Stories gain and lose power once they’re spoken. My mother was over-cultivated with story. The legends became too layered and profound to inherit. She spent days at her typewriter trying to convey the most important things about our lineage as Nlaka’pamux.
Native people say the distinction between stories in our culture and theirs is that the land is a character itself, not setting. My great-grandfather cleared forty acres with only a few tools after the government told his people they could no longer travel seasonally. They didn’t want the Natives to move, in a way to stop what an unmovable force we were. After the smallpox epidemic, we were still alive, able to irrigate, fish, navigate the river basins, and build lodges. The women understood the land was sacred and familial. They planted raspberry bushes that fenced in the yard, a snowball tree inside our circular driveway, blueberry bushes in our backyard, and a greengage plum tree in the front.
My mother had no eyebrows. They were burned off when a train hit her car. My mother drove with her two children in the backseat. She crossed the tracks without looking, and my brother, Guyweeyo, said, “Train’s gonna bite our ass.” It did. They recovered and then carried the story.
My grandmother de-wormed children when she taught nursery school on the reservation. The kids squatted in our kitchen after she gave them laxatives. She grew up in a residential school, where she learned how to take care of those smaller than her.
Clowns are sacred to us. They represent the contrary nature it takes to survive in this world. Laughter will always be sacred to Nlaka’pamux.
Medicine man, Isadore Tom, saw me as a child: newly abandoned by my father, suffering from tuberculosis, wanting to be good. He said I didn’t need to be nice anymore, and my mother said she regretted the day. “We should have named you ‘Riot,’ ” she said.
I stared in the mirror at eleven, trying to see if I had breasts yet, when Fred Cardinal called me into the living room. “Your name is Little Mountain Woman,” he said. “Asiniy Wache Iskwewis.” I felt ashamed and undeserving of the name. The name also translates to “Rocky Hill Woman.” He tried to teach me about entropy with the innards of a rabbit once. He told me the body was a universe.
My mother fell in love with Salvador Argon, a man incarcerated as a boy for murder. My mother was his savior. Sal’s life was so tragically inspiring, Paul Simon wrote a Broadway play about him, incorporating the love letters my mother wrote. Variety’s Greg Evans called her an, “Indian hippie chick,” and “prison groupie.” It made me laugh and cry. We all knew Simon would be reductive in his portrayal, which is why my Mom chose the money over flying to New York.
My mother fell in love with Ken Mailhot, a man incarcerated most of his life. He painted a drum for her after they met in prison. They sell his work for thousands now — before, he couldn’t sell them on the street for more than a hundred. He died at the Thunderbird Motel. I can only call his life an Indian tragedy. My mother never told me he was in prison for abducting a girl.
My brother and I made palaces of silence on the days my mother typed. We boiled water for food and ate out of cans, as if we were post-apocalyptic. We were starving and had one frozen pizza left between us. I took it out of the oven wrong and it fell, pepperoni first, on the floor. We had never laughed so hard.
I had a dream of a large white circle spinning before me. The quick chaos had no shadow or future: it was overwhelming power. Mother said it meant I had thunder being in me. “They have the power to liberate and destroy,” she said.
My mother died small. I can only elaborate on her smallness. Her wrists were half of mine, and I pinched her fingers, each one, to say goodbye.
There’s a story about the first medicine man. He was a boy, and the people were dying. He followed Bear and watched what he ate. He brought those plants to the people and cured them. They call him Heart Berry Boy.
I have always chosen to tell the story before it’s cultivated. I realize the nature of cultivating a story with immediacy is as violent as engrafting a tree, and it’s unnecessary. Stories lose power once they’re told, unable to ruminate after being purged. Sometimes the purging is ceremony. My mother’s mania at her typewriter is a familiar sound I haven’t heard in years. As a child I heard the noise like music for a furious ballerina in red pointe shoes. As an adolescent I wondered what was important to convey. As a woman I wonder if I have the power to stay in the room and say the story before it’s too big to pass on wholly.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in Carve, Yellow Medicine Review, and The Offing. She’s a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and an SWAIA Fellow. She works as a columnist for Indian Country Today. Selected by Elissa Washuta.
Image © Donnie Nunley via Flickr Creative Commons.