Revision Street: Vanessa Roanhorse (V)

November 29, 2010

Vanessa and I are wrapping up. I’ve noticed that in interviews, the best question usually comes last. Not because you’re finally ready to deliver the right query that’ll land you an amazing response, or because you’re just so relieved it’s over. No, usually the last question is pretty open-ended. But somehow, the person you’re talking to becomes exactly as articulate as you have tape left in your machine.

There’s a tried-and-true radio trick that’ll get the same result. Look, you tell your interviewee. I’m drunk, I’m stupid, and if you can get this information through my thick skull, it will save my life. Studs Terkel spoke of fumbling with his recorder to bring about a compassionate clarity on the part of his subjects; I have my ways, too. But Vanessa required no such trickery. She had simply offered me an eloquent overview of her experiences in, and in response to, Chicago.

In many cases, our urban environment was the only thing I had in common with the interviewees I’ve shared over a hundred clips from in the past six months—Vanessa and I just happened to have more to build on. But the degree to which she was willing to open up her life and share it with me was not, in any way, unusual.

Revision Street: America is going on indefinite hiatus. I will miss it, and Chicago, in Phnom Penh this winter, where I will work on a book about youth, gender, and media in Cambodia and teach a course on popular culture. Look for announcements here in the spring about potential returns or new projects. In the mean time, I leave you to Vanessa. Who I simply asked, as we were wrapping up: Do you have anything else you want to tell me? And she did.

I recently filled out a survey from my high school. I kind of bounced after high school because it was such a weird, confusing time. Boarding school—the whole thing. I just graduated and I was out of there.

I was the first and only Native American at the time. This was at a boarding school on the east coast—very hoity toity. Their legacy is that Jackie O went there back in the day, so I was the first Native student they ever had. It was a really awkward situation, because on one hand it was this incredible opportunity for me, and on the other hand, I felt like a token. I felt like this piece of jewelry they brought out to show off. I don’t think they had any intention of doing that. I think they tried really hard to be sensitive about it, but the problem was they had no experience.

They would have these cultural weeks and I was always supposed to do some sort of performance, and I couldn’t do it. One, I cannot stand being in front of the camera and I don’t like being in front of an audience. And two, I was just like, what the fuck am I supposed to do? I didn’t bring my squaw outfit. Do you want me to tell stories? I’m not gonna sing a song, I’m not gonna dance.

So I remember my mom and I trying to come up with something I could do and [laughs] the thing I did was so stupid. It’s not even traditionally Navajo, it’s just this stupid thing that the Bureau of Indian Affairs did. They would have the little Native children at boarding schools do these sign language dances, and one of them is called “Go My Son.” It is not Navajo, it is not traditionally Native American, it’s just some fake song made up so little kids can do these hand movements together [laughs]. So I did that.

They loved it. Ate it up. This one woman had tears in her eyes. I was like, Oh my god.

Besides the fact that, economically, I was broke. All the money I had was from waitressing every summer, so I would have $200 for a year as my play money. Luckily I didn’t really need it, but I had girls in my dorm who would come back from shopping having bought $900 belts. Some girls would have their parents’ limo drivers pick them up on weekends.

So when I graduated, I just left. I couldn’t figure out what I thought about what happened. And then about two months ago, I got a letter from the school wanting to have me and the few Native students they’ve had since me basically tell them how can they make the experience better culturally. I spent a good two hours filling it out.

What I realized was that all the great things that I got from that school came at a huge cost, and it was a price that I didn’t know I was paying. After I left that school, I didn’t want to be Native anymore. I was just like, Fuck it all. Fuck culture, fuck religion, I just want to be Vanessa. I don’t want to be Vanessa the Navajo girl, Vanessa from the reservation. I just want to be Vanessa and I just want people to take me at face value, only.

It took me—god. Six, seven, eight years before I realized that I had consciously bisected myself and pushed something away. It’s embarrassing to say that’s what I did, but that’s totally what I did. I completely ran away from it, and since then, I’ve been trying to make those connections again and part of that is returning home. You know, you can’t really immerse yourself in a culture until you’re in the culture [laughs].

I’m finally proud, again, to be Native. It’s been a weird circle to get back here, but that’s the stuff I hadn’t really thought about before, because I haven’t had to think about it. But as I was filling out all these questions on this questionnaire, I was starting to get angry, and I realized where that was coming from. It’s because part of that school made me want to not be me anymore.

When you’re young, you don’t have a support system in place. You’re impressionable and you’re making adult choices on your own...Once you start down that path, it’s impossible to come back around to until you’re ready.

For our country and the amount of outreach that we do, and the amount of work that we do in other places, it’s really awesome. But at the price of that is that we don’t know how to shuck our Americanness to be there with them. To be with the people, to help the people with the immediate problems. We don’t know how to do that.

And that was the other thing. As I was writing, I was getting all mad and whatever, and then at the end, one of the questions was, Would you do it all over again? And I was like, Fuck yes. Yes, I would do it all over again. [Laughs.]

I couldn’t imagine who else I would be. It’s been a really long, tough road for me to get to where I am, but I am so happy. I want to go home. I’m proud of who I am again.

 

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