Living in poverty can feel like being invisible, or worse, they notice you and your shoes, your lack of cash flow, or car, or insurance, or leisure. That lack is the reason why I'm here. Believing in my bright future was the greatest resistance.
Poor was taking the bus with my Walkman on, listening to LL Cool J's I Need Love at five in the morning, to start my hustle at six. Being poor felt defined by my exposed, cold cement floors where my bed was, with no frame -- worrying about how the mould would affect my body.
Nobody saw me until I had a degree. Nobody gave a damn about me in foster care, or worse, they tried to save me -- to show me how horrible Indians were, and that I should assimilate into the culture of normalcy, the every day: the middle class default.
Children play in a playground in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, Canada, April 15, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
I remember so distinctly -- as a foster kid in a new home -- asking to see Maury Povich. They put it on, and observed the culture of lie detectors, chaos, dysfunction, and family scandal (what is most familiar to me), and my foster dad said, "No wonder they call these people animals."
After that I knew I was never going to identify with the default, and my place was with the "savages:" the people the majority could not understand. The people who were guileless, honest, and pulled no punches -- I decided to embrace my struggle as conditioning, and that I could take care of my family if I resisted the default, the subtle racism of liberal culture, and any institution that didn't regard me as individual and powerful.
I considered this era a Wu Tang era. Songs like Wu's Gravel Pit, Ghostface Killah's Cherchez LaGhost, or Wu's Can it be all so Simple, were what pushed me through. Not because I could identify, but because it was the only music that acknowledged the poor had feelings, and were intelligent enough to articulate them. Ghostface's All That I Got is You, was on heavy rotation at every rez party, on our stereos after school, and everywhere else.
"Daddy left me at the age of six," Ghostface said, and that's the age my father left us. When Mary J Blige came in with the bridge, I knew that I could overcome -- that having bugs in your house, invading your food before you could, dealing with struggle, it was not in vain and people could make it out.
People act like the poor aren't intelligent. Well, I say we are more intelligent than anyone in any position at any institution.
It was only a matter of time before I went back to school, graduated, got a book deal, an agent, and a fellowship (the first of its kind). People underestimated me, but, frankly, after I gained the time and money to write, everything else followed. That's what disparity is. It's oppressive, point blank, until you charge through it like a bull, and never stop for recognition.
People act like the poor aren't intelligent. Well, I say we are more intelligent than anyone in any position at any institution. When people debate identity, they don't ask the people who depend on their identities the most: poor people who have to identify themselves on forms every month. They're forced to acquiesce to whatever social services wants them to be to get the check, the bed, or the food they need. They understand identity in a way that academics do not. They understand the implication of a check box, and have the pride to resist, or do what they have to.
Do any of those academics quote people from their rez who deal with the struggle of identity every day? No. They don't. I don't have any issue with those academics, but I'm trying to make a point.
Poor people think abstractly about everything: we have to in order to cope with the absurdity of being a poor Indian. We have to fill forms out to receive canned food that is within arms reach. We give up personal information, and we give up our pride to stand in line on welfare Wednesday, or whatever day they get in line on your rez. We have to think about our place in the world in abstract terms, that we are bigger than our circumstance. We are people yet to be acknowledged. Our greatness, or talent, has yet to be witnessed. We need this rhetoric to push through the next day.
I had never been busier, philosophically, than when I had to contextualize why I was living on the rez, instead of just dying. It was an existential crisis that is never written about. You think the absurdity of life is written well in Camus' The Stranger, consider the First Nations.
I look at my success, and I know without the struggles of my life I would not be where I am, and inversely, those traumas of my past wake me up at night, and make the dark more menacing.
I'm dedicated to sharing the stories of the people who matter more than me: the people on the front lines, in social work, my spirit sister, Denise Baldwin, who has served communities for almost 20 years. A girl I partied with, giggled with, shared my poverty with. She's changing lives and I carry her story. There are more, many more: women living on the rez, unsure if the housing department is assessing their mold problem accordingly. My brothers, who deserve a living wage, but are constantly offered less than they're worth. These people matter as much as our ideas, our discourse, and, until we include them (beyond articles about poverty) in our discourse, we can't decolonize a thing.
It feels like a contrivance to even say this, but it must be said: who depends on identity the most? Who has to ascribe meaning to her actions more than anyone else? Who struggles most through our absurdity? From one "poor Indian" who made good to the rest, I know your work is more meaningful than mine. I know what you do in your community is more impactful than my pontification.
It's about time to say that change will come from those who need it the most. And while my statement is general, it's about as problematic as saying engineers will change the world. It's about time people changed their framework and paternalism concerning my people. One step at a time, we're coming.
Published previously at Indian Country Today.
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