I got a call today from my Lakota friend’s oldest daughter. This isn’t the daughter who has been having all the problems in state custody. This is her oldest, the daughter her mother took away from her legally and raised – because my friend was too young to take care of her properly.
This daughter, who is about 22 or 23 years old now, has 2 little boys of her own. She has lived with the boys and their father since she was 18. Her sons are 5 and 2 years old. Since her sister is in state custody right now and not in need of our material support, we offered to sponsor her sons.
We recently sent out a box of Christmas presents for the boys. It included snowsuits and some toys, all wrapped for her. I still laugh when I think of the poor Fedex driver who got the box on his truck. You see, we gave each boy a car that talks when it is moved. They also talked while they were being wrapped. They even talked inside the big box when we lifted it to bring it to be shipped. Can you picture the driver going over a bump on the rez, the cars start talking and he thinks he’s hearing voices?! Wish I could be there when the boys open the gifts!
This young woman called me today to say thank you for sending the gifts because without them, they wouldn’t be having Christmas. But that wasn’t the real reason she called.
You see, she had a taste of the cruel side of rez life this week. She needed to talk and get support. She needed someone other than her mother to tell her she was doing the right thing.
The right thing is pressing charges against the boys’ father for domestic abuse and going to court to get sole custody of the boys.
I see you wide-eyed with wonder. What happened to cause that? Why?
This is the story. A few nights ago Mom was asleep in their trailer, the boys having been put to bed earlier. Dad had been out with friends – drinking. When Dad came home in the middle of the night, he was not very nice. Apparently he is not a happy drunk. Apparently he is a mean drunk. He started beating Mom while she was still asleep. The boys woke up — and begged their daddy not to hurt their mommy.
Mom finally reached her own mother, my friend. Her mother wasted no time getting there. My friend called the police before she left. She called several times on the way (you remember it takes quite a while to get from one place to another on the rez). She even “went 1oo mph past 2 cops” who just ignored her – she figured she could get them to follow her to her daughter’s place.
She got there well before the cops. She took her daughter to the station to press charges and had the young man thrown in jail.
This was the second time Dad had beaten Mom. My friend told her daughter that once was too many times. She then told her daughter that she had a choice. She could choose for her sons or for the man who beat her. If she chose the man, my friend told her, she could not live with them any longer. And my friend told her that she would go to court to get custody of the boys because she refused to let them grow up seeing that.
Today I told this young woman all those same things. She needs to hear the words often, I think. She feels like she deserved it (not uncommon). I asked her if she had done anything wrong. No, she replied. I asked if he had done something wrong. Yes.
I told her that he is the one who deserves to be punished. He has earned it by his actions.
She told me she had to change her phone number because members of his family are calling her, and threatening and demeaning her. I think she is frightened.
Her baby sister is home for the holidays on a pass. She says she can’t look at her because she has a “shiner.” I told her that her sister loves her and will know it wasn’t her fault.
The connection was broken unexpectedly – I think she had begun to cry. I wish I could be there to hold her and counsel her.
I asked her about the domestic violence shelter in town. She told me that it was pretty much closed. They still functioned as they could but they had lost all their funding.
I knew that Cangleska, the shelter, had been having problems. They had undergone a forensic financial audit. I knew all the prior management had been fired. I didn’t know that something so important in a place where domestic violence rates are many times the national average, was in such dire straits.
Cangleska was at one time held up as a model for domestic violence treatment and care. I have even written about them in glowing terms in the past. It is so sad to see that even something as important and prototypical could apparently fall victim to the 2 vices that are so common on the reservation: need and greed. Perhaps a third vice played a part as well – nepotism.
I’ll try to explain my point. First, consider need. 90% of the people on the reservation live below the federal poverty level. Everyone needs something – a home, a car, food, heat, electricity, running water, indoor bathrooms, clothing – the list is everything most people take for granted. So when there is money “floating around,” there is always someone who thinks they need it more than the person or group that has it.
Greed. That’s a universal vice, isn’t it? Especially in our present culture, where entitlement is rampant.
And then there is nepotism. I have been told more times than I can count by folks who live on the reservation, including my friends, that it is not what you know or need but who you are related to on the reservation. That is, if there is money to be handed out, jobs to be awarded or goods to be given away, it is always someone related to the person giving them that receives first. It doesn’t matter if it’s housing, water tanks or jobs, that is the way it is on the rez.
I understand the nepotism on a couple of levels. Even you and I are inclined to take care of and protect our own families first. I also think that it has to do, in part, with culture. Tribes were not always the size that they are now. They were, years ago, small bands of people related in some way. But when all these bands were placed together on reservations, they still retained the culture to care about their own band first. Unfortunately it doesn’t work well in today’s system. The tribe is supposed to take care of “the people”, the oyate. I wish they knew how to do a better job.
So now this young woman, whom I hope you have not forgotten in my musings, has no place to turn for counseling, legal assistance and support. She does not need the shelter to protect her from physical violence, but many, many do. She does need to be sheltered from her own feelings and supported in her emotional pain. She has been traumatized! At times like this, being 2000 miles away is a distinct disadvantage!
In this time of good will and hopes for peace on Earth, I hope you will remember her and perhaps whisper a little prayer for her peace – peace of mind and peace of spirit.
Perhaps the sight of her 2 sons on Christmas day will provide her with some measure of reassurance that she is doing the right thing.
I am glad they will be having Christmas. Too many will not.