This is fiction, but just barely. I wrote it 8 years ago when I was trying to figure out how to reconcile being multiracial but looking white and having all that white privilege crap to deal with. To quote myself, “I wanted nothing else but to belong to something, to have some sense of culture and ethnicity, when it was habitually denied to me by virtue of my blotchy complexion.” It’s long, I know, but focus those pre-Twitter attention spans and READ it. There’s pictures to make it easier on you. Also, my mom’s not a drug addict. She wanted me to tell you that.
It’s cliché, I know, but it did. It started with a dream. My brother Jonny dreamt when he was little of riding through the great plains of Hopi land in northern Arizona, leading a team of dead Indian warriors on horseback into battle. He was little in the dream, a child tucked behind shadows and bone hairpipe. No one thought too much of it, as he was probably five-years-old when it happened, but seventeen years later, it resurfaced in a very real way, turning my life into something of a nightmare.
Jonny does wedding videos. Shoots them. Edits them. Formats memories for a pretty penny. He’s been calling himself a director for about a year, but I’m fairly certain that weddings don’t count as “films,” and if they do, hell, I’m a director. No one asked my opinion though. Anyway, he did this wedding up near Flagstaff on the Hopi reservation, the battlefield of his dream and subconscious slaying, and this prompted a resurgence of his Indianness, which he felt had been denied to him by the dominant white culture we grew up in. Our father is white, some sort of eastern European medley, whereas our mother is a true mestiza—half Spanish and half Apache—replete with skin of burnt sienna and hair as black as repressed memory.
Mom’s pretty traditional. She likes Julio Iglesias but not Enrique, special orders twenty-pound bags of Big Jim’s green chili from Albuquerque every month, talks regularly to the TV, hates the Catholic Church and loves her kids more than anything. I was supposed to be a boy, on account of how much I sucker-punched her in the belly and bladder before making my grand entrance. My birth certificate said Julian, that’s how sure Mom was. Lucky for her, all she needed to do to change it was white out that last n. Too bad most things in life aren’t so easy to fix, huh? Whenever that Sheryl Crow song comes on, “You’re My Favorite Mistake,” Ma nudges me on the shoulder and laughs her impolite laugh. Not using birth control was the one aspect of Catholicism she actually followed.
She didn’t grow up on a reservation, nor did our grandparents, which according to some makes her less Indian than those steeped in immense poverty, alcoholism and oppression, but she worked on reservations as a psychologist, both with the San Carlos Apache tribe and the O’Odham Rez in our hometown, in addition to selling Native beadwork all over the place at pow wows and in local shops around Tucson.
My grandparents came from El Paso, my grandma living right next to the Border Patrol Museum, which professes to “present the rich heritage of the U.S. border patrol.” No lie. Grandma’s parents came from Basque, giving her skin that color of privilege, but her hair, that’s what always gave her away. Black as obsidian her hair was, black as the coal mines my grandpa worked, designing railroads. Even though grandpa was a World War II hero and an engineer to boot, my great-grandparents didn’t approve of the marriage. They said he was “too moreno.” Too Indian. I think it really stuck with him. He never taught any of his seven children Spanish, though both he and my grandma were fluent. I got her molcajete when she died, because I was her namesake—same name, same pale complexion—but none of her history.
I always wanted to be my mother. I threatened to dye my hair black once, but didn’t at her insistence that it would drain what little color I did have. I wore her jewelry, adorned and phallic Kokopellis, brandishing their flutes in masturbatory fashion, cedar seed necklaces, bone hairpipe chokers, and the occasional bear pendant, which symbolized strength, stamina and healing. I learned the meanings of the Four Directions and tried to convince myself that I wasn’t jealous when Ma fawned over my brother’s lustrous mane and inability to grow facial hair, a notoriously Indian trait. “I also can’t grow facial hair!” I pleaded, which was disregarded on account of my being a girl, coupled with the unforgivable limpness of my head hair, which was about as likely to thicken as my face was to spontaneously sprout stubble. None of my efforts were ever recognized however. My brother’s skin darkened seemingly every time he approached a 60-watt light bulb, whereas I tan about as well as an Aspirin, and on those rare occasions when pigmentation did occur, the color was somewhat synonymous to that of a baby rat.
Ma may have been wrong about my sex, but she wasn’t wrong about my aggressiveness. I came out fighting and haven’t stopped. I bloodied two noses by the time I was seven, from boys who tried to sneak a peak at my underwear on Friday Flip-Up day at school. Jonny was my favorite opponent however, mostly because he was always less than ten feet away and the only other thing, living or inanimate, that could take mom’s attention away from me.
“The bear is your nahual,” one of the elders, Steve Chasing-His-Horse, told my brother. “He is your power animal, your protective spirit and you must cherish him.” My mom was rarely able to find sitters for my brother and me when we were really little, as the divorce took quite a toll on her finances, so we often went to work with her on the O’Odham Rez, which is where I first learned I was different, that snorting red chili makes you throw up almost before it’s in your nose, and that having short hair makes you a boy, by default.
Jonny was the enlightened one on the Rez, the Indian-looking child. Everyone called him Jonny Bear, after his power animal. Güerita is what they called me, little white girl, and looked at me as if my presence alone on the Rez would steal their souls or condemn them to a lifetime of meals at The Sizzler. This name being unsatisfactory to me, even though I didn’t know much about power animals or naming rituals, I took to giving myself one, something that resonated more with my state of being at the time—Julia Axes-Her-Kin. I still like it.
Jonny, in addition to being dark skinned, started getting that Indian paunch early on, which only endeared him further to the Indians on the Rez. The grandmas loved him and fed him red chili chimis like most kids get Tootsie Rolls. This is about when I started losing our fights. I was resilient and tough, but deep down I was still just a skinny girl with too-big feet and clothes that snagged in all the wrong places.
Jonny looks nothing like our mother. His nose is flat, hair curly and irreverent. His body curves slightly downward like a sad bow-and-arrow lost and useless among a landscape of semi-automatic weaponry. Still, he has the body suit, the black hair like my mother and grandmother. Mom and I, we have the unforgivably straight hair, the long graceful fingers that are both dainty and arrogant, the wide hips and guillotine shoulders. Ma had this way of seeming rigid and defiant, even when she was resting, her body stern and relentless against the cushy folds of our faded sleeper sofa. I like to think I have some of that defiance too, but most days I’m not so sure.
People always used to ask if I was adopted, always always, then seemed disappointed when I wasn’t, like I was part of some elaborate humanitarian experiment for children who were deemed devoid of culture. My brother was probably the most avid supporter of this theory and took every opportunity available to try and brainwash me into thinking it was true. As he was my elder (his sagacity earned by the full eleven months he spent on this earth before I came along) I of course believed everything he told me.
“Where do babies come from?” I asked him, as I didn’t feel comfortable broaching the subject with my parents until I was well into my sophomore year of college.
“Cincinnati,” he said. “Now get outta here, you bother me.”
After doing that wedding, revisiting the landscape of his ethnic dream brought everything from our childhood back to the forefront. Suddenly, Weezer was out and Red Thunder was in, no more quarter-pounders from Mickey D’s, but corn tortillas, homemade pinto beans, salt, and limes. No Polo shirts, but leather, or at least anything with fringe on it, turquoise, eagle feathers. Jonny wanted to do the Sweat, a Native ritual of purification and prayer, to shoot bows and arrows at passing cars, and embrace his dark color, the mysterious skin, pulled taut like a drum to ward off the impending whiteness that had tried to penetrate him all of his life. After my brother decided he wanted to be an Indian for real this time, mom raved and raved. When I asked if I could do the Sweat too, she told me maybe I should go to The Gap.
This was my punishment.
I who endured pow wows, drum circles and sunrise ceremonies with her, manning her bead table when she went off to look for Huichol earrings or watch the Yaqui deer dancers, I who ate so much bean-and-cheese-laden fry bread that the Indian in me was literally trumpeting out of my Gap shorts, I who wanted nothing else but to belong to something, to have some sense of culture and ethnicity, when it was habitually denied to me by virtue of my blotchy complexion.
I used to have dreams that I could outrun my skin, that I could pump my legs fast enough to lose it to the dust and stale air or melt it like ice under the sun’s summer fury.
We went to San Diego one summer, my brother, mom and me. I remember feeling strangely gratified by the exhaustion that came from laying out on the beach all day. The mere presence of sun, it’s giving of energy in exchange for all of yours. I picked at my peeling skin like a stale wedding cake no one wanted.
Mom joked that Jonny would be a Real Indian when he came out of the Sweat, but not me. Annoyed and frustrated, I finally brought it to her attention.
“What gives?” I asked her. We were at Starbucks. It was one of those summer days where really all you can do is take naps until eventually it’s night again. I was almost out of college now, the first kid in the family to graduate, which is something because I’m also the youngest. “If anyone is to blame for all of this it’s you. You’re the one who married dad and decided to keep breeding.”
“It was the seventies,” she said. “And I was on a lot of drugs.”
“You couldn’t have been on drugs for the whole decade of your marriage,” I said, trying to do the calculations in my head and becoming increasingly doubtful. Mom just smiled, looking nostalgically off into the distance as if K.C. and the Sunshine Band were doing a little dance, making a little love and getting down right there on the Starbucks patio.
“I want to do the Sweat,” I said, trying to bring her back from whatever peyote cloud she’d climbed up on.
“So do it then,” she said, just like that. And I did.
The men and women have separate huts, all about four feet tall, made almost entirely out of the ribs of cactus and old wool blankets. The floor is compacted earth and the hole dug in the center is for the stones. It takes two hours for the fire to heat the stones and each person has a specific task—building the fire, filling buckets with water, bringing the sage, the sweet grass, the tobacco. Jonny and I, for the first time in our lives, look more alike than we ever have in our white T-shirts and navy Adidas shorts. We both wore glasses, thick plastic ones that normally gave us the appearance of feigned intelligence or Byronic mystery, but now just made us look awkward, pretentious. Most of the men were topless, scar tissue sitting defiantly in thick, purple mounds on their chests.
I got nervous, instinctively reached for my mom’s hand.
There were six women total in our hut, ranging in age from thirteen to an indeterminate age, somewhere between sixty and dead. We crawled in on our knees, as an act of humility to the powers that be, my mom explained to me later.
I was in the “hot seat” as it is creatively called, because it’s closest to the fire and farthest from the exit. People who pass out are often in the hot seat. I clutched my knees to my chest in the dark and tried to remain calm. Once the last blanket was drawn, we were surrounded completely in darkness. A cricket had gotten in somehow and I couldn’t help but think this was a sign, my own personal Jiminy Cricket. At that moment, I made the cricket my power animal and let it guide me through those moments of uncertainty and fear.
A woman named Sybil led the prayers, poured water over the stones, which hissed and cried out so close to my face I thought for sure that I had been possessed by demons. Sybil started to sing and everyone joined her but since I didn’t know the words, I just hummed to the song in my head (which was Salt N’ Peppa’s “Shoop”) and let my body follow the movement of the smoke. Nobody could see anyway, so I felt more than comfortable moving around to the beat of the drum and the bodies of those so near me.
After the song, we prayed one by one to whomever we felt like—to the Stone people, Yahweh, Creator, Grandfather, Buddha, MotherFather—prayed for sobriety, health, single mothers, the men and women in Iraq, not just the soldiers but the Iraqi people too, for clean drinking water, sopapillas with honey. I hadn’t prayed since I was about twelve and certainly never out loud before, in front of strangers.
But I prayed.
And for the first time I felt almost depressed by my good fortune. I had no addictions, no mouths to feed or terminal diseases. I was attending college for free, thanks to Affirmative Action. But I didn’t deserve it. My words carried no weight here. Assimilation. Privilege. Adaptation. It was my mom who taught me how to spell. I might as well have prayed for a Mercedes or something equally absurd because my life seemed so similar to it, so privileged and inadequate in the face of that fire, in the courageous women next to me, their battle scars dripping off them like candle wax. I couldn’t see it but I knew it was happening. This was the certainty, our bodies texts, quilts, pot lucks of receptivity and warmth, steaming plates of tamales, blood like river water. So clean and so dirty. I offered up my sweat in exchange for a life of idleness and ease, offered it as penance, though there was never any judgment in the Sweat, not from anyone except myself.
Three rounds of this—prayers and songs—and the sweat was tripping over my face and neck. I felt like my pores were in competition with one another, to see which droplet could run the full gauntlet of my body the fastest. I could no longer see, but continued to wipe my eyes with the backs of my hands. Could no longer feel my clothing either, which seemed to rise up with the ash and smoke, leaving only the child in me, the innocuous little girl who could cry without reason and give thanks without shame. The sweat became highways, travel guides, destinations I’ve only touched with my fingertips but never my imagination. It’s hard to explain, hard to detail something that is both obvious and obscure at the same time, like déjà vu or time zones or the difference between soul and spirit.
When I came out, my mom was standing nearby with a water bottle and a banana. I took them, oblivious to the shock of cold that entered my body as soon as I had left the Sweat Lodge. I drank all the water in ten seconds flat, drank it like a debt that’d been owed to me, like it was a river that I wanted so desperately to wash me away. Suddenly becoming chilled, I looked down at my T-shirt, at my bra that stood out in sharp relief against the backdrop of the moonlight. The fluid had soaked it so thoroughly that it had lost its color completely, changing from white to transparent.