by Dr. Rosa Sierra
"There are so many things we’re born into that surround us like air and that air isn’t always sweet"
Covid-19 has had a devastating toll on Native American communities. Dr Rosa Sierra discusses their attempts to protect themselves from the virus, while exploring her memories as a Chicana American living in Canada.
Walking never clears my mind, but it does shake stuck thoughts loose for me to catch in a basket and sort out into somewhat coherent essays and poetry. I’ll walk as long as my body lets me and then, I suppose, I’ll find another way to engage with the world and loosen my mind. Today, I walk.
A few months ago I moved to this place upstairs from my home. Settling in has been a limpia of body and mind and moving about in this foreign place is a big part of that. When James Baldwin fled the US for France, he wrote:
“I began to realize that I was in a country I knew nothing about, in the hands of a people I did not understand at all. In a similar situation in New York I would have had some idea of what to do because I would have had some idea of what to expect. I am not speaking now of legality which, like most of the poor, I had never for an instant trusted, but of the temperament of the people with whom I had to deal. I had become very accomplished in New York at guessing and, therefore, to a limited extent manipulating to my advantage the reactions of the white world. But this was not New York. None of my old weapons could serve me here.”
(Notes of a Native Son)
Now, I am not in a particularly French region of Canada but this damn sure ain’t New York, where my bright orange license plates reveal I have come from. In any case, I’m a country Tejana and it shows the moment I open my mouth. Thank fuck for introversion and social distancing. I am an undercover American in a country that is currently both curious about and low-key pissed off at those of us from south of the border. I can’t say I blame them. Our self-destructive streak has made us terrible neighbours, and they’ve barricaded the border to keep most of us out. It’s not opening until we get our shit together, and I can’t blame them for that, either.
When talking about my country to curious Canadians (they always ask), I often feel compelled to preface my critiques with a statement about loving my home despite it all; but where’s that compulsion coming from anyway? Is love compulsory? And what is home when you’ve gone from room to room for dozens of years and thousands of miles and still don’t feel safe?
Friends of mine have commented on the little oddities they notice when they come for visits that, from a very young age, instil this deep compulsion to feel what we think is love from what we think is home. There are so many things we’re born into that surround us like air and that air isn’t always sweet. The more noxious the air the more folks like to say it smells like money. And you know what? The longer you hang out with them, the more you start to believe it. After all, nothing smells better than money when poverty reeks of imminent death.
“Water is life. Mní Wičóni” was the rallying cry at Standing Rock. The Water Protectors knew that to those in power water started to smell of money long ago when it was transformed into dumping grounds, an impediment to growth, and a product to be marketed. In 1972, John (Fire) Lame Deer told Richard Erdoes:
“The Sioux have a name for white men. They call them wasicun—fat takers. It is a good name, because you have taken the fat of the land. But it does not seem to have agreed with you. Right now you don’t look so healthy—overweight, yes, but not healthy. Americans are bred like stuffed geese—to be consumers, not human beings.
The moment they stop consuming and buying, this frog-skin [money] world has no more use for them. They have become frogs themselves. Some cruel child has stuffed a cigar into their mouths and they have to keep puffing and puffing until they explode. Fat-taking is a bad thing, even for the taker. It is especially bad for Indians who are forced to live in this frog-skin world which they did not make and for which they have no use.”
Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions
I think of Lame Deer a lot on walks like today’s. He looked around and saw “a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare” and made a point of differentiating the Green Frog Skin World from the real world of visions. John Trudell of the Santee Sioux, and of indigenous Mexican lineage, said, “The Great Lie is that this is civilization…if it does represent civilization, and that is truly what civilization is, then the Great Lie is that civilization is good for us.”
Today I walk on new ground in different air. With each step, I’m grateful I can still walk and well aware that this won’t always be the case. I’m grateful to walk here, on the other side of an imaginary political boundary projected onto Turtle Island that means both nothing and everything. My feet kiss the ground and my eyes fill with tiny raindrops as I cast my gaze above. This place idles at grey and drizzly. So do I.
“…who will tell whether one happy moment of love, or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies? Life is a unique gift and challenge, not to be measured in terms of anything else, and no sensible answer can be given to the question of whether it is ‘worth while’ living, because the question does not make any sense.”
Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1955).
The first robins of spring hop about the grass looking for lunch. Sleek, plump Canada geese ignore me from afar. Low tide has exposed countless smooth stones and tree limbs stripped bare by the waves. My path takes me into the small settlement and toward the post office. Pumped Up Kicks is my private soundtrack as I mindlessly step onto a narrow side street right in front of a school bus. But they saw me coming. The drivers here always do, and I’ve become less careful as a result.
I’m transported back to the summer of 2020, when my partner and I headed west from New York to Washington. We passed through the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota and saw a roadside sign:
This was refreshing because it looked like none of the white folks in South Dakota were doing a damn thing; starting with those in the statehouse. Pit stops were horrifying displays of local COVID hoaxism and proud defiance of public health guidance, so we never lingered longer than it took to piss.
Our masks marked us here and in Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and the east side of Washington. We overnighted in Sturgis several weeks before the motorcycle rally drew thousands of carefree, mostly middle-aged, white folks from all over the country drunkenly showing off their expensive bikes. Masks were encouraged but not required. The same applied when the governor hosted the president for a July 4th circlejerk at Mt. Rushmore. When it became clear their roadside signs were being ignored, the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes used their powers as sovereign nations to set up checkpoints preventing non-residents from entering their reservations for non-essential reasons. The governor ordered the checkpoints removed and threatened to sue.
Later that year, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe spokesperson Remi Bald Eagle told NBC News, “It’s like we’re trapped in a house on fire, and we’re doing our best to put it out. We see firetrucks coming in the form of a vaccine, and we’re wondering if it will get here in time before the fire burns us to death…Some of those who died were our elders. They’re some of our magnificent treasures. When they die, they take with them some of our language and our culture and our heritage, and we won’t get that back.” These words fill my mind as I pass a home with a red dress hanging from a porch rafter. The empty dress symbolizes a missing or murdered First Nations, Inuit, or Métis woman whose experience, love, and wisdom was stolen away.
Trudell speaks again: “Protect your spirit, because you are in a place where spirits get eaten.” Some places are more unapologetically insatiable than others, but they are all hungry. It’s a matter of degree.
These places embed themselves in our bodies and can devour us from the inside out. Vitiligo ate my pigment bit by bit over the course of more than 20 years, involuntarily stripping me down to colourless skin onto which white supremacist ideals are projected. But before that, my marbled skin repelled those who saw my brown and white dapple as leprosy or burn injuries. Before that, I was a filthy little wetback baby. Just by walking around in this skin I pass as a member of a club I never wanted to join. I hear secret communiques I don’t want to hear. My impossibly white skin is both an invitation and an exposed nerve.
I enter a shop and hit up the hand sanitizer station at the doorway. Everyone is masked up, including a white woman politely bitching to a silent shelf-stocker about the local indigenous population, who she believes are getting unfair advantages in her country.
I can’t tell if the clerk agrees or if she’s being held hostage by her job requirements. I get my shit, check out, and leave. I’m an alien in this particular white world and I’m not trying to get deported before I get my green card because I told the wrong random white lady off. But I won’t forget that the flowery words of truth and reconciliation only travel so far from Ottawa.
I breathe in the air and resume my playlist: ”Doctor, my eyes have seen the years and the slow parade of fears without crying, now I want to understand…”
Ages ago, and almost 4,000 miles away, I asked my grandfather to pull over so I could check out a garage sale. He stayed in the car. While I was wandering around this stranger’s driveway, I could tell right away that this sale was mostly raggedy-ass trash. I was fixing to leave when the lady running the sale said, “Those damn Mexicans!” I snapped out of my little private Idaho—“Huh?” “Those damn Mexicans! They’ll take anything that’s not nailed down! Did you see if he took those onesies on that table?”
Now, until that moment, I hadn’t even noticed anyone else was there. Stunned, I told her no and went back to the car. When I told my grandfather what went down, he was furious. “Want me to go up there and straighten her out?” We both knew the world there quite well, and he wore the brand of white male privilege that only a card-carrying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans can possess. That cachet cancelled out his background of generational poverty and any stigmatizing class markers, and he was ready to deploy all this on my behalf even though he himself did not share my Mexican blood. “No,” I said, “What good would that do?”
“The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply ‘contributions’ to our own) and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders.”
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
I make my way to the seaside walkway and imagine my mind dashed to bits against a cold, rocky shoreline, the tide signifying all the progressions and regressions I’ve witnessed over the years and across the expanse. I watch the waves and remember how it feels to go under. Which kills you first, the impact, bleeding out, saltwater in the lungs, or hypothermia? Why bother trying to tease that out when death is the ultimate fact of the matter? In any case, I’ve always come up for air just long enough not to drown. But repeated near death experiences do a number on your psyche and spirit. It initiates you into a way of knowing that my profession pathologizes; and I know damn well why that is as my footsteps bring me home.
If you want to read more from Dr. Rosa Sierra you can read her beautiful poetry here.
Dr. Rosa Sierra is a disabled Chicana psychotherapist living in Canada who has written and taught in the academic and clinical worlds for about 15 years. She comes from a place of generational and childhood trauma and poverty rooted in family and societal dysfunction, and adds that "the writings I've done that are closer to the heart of my lived experiences have been much harder for me to share".