Revision Street: Vanessa Roanhorse (III)
If you made any jokes yesterday about Native Americans sitting down to dinner with illegal immigrants over the first Thanksgiving dinner, I hope you’ll take the time to read this installment of Vanessa’s story. Because it’s all well and good to keep the conversation easy and breezy for family, but at the end of the day the reservation system continues to cause real, daily problems for Native people both on and off the rez.
I used to waitress. I’ve been working since I was twelve, so I was waitressing at this place called the Navo Nation Inn. I started as a busser and then when I turned thirteen-ish I started waiting. There’s no alcohol or anything. It’s a dry reservation. I was there and a woman came in with some people. She had decided that she was going to be a teacher’s assistant at one of the schools on the Navajo Nation, and I don’t remember her name, I don’t remember how she came up with the Navajo Nation out of all the places she could have been. But they came in for brunch cause Navo Nation is one of the few places on the rez that has a somewhat real hotel. This is the nice food place. So we struck up a conversation and when I went home, I asked my mom, Hey can I go to boarding school?
She didn’t take me seriously for a little while. She basically said to me, jokingly, If you can get in and figure out how to pay for it, Go ahead. But I think she really had no belief—and I didn’t have any belief—that I could do it. But I was like, Fuck it. So I sent them a letter and they called me and I told them I wanted to go there. They gave me all the steps. When I went back to school, I told one of my teachers who really liked me and she helped me get transcripts. I had never heard of a transcript before.
I went my sophomore year of high school. I must have been fourteen. I get a letter in the mail saying there’s this scholarship, they will pay for your tuition for the next three years, and they’ll pay for a couple plane rides home and back. School starts in the fall, please come two weeks earlier so you can get accustomed and dah dah dah...
They were all upset—my grandparents, everybody. Specifically, my twin sister was upset with me ‘cause my mom had just gotten remarried and they had their first baby. We’d been living this lifestyle with my mom since my dad left when we were eight, and she felt like I abandoned her. Then my mom felt like she failed as a parent because I had to get away from them. And my stepfather—he’s now my dad, like I love him as my father—I think he knew why I was going and I think he didn’t know how to fix it. Then my grandparents blamed my mother. There wasn’t a lot of support for me leaving.
That’s sort of the double edge sword with growing up Navajo. We’re the first people to say go do this, support this, educate yourself, learn, change the world. But don’t leave anyone behind, make sure everything is equal. My culture is notoriously very socialist, like it’s rude to be overly wealthy, it’s almost offensive because someone else isn’t as wealthy. You can have things but you have to share. That’s how you are wealthy, is how much you share. It’s changing, of course, but there’s still this deep-seated mentality.
It’s still something my sister and I combat. We’ve been off the reservation for so long— she ended up, a year later, going to boarding school in California, which was another huge blow to my poor mom—so it’s hard. We both talk about how we feel so disconnected from our people. When I’m home, I overextend myself to be as helpful, and available—to just be there to do whatever anyone needs. Like, I will spend my entire day cleaning my grandmother’s house if she lets me, I would spend the entire day driving my mom and dad around if they needed me, whatever they want, I would prostrate myself to it. And part of it is because I feel so disconnected. It’s going to be hard to go back.
My immediate guilt is that my grandparents are aging and I won’t be there to take care of them and I’m afraid to miss out. And then the other guilt is, I have two little siblings from my mom’s second marriage. My little sister just started college last year, and my little brother will be starting his sophomore year of high school. My little brother totally missed out on me, I have a lot of guilt for that because I couldn’t be there for them.
Then there’s the whole cultural thing. The biggest problem with reservations is that you send out your young, they get educated, and they don’t come home. Because why? There’s just not any opportunity there. There isn’t the lifestyle that they’ve grown accustomed to. Sometimes because you return and you’re not embraced, you’re made fun of. You’re separate, you’re different, and that’s a hard thing to come back to. So I feel a lot like a sell out. I feel like I totally sold out my people. You know, I can’t speak my language.