathway can continue and then carve its own route. And realize, that although the cost on obtaining your wisdom was high, your future, your children and grandchildren’s future, is worth it.
I am so honored to have met these women, who survive, their resilience being shown by the fact that they were in that room, sitting in a circle, with me and listening to their hearts after they listened to my words.
May all of you be aware of and embrace the love that surrounds you – Susan Harness, Salish Kootenai