"When did issues of homelessness and poverty start?" I heard a softspoken and shaky voice say. I looked around to find a face I did not expect to see, the very kind face of an elderly white woman. She appeared earnest, with a deep desire to know more about the root of the problem.
The forum's speaker did not have the time or patience to consider someone asking, much less answering such a question. With the difficulty of tying the cause to any one source, the speaker's answer was vague and indistinct.
I was at the meeting working with the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center's Women's Justice Circle. We were at the forum to find solutions for the homeless, and how to advocate for the under-represented and often ignored in our society. I became empowered by the WJC group to attend the forum, and to make a difference for the homeless.
There was a break before the next speaker, so I decided I would sit with the woman?to tell her my story. I told her simply, "I was born into poverty. I am Native American and poverty is an institution."
I was born into poverty
Born on the Yakama reservation, I was three weeks old, and my mother was 19, when we were separated and I became a ward of the state. She had received a two-year prison sentence for possessing an ounce of marijuana. Figuratively, I was sentenced too, and denied the right to bond with my mother. In state custody as a child, I was beaten, abused, and severely neglected to the point of starvation. I ate trash and dog food and became anemic.
My mother would not allow me to be adopted, so I moved constantly within "the system," living in more places than I can count. I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in foster homes, shelters, group homes, and eventually with street gangs. For me, family life was never an option. At age 18, I was no longer a ward of the state. I was declared an adult and put on the streets with nowhere to go. Really, by my own declaration, I felt I had been an adult on my own since the age of 13.
Foster care was not a positive experience to say the least. Most of the time, I fared better on the street than in foster care. Although there were many difficulties and hardships to overcome, like low self-esteem, gangs, violence, drugs and alcohol, I was a survivor. But at the age of 15, I knew I was on the road to self-destruction and I didn't care.?I felt I was a screw-up, and would always be one, so why not run with it? The violent street sometimes made the whole world look cold and cruel, as though that was the way of the world. I did not have the audacity to think I would ever live to see my 20s.
I believe it was divine intervention that stepped in to make me stop my negative thinking and show me that there was another way to live. The prospect of receiving my education offered a glimmer of hope that someday I could be someone. Moving around all the time, it was difficult to do well in school, let alone stay in school. Regardless, I managed to graduate.
As a teen, I was invited to a non-profit youth program called I'WA'Sil (a Salish word that means positive change) that schooled and mentored the inter-urban and at-risk youth of the streets. I received alternative schooling and much needed counseling there. I listened to, and was inspired by, the program executive director, Woody Verzola. He let me know how high the deck was stacked against me because I had grown up in poverty. He told me his own story of how he beat the odds. He told me I was nothing short of a miracle.
I had never heard such inspiring talk before. He changed my dismal outlook, he assured me that I could achieve whatever I wanted to achieve. He made me feel like nothing was impossible. I wasn't unworthy in his eyes. When speaking to him, I didn't feel like someone who was lost. After counseling with him, I was no longer afraid to try anything I really wanted to do. Something inside me made me believe him.
I am Native American
As if poverty wasn't enough, I was born Native American. My race classification had a way of shaming my view of who I was before I knew I had a choice. Growing up, I had mixed feelings about the stereotypes of my people and I felt shame. Also, I was told by foster parents, teachers and others that I had no choice in the matter: whatever may come, I would become an alcoholic.
On the reservation, I understood we were the bad guys. In grade school, corporal punishment was allowed and my first grade teacher used it generously. Because of the neglect I had experienced in the foster homes, I could not read or recite my vowels. My teacher made a point to keep me in at recess and tell me how stupid I was and how stupid Indian kids were. She would also use the paddle and yank me around by my arm.
Often, she would order me to recite the vowels I did not know. She would recite the English vowels as fast as a Gatling gun: "A-E-I-O-U -- now say it!" Feeling helpless and inept, especially under her demeaning pressure, I would try and say a few letters as quickly as I could recall. I just couldn't remember them and it sounded like one word. Time and time again, I would nervously try, "A...I...O...." I was thinking, if only she didn't say them so fast. I knew she would get away with mistreating me because she was the adult and I had no one to defend me.
Outside at recess, it wasn't any better. When I wasn't fighting for being Native, I was bullied for being fair-skinned. When I purchased a poster through the school book club of a Native chief in headdress regalia, showing it proudly, I didn't understand why everyone on the school bus was laughing and hooting with the famous mouth pat. I would usually end up in a fight for my life standing up for the principle of things. Silently, I wondered why it was cool for TV programs to glamorize cowboys killing "Injuns." I fought often to protect my identity and pride. School was a dehumanizing process that made me feel inferior.
This dehumanizing view of Native Americans and the corruption of Native American history persist to this day.
The Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are created equal. However, there appears to be a double standard in American equality. Native Americans were long considered as savages and portrayed as the antagonist. We were not given any rights or protection, nor were we recognized as American citizens until 1924, long after most immigrants.
The one-sided viewpoint and propaganda taught to me (and you) in mainstream public school about my heritage was inaccurate and unfinished to say the least. When I learned the truth, I had to come to terms with what the "government did" and deal with confusion later for what the government didn't do and still refuses to do.
A stranger in my own land
When it came to my tribal identity, I was painfully lost for a long time. In order to become a tribal member we have to have pedigree papers, like a dog. Unfortunately I am a mutt. So once again I was castigated, but this time by my own people.
I was born of Yakama descent but I am also of Colville, Lummi, and German descent. I am not enough of one tribe to be federally recognized as a member of any. It doesn't matter that being Native is all I have ever been classified as, all I can identify with, and the only life I have known. Once again, the anguish of what was taken from me had a way of making me feel lost.
My people were not always this way: on reservations or homeless. The tragedy of my Ancestors' history has haunted me along with my sense of tragic loss towards my broken bonds and family ties. I have had to witness life within a dysfunctional cycle of negative learned behavior, coping skills, and institutionalized abuse.
Poverty is an Institution
For a moment, imagine taking a vacation. You go to a place of natural harmony and peacefulness. You need no money. You want for nothing, all your needs are provided. The people are friendly and cooperate together to get what they want. They make sure you are aware that you are a special guest. There is a loving kinship about the people around you. All they want to do is share with you, and honor your very being. There is no such thing as homelessness, poverty, unnecessary suffering, or class and social division. No one goes hungry. Everyone receives uplifting guidance and counsel. You give and always receive. Sounds like heaven on earth, but these are some of the non-material treasures my Ancestors possessed. This is how my people lived.
I cannot help but fantasize about the life I would have had without European interference. I would be self-sufficient and have a sense of my natural rights and honorable intrinsic freedom. The homeless problem is an outgrowth of the "Indian problem." A problem was created where none had been and it transformed itself into chaos. We were forced into becoming dependent on the government and made to forget our natural rights necessary to live in harmony with one another. The governing factions did not want to share resources. Although time and again they gave the appearance that they would, they did not. In their minds there wasn't enough. Annihilation was the solution. That, plus a mythical rewrite of history. At the height of the dilemma, the governing factions wanted everything, and in some ways it seems they still do. They couldn't go through with complete genocide, though, because people who cared stepped in and stopped it -- but not before some tribes were completely decimated and the rest put on reservations. The struggle for equality continues on many reservations throughout the United States.
Enough blame to go around
However, as much as I would love the convenience of one entity to blame for history, I cannot with integrity do so because of my belief that everything happens for a reason. In the youth of American history, there were many factors involved in the art of deceiving so many other immigrants who came and took their stake in the land of my home. They had no conscience of a crime being committed towards a fellow human being because we were regarded as subhuman.
After years of anger that got me nowhere, I found that the common Native's perception, "the white man did it," or the classic, "the government did it," wasn't entirely accurate either. It is hard to see through the fog of anger, and once it begins it is hard to overcome. But if a new perception is not acknowledged, the truths of the doctrine that America holds "self-evident, that all men are created equal," cannot be realized. Without owning up to the acts of cruelty and injustice that are substantiated historical events we, collectively, won't understand each other.
The lessons and conclusions that can be drawn from Native American history are not unique. Our story is similar to those of oppressed people of many races and nations throughout time. We are the same. Unfortunately, in the tragedy of this all-too-common story, the cause is often overlooked and to this day people are still being impoverished.
The poor and homeless everywhere are exploited and contrary to popular belief, someone benefits from the travesty behind it. Poverty was here long before I was born; there is a reason for it and a cause. That is the reason I am involved with the Women's Justice Circle and other community actions where I can represent the untold story. I am beginning to understand that together, with the right people, we can make a difference.
The question the kind lady asked -- "When did issues of homelessness and poverty start?" -- was a valid one. Instead of being appalled, I appreciate her honesty. To some, a question like that brings dismay because of the lack of awareness. But it needs to be asked by more people. She had a genuine desire to know more because she cares. Her desire to know is instrumental to her ability to help. Her understanding and intrinsic quest for truth is the same curiosity that separates us from reptiles.
The search for why is the first step towards uniting humankind in our quest for co-operational peace -- of uniting towards a vision of ourselves in which all things are possible. Therefore, the question ought to be, "Who benefits and who gains from poverty?" Seeking that answer through reflection and by uniting people who care with people who experience poverty, we can change the way the story ends.
At times it seems to be the subject no one wants to talk about, especially when it relates to Native Americans. However, what happened to my people can be found over and over again. It's a wound recent enough for the human race to heal from. It can be traced back to the beginning of greed and oppression. Not just in America, but all throughout history, everywhere in the world, in the Bible, or in any good history book.
The oppressive assimilation and genocide of entire nations anywhere is wrong. Categorically, we are still here. I was born a refugee in my own country, and all around the world others are singing that same song. At least within groups and community actions, like the Women's Justice Circle, we can sing it together and take some of the pain away.
I work together with the Women's Justice Circle, standing up for a cause I believe in, because I have learned that we can't change the past, nor can we choose the times in which we live. We can, however, choose how to live today. Change doesn't happen overnight, but no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, I do make that much of a difference. We are dependent on one another. We need to represent each other in this way, to make our country and this world work towards a common goal.
Without blame, we can take the shame away in history, confess past wrongs, learn from them, and not allow them to continue. The truth ought to be taught to each of us without fear or shame, but with open minds and hearts, so that together we can identify right and wrong. Teach the truth, and the future will rectify itself. The past will be as the dark ages, and the future can be bright for all.