Nowhere Place


Loosely tethered to my body, my psyche resists its physical boundaries. Reaches out, trying to escape from this breathing object, me, but it can only go so far. My fingers curl and uncurl, clench and unclench. Spasms of habit trigger points of pain in my wrist and the joints of my hands. Tighten my fists until it becomes sharper, more insistent, something I can’t ignore, and it’s this ache that anchors me, reins me in, or, at least, brings me a little closer to my body.

Shift on the overstuffed couch, draw the red throw blanket closer about my stomach, and rub its soft static texture between my fingers. Open my eyes. A smile plays on the mouth of Dr. C, my therapist, seated across from me on his well-worn leather armchair, pen and clipboard resting on the faded black of his jeans. Rays of sunlight sift into his salt-and-pepper hair from the closed blinds and glint off his John Lennon frames.

Breathe as he has taught me to do, slowly, imagining the inhalation as a stream of golden energy and the exhalation a murky, gray expelling of anxiety and impurities. Detachment remains, but I’m calmer. Everything is alien—my body and how it experiences reality. Stale smell of sunlight, like dry honeysuckle, is acute, and even pressing my lips together sounds crisp and strange.

This is normal, this sense of unbelonging. I’ve discussed this feeling, this nearly constant state of detachment, with my therapist many times. We understand what contributes to it and we’ve agreed on a definition: dissociation. It’s not complete separation but rather a resistance to reality, a resistance to being as I am. It’s a coping mechanism I’ve developed to deal with the demands of daily living, and it originates from layers of trauma, but it’s also something I actively cultivate.

I do this in several ways. When I’m in crisis it’s easier. At first, the emotions, whether fear, anger, or pain, engulf me and become too much to handle. Then my cognizant self puts the emotions aside and numbs me to what’s happening—it directs the automaton of my body and I experience the anger and fear as if it were happening to someone else. I feel it only vicariously. I think more clearly, act more rationally. I’m a spectator watching myself perform. From the outside, I look strangely calm. My eyes widen as if I’m dazed and my facial muscles relax. My voice deepens, my language becomes succinct and clinical, and my limbs move carefully, each motion slow and deliberate. It’s a practical coping reaction. It’s why I’m high-functioning in the midst of crisis.

Another method I use to detach is alcohol. Alcohol loosens the tether between my rational mind and its control over my body and impulse. When I’m overwhelmed by the oppressive weight of depression and stress, I’ll seek out the dissociative symptoms, the sense of unreality and emotional numbness, to find relief. Liquor brings on a fugue state where reality is more bearable, more surreal. Binge drinking is my defense mechanism to endure my perception of reality. But alcohol has its own risks. Because I don’t have control over my own impulses I can end up harming myself, if I can’t induce the dissociation quickly enough, if I linger too long in the depressive thoughts. Alcohol is, after all, a chemical depressant.

This resistance to being is part of the mindset I developed growing up in an unwanted physical space where an unwanted population was put aside. This "reserved space," the Navajo Nation Reservation, has many associations for me. The name itself is an emotional and spiritual trigger. The rez evokes contradiction: fear of reexperiencing trauma, an actual ache for home/my mother that lives behind my sternum. Hate of our collective commitment to suicide by alcoholism and drug use, shame of the pervasive desensitization and self-neglect so many indigenous people must assume to be able to live on the rez, and a love and spiritual hunger for my homeland that my mother instilled in me. Finally, grief over the loss of my child self.


I first recognized I carried an unspoken and unacknowledged stigma, just by being Native American, in my first-grade class at Newcomb Elementary School. It was a nowhere place surrounded by mesas, embedded in a valley of sand and weeds. It was an appropriately desolate space on the eastern side of the rez along Highway 666.

In kindergarten, I lacked the cognitive capacity to hold onto complex, abstract thoughts. My kindergarten days were inchoate memories of naptime on colorful mats, building cabins with popsicle sticks, and raggedly cutting construction paper with blunted scissors. I don’t remember the faces of my teachers, only the softness of their hands as they held my own to guide my tracing of letters. Possibly because of my height at the time, I remember my teachers only from the waist down: full skirts and soft hands. Maybe I’m mixing them up with memories of my mother.

All authority was white—the principal, the nurse, the teachers. These were the people who controlled what I learned, who told me what to do, who required me to change the shape of my thoughts, my values, and the patterns of my speech. The people on the lowest rung of the ladder were Navajo, like me: the bus drivers, janitors, school cooks, and students.

When I learned to read in the first grade, there were no stories of people like me. The stories were always about anthropomorphic animals or children of middle-class suburbia, which few, if any, of us had ever seen. Those characters learned quaint moral lessons, and their stories always had happy endings that were the result of the stability of the nuclear family. Wholesome pta Mom and Breadwinner Dad always provided their 2.5 kids with more than enough of everything. The conflicts of those childhood stories were magical, unreal. Defeating a witch by being good, losing a favorite toy, being rescued by a prince who realized your value, making new friends. It was a happy, sympathetic world, where everything was resolved by sundown. The worlds of those books helped deliver the protagonist, the child, home.

There were no Native Americans except content, helpful, peripheral figures in white-washed history, like the indigenous people who fed the Pilgrims at the mystical first Thanksgiving and the child Pocahontas, a white man’s wet dream. There were no reservations, no Din., no Long Walk, Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, or Pueblo Revolt. Chief Narbona, Geronimo, and Chief Manuelito never fought and resisted. There were no federal boarding schools that enforced assimilation into Western society, no forced separations of families and fostering of Native children to white Mormon households. There was no elimination of language and history. There was no racism and self-destruction, and there was no hurt and isolation just in being. There was no unbelonging.


My mother sits at the kitchen table, kneading dough in her small brown hands, the perpetual hot pot of coffee simmering on the shelf across from her. She’s a petite woman, with faded brown hair streaked heavily with silver. At fifty-five, she’s already lived beyond her grandmother’s lifespan, that solemn, capable woman who raised her until she died suddenly of cirrhosis.

The kitchen’s peach-colored walls are warm and glossy, discolored by age. They darken closer to the ceiling from years of wood smoke escaped from the pot-bellied stove. Weak Folgers coffee, cooking oil, and the pungent smell of burning wood mix together to create a comforting scent that seeps into the skin and twines into our hair.

My sister and I, mothers with our own small children, sit at the table on either side of our mom, sipping our Cokes and cutting up mutton and vegetables for stew. We tease each other brutally while my three-year-old son and two nieces play outside, their squeals and yells faint and sweet. It’s rare that we’re able to all come together at my mother’s house in the juniper-studded foothills of the Chuska Mountains, a quiet place straddling the New Mexico/Arizona border.

I avoid going home, but homesickness for my mother and the land overwhelm me every few months. I’m also in need of healing, considering how to stay married and not kill myself. Fatalism has always been my default option, another symptom of growing up on the rez. So I’d come to my mother for advice. She’s endured a thirty-plus–year marriage to my father, a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic.

I’m headed back to school for another bachelor’s degree. English Studies with a focus in creative writing. I work the graveyard shift at the state’s child abuse and neglect call center, taking reports on infants experiencing severe withdrawal, toddlers coming into the hospital with spiral arm fractures, brothers and sisters acting out sexually toward each other, and kids showing up to school with bruises on their torsos, cigarette burns on their arms and legs, reciting worn-out excuses.

I’m spiritually exhausted, and, worse yet, growing desensitized even to the not-infrequent child death reports. It’s gotten so bad I’ve started dissociating at the beginning of almost every shift, as soon as I put on my headset and press the button to receive incoming calls. The callers’ voices sounded as if they were coming through water. Glaring fluorescent lights magnified a growing pulse of pain at my temples. My throat strangled words. Consciousness hovered overhead and directed my body like a marionette. My fingers automatically typed out the transcription. Had to ask about each detail of the abuse. Where are the bruises, how dark? What is the physical evidence of sexual penetration? Are there vaginal tears and bleeding? How much force is needed to cause that kind of damage to the baby’s skull? How many rib fractures? So, his little brother found his body hanging in the closet? I didn’t belong to myself. I belonged to all the trauma. That’s the worst part of having a vivid imagination, picturing every fucking detail as I made the report. It made me a good writer but not a good social worker, and I burned out too quickly.

My sister drops the vegetables into the boiling pot of water. They make plopping sounds, punctuated by the whup-whup-whup of the living room fan that stirs the dull summer air. She wipes her hands on the dish towel in her lap and carefully repins her thick, long brown hair into a ponytail.

"Your kids need to learn how to speak Navajo!" my mom scolds us as she flips a handful of dough back and forth between her hands until it smoothes out into a flat circle. My mother’s voice is like mine, rich and stark, but hers doesn’t break on high notes, doesn’t strain and halt midsentence. She used to be the lead singer at the local Pentecostal church before they kicked my dad out. Apparently, Jesus refuses unapologetic alcoholics. Or, at least, that was the church community’s stance and their interpretation of grace.

I don’t know how this conversation comes up, except that it tends to whenever we’re all together, like how we always talk about whether or not my dad is drinking, which crazy-ass relatives are fighting each other, and which Navajo Nation government official is now embezzling community funds. Radio static plays in the background, a Christian station. The radio host speaks a haphazard dialect of Navajo and broken English. The irony.

"That’s your responsibility! You didn’t teach us, it’s your fault we can’t teach ’em! You gotta teach ’em now!" my sister retorts, laughing.

"Aaaah, that’s no excuse," my mom says, putting the dough into the sizzling pan of smoking oil. "You can still learn, you’re just lazy!"

Sip my Coke and grimace at the carbonated sweetness. "I tried, Mom. I couldn’t learn it in high school, my brain was too old already." Navajo language and history had been o√ered only as electives at my high school. Before then, I had relied on my mother and grandparents, with my mom acting as translator, for our tribe’s history and traditions.

"Yaadila! What kind of Navajos are you? Your kids need to learn!"

My sister laughs again. "We’ll leave the kids with you and dad this summer, they can help you out and you’ll teach ’em Navajo and dad can teach ’em to ride horses and haul wood."

"You should! They’re babied too much. They need some time in the sun. I’ll only speak to ’em in Navajo. That’s all they’ll speak when you get ’em back!" My mom pokes my sister’s arm. My sister pokes her back.

My sister and I never let our kids stay at our parents’ house, not unless we’re there to supervise. If my dad were in prison, we would, but he’s avoided DUIs for a few years now, miraculously.


My parents made the choice not to teach me and my siblings Navajo, although they spoke it around us. A difficult decision, but they didn’t want their kids to be hurt for speaking our native language, as they had been. Both my parents went through boarding school as children. First, they went to reservation dormitories managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the BIA (an acronym that is usually spit out). My parents still tell stories of bedbugs, strange tasteless food, going months without seeing their families, and having to speak Navajo in secret with their friends. They used to get punished or spanked with a paddling board, a two-foot-long flat board with a wooden handle, when they spoke Navajo. My mom recalls having her long dark hair cut into a short bob, a hairstyle that all the girls were required to wear because of the recurring lice problem. Women and men aren’t supposed to cut their hair in our tribe, it’s sacred, an essential part of them, a limb. I cut off my waist-length braid the second day after I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to attend the university.

Recently, while my mom was visiting us in Albuquerque, she told my son a bedtime story while I lay in bed beside them. My dad and a few other boys, more than ten years old at least, used to escape and run away from Toadlena boarding school, a reservation school that warehoused kindergarten through sixth-grade students. One of the times they ran away, Azhiibo'on, a young boy who was my dad’s cousin, demanded to go with my dad and my uncles, even though they told him to stay behind because he was too little. He followed them anyway. They all hiked on foot through the Chuska Mountains back home to the rocky foothills where their families lived, some twenty miles away. Their families always had to send them back. That was finally resolved when my father and uncle were sent to live with white Mormon families in Utah, in a sort of foster program situation. My dad doesn’t speak of that time, except marginally to my mother. Even then he provides no details of his experience.

For high school, my parents were sent off to live in Albuquerque, nearly two hundred miles away from home. The place was called the Border Town, which was managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was a program for Native American students, who were allowed to live in the Albuquerque Indian School dormitory while they attended a local school. My mother first went to a junior high school, until it was closed down, and then she went to Albuquerque Indian School for the remainder of her education. My dad attended Manzano High School but dropped out in the eleventh grade when his younger brother died in a motorcycle accident.

Although Albuquerque Indian School was originally founded by the Presbyterian Home Mission Board in 1881, the United Pueblos Agency was managing it, on paper at least, by 1935. My mother, now fifty-eight, said that while it was managed by the Pueblos when she was there, it was the BIA that funded it, that her experience there was as bad as it had been in other federal boarding schools. That boarding schools were never good for children. All through junior high and high school, she’d never been able to go home for breaks. She was the oldest of eight children. Her parents had separated, leaving her and her siblings to be raised by a maternal grandmother (Másání) and then by a string of reluctant relatives after she died. When her uncle sent my mother off to Albuquerque Indian School, she was on her own. She supported herself by cleaning her white teachers’ houses and babysitting their kids. In 1982 the location was shut down and the school’s program was transferred to Santa Fe Indian School.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was responsible for the boarding schools whose priority it was to "kill the Indian to save the man," the same boarding schools my parents and relatives were forced to attend as young children. In 1972, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, as a response to the failed attempts of the United States’ previous termination policy. Termination policy, which was enacted in the 1940s and was officially rejected in 1988 (two years after I was born), tried to assimilate Native Americans by "encouraging" them to move into Western society. It did so by making reservation living impossible. Federal termination policy took away funding of social programs, infrastructure, and health care on reservations, thereby exacerbating poverty, inducing health crises, and fostering the worst educational and employment outcomes for all indigenous people, especially the youth. It also dismantled numerous reservations, tribal sovereignty, and government protections of indigenous peoples. More than one hundred tribes lost tribal status, thereby stripping the tribes’ members of their right to their identities. Decades later, they’re still struggling in federal courts to regain it. Reservations and indigenous peoples, including my own family, still haven’t recovered from the consequences of those years.

Although most outsiders would claim that my parents’ generation was the last to be subjected to the government’s assimilation and termination policy, it isn’t true. The methods and name of that policy have changed, but I’m as much a product of that policy as they are. It claimed we’d be able to acquire new Western traditions that would allow us to successfully navigate mainstream society, while still maintaining our Native identities, without loss or negative impact. It overlooked history, forgot the disparity of power, ethnicity, gender, and class that always factors into that endless struggle between two worlds. It’s oblivious to the inherent violent nature of cultural negotiation between the colonizing force and the colonized.


Fourth grade, a standard bright day, I sit in the back row of the classroom with my head pillowed on my arms over the desk. We’re silent as our teacher, an elderly, stocky white man who always wore khakis and a starched white shirt and tie, yells at us from behind the podium at the front of the class, gripping its sides with both hands. It’s a weekly rant. I roll my head to the side and notice how the wooden podium looks similar to the one in my mother’s church, except there is no cross engraved on its surface.

My class was known as the most defiant, unmanageable class at Newcomb Elementary School. The fifth-grade teachers dreaded inheriting us. We not only didn’t listen, we actively revolted against our teachers. We’d send them crying from the classroom or produce ranting until they were livid. We simply refused to do what they asked.

I couldn’t explain then why this was. All I knew is that we, the collective body of students, all Native Americans, felt distinctly separate from our teachers. We’d all grown up with our parents’ stories of school beatings and forced assimilation. Only now am I able to write about it. The teachers and school system were things the U.S. government thought of as gifts to Native American communities, but how could teachers and schools possibly ever make up for all that was taken and destroyed? The majority of our teachers bought into that charity belief. They imagined themselves as heroes for teaching on the reservation and expected us to be grateful for it. This gave us the most incentive to rebel.

Of course, some teachers were exceptions. Those who were aware of the fact that, yes, they were teaching on a reservation and that the rez and racism pervaded our lives, and they didn’t bring their guilt or gratitude into it. They were sincere about teaching, and they earned our fierce loyalty. Not Mr. W though.

A kid snickers a couple of desks to the right. Terry. He’s one of the most belligerent among us, he did things for the hell of it, to make us laugh. He’s a second or third cousin, his mother related to my father by clan and blood. His skin is dusky and tanned, nearly as dark as my own, his hair a dirty blond. He’s one of us, grew up fighting in the dirt and playing Cowboy and Indian war with sticks, like we all did. In our imaginary world, the Indians always won. His father’s identity and race were never mentioned.

It’s sudden. Mr. W heard Terry and froze. We collectively hold our breath, hold silence, as Mr. W barges around the podium and through the desk aisles to glower over Terry. Terry looks up at him, smiling, but also rigid. Mr. W grabs him by his Salvation Army jacket and arm, and in one motion, yanks him from his chair and throws him to the carpet. The desk nearly topples, then rights itself. Terry scrambles up to a standing position, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide in shock and fear.

A few months later, another incident. We line up in the hallway outside of Mr. W’s class, our backs against the concrete block wall, sullen and silent. Mr. W paces in front of us, glaring. We’d pissed him off again, I don’t remember why. We are bad students. Too fucking wild. It’s Louis this time. He smirks, suppresses a giggle. I’m tempted to laugh at Mr. W’s antics, too. I hold it back because I remember Terry.

Mr. W rushes up to stand in front of Louis. Louis’s smirk deepens into a grin, he looks to either side, trying to catch our eyes. We try to mimic silence and stillness for him, show him by example, but it’s too late. Mr. W, who was an inch shorter than Louis, viciously shoves him up against the concrete wall and pins his shoulders with his palms. Mr. W barks something at Louis’s face, I don’t remember what. Only how his lips peel back from his teeth and how the redness crawls up his throat to his face, above the white of his collar. Louis shuts up. We all did. And we never said anything about it.

The passive compliance I learned under threat of violence prepared me to be molested by my high school PE teacher, Mr. C, during my high school freshman year. He was a charismatic, balding white guy and brother to the vice principal. The shame I internalized made me silent, even when the white school district official and school nurse interrogated me about what had happened.

I told a friend and it passed along the grapevine to the school officials. They pull me out of class one afternoon and take me to the nurse’s office. With both of them staring at me, I can only cry and, even then, I suppress the sobs, shutting my mouth tight and covering it with both hands. I wouldn’t let them see me cry. I didn’t trust them to protect me. Coach had sexually groomed and molested me in front of my classmates, in front of adults, teachers, at the school, for months, and now somebody wanted to do something about it? I don’t say anything, only nod or shake my head, and then finally refuse to respond at all. I strangle my sobs. I’d long since been conditioned into silence.

The school officials never told me what happened to the guy afterward, except that he lost his job. He was never charged. I learned, through the same grapevine, that he was briefly rehired at another school in the same district. The school never told my parents what had happened, even though I was a minor. Years later, I told my mother. After hugging me and crying silently, she said she’d always wondered why he’d been so nice to her at parent-teacher conferences. Recently, I learned he’d gone on to coach more girls teams.

In the months during, but especially after, the abuse, I had numerous dissociative episodes, of which I have only hazy memories. The entire school became a traumatic space. Simply entering the building induced anxiety attacks, triggered memories. I failed gym my freshman year for refusing to dress in gym shorts or do any kind of exercise in front of Coach because he used my workouts as an excuse to put his hands on me. So, to fulfill my PE credits, I had to take another gym class sophomore year. One afternoon, I passed out in the girls’ locker room and woke up under a wooden bench with my classmates walking around me, avoiding me. They didn’t know what to do.

I turned my anger inward and knew if I didn’t, I’d end up hurting or even murdering someone. That’s when I started cutting. The cutting disrupted the dissociation, it satisfied the need to punish myself for being scared, silent, and helpless. During class, to fight the dissociation, I picked at the scabs on my wrist until I exposed my tendons. In science class, I remember twanging my tendon like a guitar string. For the next fifteen years, I couldn’t stay in a gym of any kind until I started self-defense and kajukembo classes.


By high school, I’d carried out a way to unbelong on my own terms. I would slip into my books, usually science fiction by Ursula K. LeGuin, Mercedes Lackey, and Barbara Hambly, and then later supernatural horror by Anne Rice and Stephen King. I would live in other worlds, become other people, and live other lives, gaining experience beyond the narrow existence of the reservation. And horror made sense to me because it was the norm. Reading was another method of freeing myself from my reality.

I started writing my own stories, and these were always incomplete, more scenes than anything with a full narrative arc and plot. There were never any heroes, only antiheroes, people who didn’t belong, who couldn’t find belonging anywhere. Even the villains of my stories were sympathetic. Just another person who didn’t have a place to belong. I could never write a story to the end because television and movies and the majority of books I’d read as a child had taught me that endings were happy. And those weren’t real. However, the fantastic and apocalyptic endings horror taught me weren’t exactly honest either. I couldn’t write a story that wasn’t authentic, but neither could I write a story with a real ending. So, my stories went on and on, accumulating page after page, accounts of the characters’ inability to win, or their perpetual search for a place to settle into being. Episodic. Intermittent. Never an end.


Bright April sunlight creeps between the gap at the bottom of the blinds and the university classroom’s windowsill. I just finished teaching my freshmen composition students and now sprawl in the hard desk of my graduate Topics in Professional Writing class. Squint through my prescription sunglasses. A pulse of pain at my temple warns of a migraine. The migraines themselves are a threat, and symptomatic, of impending dissociation. On the days I’m headed into my creative writing workshops, especially when we’re workshopping one of my own pieces, the migraines surface. I shut my eyes. Even the dim yellow light of the classroom’s fluorescent lights sting. I have light sensitivity caused by my medications.

"How do you imagine your future?" Luke asks, the bill of his worn, gray baseball cap casting his face into blue shadow. He’s an older student, well into his sixties, with a coarse voice, warm smile, and rough sense of humor.

We’re doing an exercise that has us interviewing each other in pairs, using open-ended questions, as preparation for potentially interviewing a writer. The point of the interview is to find out something quintessential about our subject.

I grimace, cross my legs, and laugh nervously. "Future?" My black heels stab the space in front of me with each restless motion of my legs, my hands grip my knee. "I don’t know." I end up giving him something vague that he’s pleased to hear.

Through the rest of the afternoon, I contemplate his question—I pose it to myself later, at home, after I’ve put my five-year-old son to bed, and I’m bent over my desk, writing in my journal, pain flaring in my neck from peering down for too long. That’s something people take for granted. Having a future. Being able to make plans for it.

I never expected to live past my thirties. On the rez, if you reach fifty, you’ve reached old age. You’re lucky. The majority of my aunts and uncles and grandparents died between their twenties and fifties. Alcohol-related death is the most common. My dad’s sister Linda died of cirrhosis while in her forties. So did both my maternal grandparents in their early fifties. Cirrhosis also took a couple of cousins in their twenties and early thirties. My paternal uncle Daniel died drinking a fatal cocktail of household cleaning products and hairspray in an attempt to stave off withdrawal. My uncle James died after he contracted hiv living and drinking on the streets of Gallup. Another cousin Saul was beaten to death drinking on those same streets. I’ve had an uncle and aunt-in-law die of exposure (two separate incidents separated by a year). They’d been drunk and passed out in a blizzard, trying to find their way home. My uncle Lawrence’s body wasn’t recovered until several weeks later, a hundred or so yards from his front door, after his dogs and the coyotes had gotten to him. Another cousin, Jake, ended up stabbing a woman to death during a drunken argument with her boyfriend, when she’d tried to intervene. Jake didn’t die, but I consider incarceration another form of fatality.

If that’s true, my dad’s been resurrected from the dead several times. He spent as many years of my childhood in prison as outside of it, for repeat DUIs. He’s at thirteen right now and that’s only with the state, not counting the Navajo Nation. He’s sixty-one and I’m not sure how he’s still alive.

I have numerous aunts and uncles who are in limbo, alcoholics who are on that waiting list to die. A few are in their fifties, but most are in their forties. My two favorite uncles are at risk: whenever my mom brings them up over the phone, I brace myself. I already have a helpless nostalgia for them as partly dead. I think of how alcoholism, including my own, is a gradual suicide.

Fifty. I still can’t see that far. I can think only of my son reaching adulthood and that’s it. That’s thirteen years away. By then I’ll be fortythree. That’s how far I can plan. It’s not pessimism. It’s how my people live. There is no expectation of living past fifty. If you do, you’re an elder. You deserve respect for surviving the reservation and yourself.


I left the rez, but it’s still superimposed upon me. I live in a nowhere place that travels with me wherever I go. At least on the rez, I had the comfort of being put aside with others like me. There was a space to exist, even if it was equivalent to a prison. There was a way of living day to day, a means of being, of creating and practicing my identity in a cultural sphere with others like me.

But I’ve changed too much from what I was. I hate the reservation too much to ever embed myself back in it again. Even in that space of unbelonging, I no longer have a place. I’ve acculturated too much to Western society.

Despite my resistance, my Native accent is gone. Even the shape and pattern of my thoughts are different. Most profoundly, I’ve had to change how I perceive the world. I’m too Westernized to be Native anymore, too indigenous to fit exactly in any space. Being wedged in the margins of two worlds manifests as combativeness. My everything is a fight, every day is a series of struggles, and I’m always resisting myself, sometimes my very being.


Near the end of the semester, after a severe depressive episode, I get off the university shuttle and head to my car. The student parking lot is nearly deserted, only a few cars parked on the radiating asphalt. A humid evening, the overcast sky drizzles rain, the belly of the clouds glows a sickly green: it’s luminous but suggests something poisonous. Otherworldly, a moment in which the spiritual surreal is imposed over concrete reality. The magnitude of my depression overwhelms me. I recognize the symptoms of dissociation—the distancing of my psyche from the physical self, lightheadedness, an alien sense of nonbeing, of unbelonging, more pronounced than ever. Halt, lean against the shimmering panel of the driver-side door. Resist the urge to cut nails into palms or clench hands into fists to anchor myself with the pain. Try focusing on the tightness behind my sternum and the ache in my throat, to center myself. Remind myself that it is my body, and that I have to reclaim it part by part.

I came out of my poetry workshop biting my lip, compressing my mouth against the urge to cry. I don’t fucking cry. It hurts to talk of power and race. I avoid it as much as possible. It came up unexpectedly in class during a critical discussion of one of our assigned readings. My professor read aloud one of the poems about Native Americans and asked us how we responded to it, what did we think about cultural appropriation, and if this was an example of it? The poem was a superficial, stereotypical rendering of the romanticized Native: fucking natives, in buckskin, dancing.

Finally, I give in. I stare up at the evening sky and will myself upward, out of this body. Acrid smell of rain on hot asphalt stings my nostrils as I breathe in the stagnant air, immerse myself into the sense of loneliness, of constant alienation. My psyche expands, empties into the sky. I find relief in the dissociation. It softens the edges of unbelonging.