Revision Street: Vanessa Roanhorse, 31

November 22, 2010

In our hyper-branded, if-you-like-this-you’ll-also-like-this, 24-hour-news cycle culture, we forget how easy it is to specialize unthinkingly. Meaning: we narrow our own interests so severely that, for example, we no longer talk to our neighbors. We don’t treat the foreclosures down the street as news. We don’t think our individual circumstances can possibly reflect the same national or international concerns we glimpse on cable news or read on our RSS feeds.

And we forget how early it starts. How quickly and efficiently we narrow. Categorize. Dismiss. Until finally we are demanding of people: what is interesting about you? Why should I care?

I’d met Vanessa a number of times over the years, and exchanged pleasant enough conversation with her. Yet when I began Revision Street: America, she appeared on none of my initial lists of interview subjects. Simply put, I had no idea what she might have to say. Nor why I should care.

But Revision Street has been about allowing those things to be said anyway: finding place for them, granting them import. So I trundled down to her Pilsen home on a quiet weekend to listen. I'm not even sure why she let me.

Our conversation gutted me. And I can think of no better way of signing off from Revision Street—even temporarily—than by asking you to listen, too.

I’ve lived here almost 10 years. I left for two years to California and then I came back. I don’t count those two years in California because I was so unhappy there. I was editing. Nothing really big. Commercials, some short films here and there, some adult industry stuff for a short amount of time because it was good money and it was consistent. I really enjoyed editing but I think what happened was I just recognized that I wasn’t gonna be a great editor. I didn’t have that extreme perfectionism about the work. And I realized I didn’t want do it anymore… so I quit, came back to Chicago and I don’t even know how I ended up where I’m at right now. This is now my chance to figure it out publicly, I guess.

You start off thinking you know who you’re going to be in college and college tells you, You know this. Where I went to high school, they were all like, You can be the next president. I get why they do that, but I think I just figured out too quickly that I was gonna be a filmmaker/editor and that that’s who I had to be. So after I took a break from it, which turned into quitting, I had no idea who I was supposed to be anymore.

Since the time you’re about 17 to—I was about 26, 27—I spent time dreaming that this was what my life was gonna be about. I was kinda screwed for a while. I didn’t really have any other skills [laughs]. I didn’t really do graphic design, I didn’t do a lot of writing anymore, and then I didn’t have the tools—like if I wanted to get into photography again I didn’t have the right tools for it. I just felt like I put myself into this corner with this like knowledge of information that was totally useless if I wasn’t going to be editing [laughs]. So I just bounced around.

I had some really weird jobs: I tried to go back to the food industry, and I got a job at the first place that took me, which was this crappy little burger joint down the street. They must have missed that they had the worst people working for them at all times because they were so impressed that I was wiping down counters without them asking me. They were like, Wow you take so much initiative. Then about halfway through the day, they were like, Hey can you get the garbage out of the bathroom? I remember opening the bathroom and it smelled so terrible that I just started crying. A total breakdown. I’m 26, I’m cleaning the bathroom in a crappy burger joint making minimum wage. I guess in some circles of life you should just be grateful to have a job. I struggled with that because where I came from it’s hard to find work. Living on a reservation, it’s the worst. It’s basically the ghetto without the city. So I felt like such a whiney baby, totally privileged, crying ‘cause I have a job, but it was a total blow to my ego.

I went to an upscale all-girls private school on the East Coast. I could have gone anywhere for college, but I went to Arizona because my mom wanted me closer. It’s like this lead up, this mythology I had created about myself all got broken down in the bathroom of a burger joint on Milwaukee. It was really a dark time.

After that I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t serve people anymore, I can’t work for these large corporations any more. I was able to ignore what I was doing for a really long time, but then I turned 30 and four years had gone by. I thought, I don’t know how this happened. I’m 30 years old I have no ethical or moral solace. Then luckily a friend mentioned there was a job opening at her work. It was totally administrative, but I was like, I don’t care.

From 30 to 31 was the big push of evolving and growing and trying to be like, fuck that. I can’t do that. Part of it is because I have a lot of family back home and everyone’s at different stages in their lives. Whenever I talk to them, they’re always saying, God, your life is so great. I mean it’s not that I’m trying to live up to their expectations, but I feel like I got lucky, I got an opportunity, but I was scared and so I wasn’t doing anything about it. So 30 to 31 was totally life changing.

That was just a year ago. I started doing more volunteer work, I started setting indigenous plants, in particular American Indian indigenous herbal stuff. It helps that my partner Blaine is an urban farmer, so he’s always bringing books home and I get to read them. It was a really good year for me, so then I started working at the Delta Institute* and I can’t tell you the shit I’ve learned.

It’s so nice to be challenged on an everyday basis and enjoy what you’re doing. The whole sustainable thing—I didn’t realize that that’s what I was doing already. You know, biking, trying to buy local, recycling and stuff like that. It’s nice to be working with an organization that’s doing it on such a larger scale. I don’t know what it means for my future, but the eventual plan is, we’re gonna move back, close to the reservation in two or three years, start our own farm, and do a native traditional agricultural program, a job training program to reteach my people how to grow the food they used to grow. That’s the goal.

* A nonprofit organization that works on environmental sustainability policies and practices in the Great Lakes area.