Introduction by Robert Bensen
Stiya’s promise of “untold satisfaction and happiness” for Carlisle boarding-school graduates was not kept for Black Bear (“Who Am I?”). His account creates a different portrait of the graduate, of one who suffers extreme emotional, physical, and spiritual damage, and whose identity and life are determined by the efforts he or she makes to over come that damage.
[Adailyriot disclaimer- Trigger Warning: TW for domestic violence, rape, abuse]
Who Am I?
By Black Bear
Who am I? I am a Blackfeet Indian from Montana. I am more Cree than Blackfeet, and I hardly look Indian, but I am enrolled Blackfeet. I am not quiet half Indian- some French, Irish, and Scottish too. I was my Grandpa’s Blackfeet Indian boy. That is all I ever knew.
I am a little boy who grew up with drinking and fighting all around him. I remember the sounds of beer bottles hitting the wall. I remember my father thrusting his fist through a glass door in a drunken rage because my mother tried to lock him out –shattered glass and blood where all over the floor. I remember loud angry voices and the terror of silence, waiting, for the next act of violence. My mother was beautiful with dark brown hair and hazel eyes. She liked laughter, hot jazz, and good times. She dressed in expensive clothes and preferred Chanel #5 –most say she was a very classy lady. My father was good looking and a star basketball player. He liked pretty women and he lived fast and fought hard. My mother and father drank and partied all the time. Pretty soon they drank and fought each other. Then I had many stepfathers and stepmothers. Drinking and fighting is what I remember most about growing up. That is all I ever knew.
I developed a bone disease in my right hip when I was six. I was in and out of hospitals, on crutches and braces. I spent two years in hospital in Helena, Montana. I wasn’t sick; I had all the energy of any six-year-old. They strapped me to the metal frame with a canvas covering to keep the weight off my hip. The nurses were mostly kind, but they could not nurture me. I don’t remember my mother coming to visit very often, and I never remember my father coming at all. I remember looking out the window, watching other kids play, and crying. Dying cancer and tuberculosis patients were in the next wing. I remember the screams at night. I remember being scared, and my skin yearned for a comforting, loving, nurturing touch. I remember going inside to entertain myself, for eternity. That is all I ever knew.
I am a boarding school Indian. When I say this, you know something about me already. I had to work details, slopped dishes, mopped and polished floors. I scrubbed toilet bowls and scoured sinks. Memories of nights on hard bunks still haunt me –a scared little kid, eyes wide open in the dark. One night a big boy came to my bed. He told me that if I told, he would hurt me good. He did –pain of penetration, stifled screams, and “lost innocence.” The dorm attended kicked our asses up the stairs if we didn’t move fast enough. The kind war vet with the slow mind used to take us upriver and show us how to make fire and boil coffee –the best I ever tasted. That is all I ever knew.
I survived on the streets of Portland, Spokane, Cut Bank, and Browning. My parents still drank. I lost count of how many stepfathers and stepmothers I had. I lived in foster homes, mostly with white folk. Some were good to me, and some were not. They needed money, and a few needed an extra hand with work. They did not teach me about being a good Indian boy, but they did teach me how to survive in the cities among non-Indians. Once my father came home drunk and beat up a woman he was with. She whacked him with a vacuum cleaner hose. I knocked on the ceiling with my crutches to signal the neighbors upstairs to call the police. The police came. They took my father away to jail. The woman took off. The neighbors went home. The social workers put me in a detention home for six months, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. My father came to see me once. He was drunk. I told him that I didn’t want to see him anymore when he was drunk. That is all I ever knew.
I went back to boarding school in Montana. I was older now, but it was the same old stuff. Only now the fights were over whether I could speak Blackfeet or whether I knew my Indian ways –and I was teased because I did not. The ones who did know were called blanket-asses and teased or beat up anyway. You weren’t supposed to know your ways or speak your language in those days. I went to high school in Browning. I began to drink and party and found I liked women just like my father did. I stayed in town on the weekends with my dad at the old Yeagan Hotel. He was still drinking. He slapped me once when I told him that I hadn’t been drinking that night. “Don’t lie to me, boy!” he said with stale booze breath. During my sophomore year I met a pretty girl at a river party in Cut Bank. We got real interested in each other. When I told my dad, he said “No. No. She is your sister!” “Oh!” I sad, “you never told me about my sister.” That is all I ever knew.
I left Browning and went to Haskell when it was still a high school. It was pretty good: three squares and a roof over my head for more than a year at a time were new to me. There were over a thousand students from many different tribes at Haskell. Today I have relatives anywhere I go. It feels good. I received a full National Merit Scholarship to the University of Kansas. I felt lucky as I had no other hope of going to college. My father had a years sobriety when he came down to my graduation. I was very happy and proud that he was there, but he got drunk and thrown in jail. He didn’t come to the graduation. That is all I ever knew.
At Kansas, they gave me all of my scholarship money at the beginning of each semester! I learned how to shoot pool pretty well, and I learned how to play a good hand of cards. I liked to party, and I still liked women. I ran out of money before I flunked out. After I left school and worked for a while, I came back to Kansas and played even harder. Then I got a rancher’s daughter pregnant. That is all I ever knew.
As a father, I tried to be responsible for the first time in my life. I worked at whatever I could find for eight years before returning to Kansas. This time I worked for my degree during the day and worked at night to support a family. I graduated –first in the family! I became a bureaucrat with the federal government. I had muttonchop sideburns and wore wingtip shoes and pinstripe suits. That was the American dream, wasn’t it? I drank more and more and ran around on my wife. For me, “Indian Affairs” wasn’t about politics or the BIA. I played and drank hard. I hurt people and lost wives number one and number two and three wonderful children. Now I was just like my parents. That is all I ever knew.
I quit drinking in Tucson, many years later. I had gone to a four-day Indian golf tournament in Phoenix. Stayed drunk the whole time. When I drove home, my bones ached. I quit cold. They call me a dry-drunk because I never went to treatment. I was sober, but not healed. I looked around me. I didn’t like my job. I didn’t like my friends; we just drank together. I didn’t like myself. I knew that I had hurt many people and was not a responsible person –to myself, to my family, as an Indian person, or to my community. I realized that the world would be a sorry place to live in if everyone was like me. That is all I ever knew.
I quit a promising career and good money and left Tucson to start over in life –sober. I consulted for different tribal groups for several years. I married a Pueblo woman and went back to school. Also, I learned how to make pottery. I sat on the plaza in Santa Fe for four years selling my wares and paying my dues. But I still had not dealt with my addictive behaviors. I lost wife number three. This time I felt the loss. That is all I ever knew.
I met some Lakota friends who began taking me to sweats and teaching me about spirituality and responsibility. I stopped toking and got clean. I went home to Montana to learn about my own ways. It is not easy to humble yourself in your mid-forties and tell “elders” who are fifteen years younger, “I am ignorant but I want to learn!” I learned about Blackfeet teachings, language, and songs. I was brought out from behind the barrier at Sun Dance and given my Blackfeet name in ceremony. I now had a Blackfeet identity. The name was given to my father by his father. I have the right to give the name Black Bear to my son, and it has dignity. Today I have a good relationship, a garden, and a home. Yes, I know what the Gallup drunk tank smells like. I experienced and survived boarding school. I understand the pain of abandonment. I know the terror of sexual abuse. I understand the shame of not being a good parent. However, now I try to be a good person and use my experience and understanding to help others. Now I know what I never knew. I know who I am, and it is all I ever knew.
Thank you, Creator.