Revision Street: Vanessa Roanhorse (II)

November 24, 2010

Vanessa’s been telling me about her plans to move back near the Navajo Indian Reservation where she grew up.

It’s the size of West Virginia, she says. But it’s the Southwest. It’s so big down there that nobody would blink at a five-hour drive.

It may sound preposterous to city folk, but it’s true. I have lived a bit on reservations in South Dakota, where a movie a four-hour drive away was a perfectly reasonable evening activity. Whereas in Chicago, an hour and a half on public transportation is unthinkable, even with my Blackberry.

It’s called, usually disparagingly, Indian Time, and it’s often used to explain lateness (and veil blatant racism). But I’ve always liked the slow, purposeful way that time passes on reservations, and the way people adapt to it.

It’s not the only difference Vanessa grew up with, either.

It’s really one of those things that I try to see from an outside perspective because for me it’s so basic. It’s so normal that I’m not sure what parts of it are different and what parts of it are the same.

The coolest stuff is that I grew up with my grandparents. I have nine aunts and uncles on my mom’s side and seven on my dad’s side. I have fifty first cousins [laughs], and so as a kid a lot of my family lived with walking distance of each other. So we were a giant ball of dirty children in a pack, and we would just run all over the place. We had free range to go and do whatever we wanted. We just had to be in before dark.

It was great because you could roll up to anyone’s house, the doors were always open, and raid the fridge. You know, watch some cable, and then take off again. We used to go free rock climbing which, when we go home to visit and we start to do the rocks again, I can’t believe how stupid and ballsy we were, going up cliff sides that were at such crazy degrees and wiggling through them because our older cousins could do it. It’s amazing none of us died, truthfully. We were like crazy billy goats running up the sides of mountains. We would build fires, blow things up, we could really do whatever we wanted. What was awesome was that the stuff we wanted to do was really kind of 1950s wholesome: grill hotdogs, swipe cigarettes, and be with your family. Your cousins were your best friends. That’s who you grew up with. When I think about having children that’s what I would like, for them to grow up with a big family, knowing they can go anywhere you don’t have to call ahead first, you don’t have to make plans, you can just show up. Your aunts and uncles are like your moms and dads, they can scold you, you can get in trouble with them and no one gets upset because it’s just one giant teaching unit.

But at the same time, it’s hard to grow up there because there’s nothing to do. There are no after school programs, there’s no where to hang out. So when you’re little, it’s easy, it’s wonderful. You start getting into middle school and it starts to change. People are much more sexually advanced. I remember girls having babies when they were 12, and people partying when they’re 11, 12. Luckily my mom has always really been there for us. She helped shaped the direction of our lives and we never wanted to disappoint her, so we were pretty good kids. But there’s also a really big gang problem on the res, and as you get older have to walk through those landmines and pick your sides.

The only way to not pick your sides is to play sports, so we played sports. Everything. Basketball, football, volleyball, baseball, softball. I was a hardcore basketball fan and I should have always known I was gonna end up in Chicago because when the Bulls won the ‘91-‘92 championships, I recorded every single game of that season on VHS tape and I had every single T-shirt of everyone on the team and I wore a different Bulls player T-shirt everyday to school. I could wear, I could wear a different Bulls team player T-shirt or a Bulls T-shirt for two weeks without repeating any of my clothes [laughs].

I was so crazy when they won, it was really late playing at home and my mom nearly forced us to go to bed early, but she knew that I had to see this last championship game, so she let me stay up while she and my sister went to bed. She came running out because she heard me screaming and then she heard me crying, and my nose was against the television and I was bawling with pure joy. Like I did it. Like I was the one who won. She let me go outside and scream and yell and called everyone. She’s like, the Bulls won the championship, that’s Vanessa screaming, don’t worry. [Laughs.] I was totally in love with the Bulls. I think it was a sign that I was gonna come here, because I’ve lived in a lot of different cities and Chicago’s the only place that’s been able to keep me.

I’ve never been to one Bulls game, no. I think part of it is, I have this fantasy in my head. I have this whole play that’s gonna act out in three parts in my head when I go to this game, but sadly it’s all with the 1991 to about ‘98 team [laughs]. Like, I’m gonna see Don Paxton—all these people, they’re all gonna be there. But because it’s not true, I’m kind of like, I don’t know . . .

It was such an important time in my life. It was the first time I’d ever really gotten into something that was my own. You grow up in a big family like mine and everybody shares everything. I have a twin sister who lives here in Chicago, in Bridgeport, and I wanted this one thing for myself. They all liked the Bulls, but I had to love the Bulls. I had to know all of their statistics, I could rattle them off.