Native Girl, White Skin

When I was a little girl, I told people that there was a war going on inside me.

My father is full-blooded Native American. His skin is dark. A dreamcatcher is tattooed on his arm. He’s tall, stoic, and his voice is deep. He speaks in a rhythm that I’ve only ever heard on the reservation. He calls me every time he sees an eagle.

My mother is Scottish, Argentine, the kind of Spanish with pale, pale skin. She grew up in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. If you asked her, she’d ignore everything else and tell you that she’s British. She’s not wrong. Her accent is strong and musical, even after 25+ years in America. She has a Union Jack flag on her car and her friends send her copies of British tabloids.

As a child, I knew that in the war that made America, my mom would have fought for the redcoats, and my dad would have fought with the revolutionaries. The colonists. The Americans. The fighting was inside me now, deep in my heart or somewhere in my DNA. I didn’t think it was a sad thing, back then. I thought it was cool.

In kindergarten, I played the role of the Friendly Indian in our Thanksgiving skit. I wore a brown fabric “buckskin” dress, a feathered headdress made of construction paper, and smeared two red lines of warpaint under my eyes. I was so very proud, but my skin was still white, and I didn’t really look anything like Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The pride floated around above me, nebulous, conceptual in the way that five-year-old me had no way to explain, even to myself.

My roots are in my father’s experiences. My roots are in my mother’s experiences. My roots extend beyond the place I was born, beyond the mountains my tribe is from, beyond the Spanish mountains my mother is from. My roots are stretched and twisted and extended beyond what I can keep track of, or understand. You ask me, where am I from. Who am I. You ask me, what does my cultural identity mean to me.

I have no answer for you. I’m removed from my Spanish roots, my Scottish roots. They mean something to me, but I don’t know what yet.

Because I grew up near my tribe, I have more lived experiences as a Native than as anything else. But even then, it’s not really the Native experience. I’m mixed. My skin is white. I have no answer, really, when you ask me what my cultural identity means to me. I can’t explain these things.

But I can try to show you.

The casino. The slot machines ding and trill in the background while I show you the Culture Corridor, a tiny hallway with museum-esque displays of beadwork, baskets, and photographs of my tribe’s history. We get stopped once or twice by someone with a nose like mine who tells me that they know my dad, or they knew my grandfather, and that I should say hello to my dad, and have fun at school. The people with noses like mine are usually wearing the maroon shirt of a casino employee.

The next place I would bring you to is Friday night bingo. The bingo hall is a one story building positioned right next to the casino, with the aesthetic of a cafeteria, all metal chairs and folding tables and white-speckled-with-gray linoleum tile. You can smoke at some of the tables, but we sit far away from that. A woman with a pleasant, monotonous voice calls off numbers from the front of the room, pausing while they flash on the screens set up near the ceiling. “B-9,” the bingo caller says. “O-57.” “I-22.” We daub our numbered sheets.

You see even more noses that look like mine. You don’t win anything, and I don’t either. In the bingo hall, there’s a tiny place called Frybread Heaven. It looks like the place the middle school lunch ladies put the hot food--hot pans with a sneeze guard, a metal shelf to slide your plastic tray down once you pile it with food.

I buy frybread, and I ask them to put cinnamon sugar and butter on it. Most of the time, frybread is eaten as an “Indian taco,” which is just a taco on our culture’s particular flour creation instead of another’s. But I don’t eat meat, so my frybread is more like a funnel cake from the fair. My dad always says that “vegetarian” is the Indian word for “bad hunter.” I tell you that this is the only traditional Native cuisine I can show you, because nothing else remains. Frybread is a staple of our culture because it is cheap and filling. It is not an age old recipe passed down from the days before the white invaders. It’s something that we made up out of necessity. For survival.

And here is a truth I have only learned very recently, and I’ve been living it all my life. When your people die, your culture dies too. The valiant attempts made to preserve our life and our ways have only been able to preserve slivers--bits and pieces. What we have saved, as rich and beautiful as it is, is just a fraction of what we’ve lost.

The genocide of the past, the genocide of America’s beginning, has not ended. Native women were forcibly sterilized well into the 70s. Alcoholism plagues us. Our children are dying in droves. Native children are three times more likely to commit suicide than any other ethnic group. In certain tribes, they’re ten times as likely.

Scholars have begun talking about intergenerational, historical trauma, or the idea that Natives born today are born cursed with the fear, pain, and trauma of their ancestors. It’s weaved into our DNA. Every dead native child is a direct result of colonization, colonization that continues to this day.

This is what we all have in common, I suppose, besides our wide noses. That trauma. That pain. That is what my roots are firmly dug into.

I can walk freely in the casino, in the bingo hall, around the Pow-Wow and the tribal council meetings, because my ID says that my blood qualifies me as a Native. But my skin doesn’t. I am free to enjoy the rest of the world because of what my mother gave me--white skin. Colonization, the very reason for my intergenerational trauma, is also the reason that my skin affords me so many opportunities and freedoms. Maybe most importantly, it’s what gives me a measure of safety in the world.

How do I reconcile these things? How do I live as a contradiction, a human being pulled in all these different directions, rooted in so many places?

I don’t know. That’s all I can say.

Social Media As A Coping Mechanism

By Siobhan Roca Payne

Courtesy of Siobhan Roca Payne

Courtesy of Siobhan Roca Payne

TW: Mention of mental illness, ED, self harm

When we talk about being mentally ill on social media, we’re talking about a lot of things. We’re talking about how we want our sadness / anxiety / trauma to look. How we want to dress it up to help other people understand it and by association, understand us. We’re talking about social media breakdowns, airing out our pain and suffering to every single acquaintance, friend, and extended family member we have.

More than 450 million people suffer from some sort of mental illness worldwide. Of course, this is a number that represents those who have been diagnosed, who have a mental illness prevalent enough to show up in a census. It doesn’t count people who live in countries with no mental health policies or programs who can’t access treatment or tell their stories to therapists, so it’s easier to post about it on Tumblr.

It doesn’t count people who don’t realize that mental illness is a part of their brain chemistry, their every day experience. It doesn’t count people who know that something is wrong, but don’t want to access treatment. I can think of quite a few people I know who aren’t diagnosed or open about suffering from mental health issues, but are clearly going through something. I can tell by what they post. It’s unnerving.

There is a common image of mental illness that is shown to the general population through Buzzfeed videos and widely shared viral posts, a composite that is paraded to try and educate people who think they’ve never felt like this. It exists to show them what it looks like, so they can help the people around them who are hurting. 

“It’s like this,” it says. “Imagine a thin white woman. Her hair is a little dirty, and she’s wearing rumpled clothes that are maybe a little loose. She’s laying in her bed, looking up at the ceiling, and there are darkish circles under her eyes. If you were to ask her how she was feeling, she would say—‘I’m tired. I’m tired all the time, but I’m still sleeping too much. I can’t get out of bed, and I don’t want to do the things I usually enjoy. I’m quiet in class, or at work. I feel really sad, all the time, and I don’t know why.’ Now, after talking about how she feels, she bursts into tears and cries into her pillow, her body curling up into a fetal position, communicating: helplessness, fatigue, and fear. She is depressed. That is what it looks like.”

We show this arguably powerful composite image of ourselves to those outliers of mental illness because it's easy, because it's represented in the media, because it’s always better to simplify complex issues if you’re going for basic understanding. It’s logical in its simplicity. `

It’s also dishonest.

While I’m sure that image of mental illness really does exist somewhere, it’s genuinely hurtful to make such sweeping generalizations of such a personal experience. Mental illness manifests differently in all of us, whether we are diagnosed or not. 

I feel my depression in my hands most of the time—my hands are what I need to write, to touch my partner, to do my makeup and take care of my body. When I get particularly bad, my hands don’t work. They don’t want to do any of those things I need to do to be myself. 

Most of all, they really, really don’t want to write. They feel heavy and clunky, more like prosthetics than the able hands that I am lucky enough to have. This is a much more devastating part of my illnesses than not being able to get out of bed, or being tired—I’m used to that.

I’ve been depressed—probably—my entire life. It’s because of genetics, it’s because of circumstance, it’s because of how my mind processes emotions, interpersonal relationships, and self worth/esteem. It doesn’t matter why. What matters is how I cope. What matters is how much my illnesses stop me from doing the things I need to do. What matters is how seriously I take myself when I say “I want to die.”

It’s silly to think about, but when I am compiling my composite image of my own mental illness, when I decide what aspects of my treatments (or lack thereof) to share with the wider world, it comes with the additional stress of trying to cultivate an image, a brand, a career. I have to think twice before posting, because of my employment affiliations. I have to think twice before posting, because if my online presence is off-putting, magazines won’t want to publish me.

This complicates things, particularly because social media validation is one of my only sources of self worth and self esteem.

I could make a long-winded Facebook post about my recovery, about how I’m getting better, about how I am beating my illnesses. 

(Author’s Note: these sorts of posts, from anybody, are usually bullshit. Well-intentioned, but still bullshit.)

To someone reading, that could sound like I’ve done something really amazing with myself, like I’ve officially stopped binge eating forever, or that I threw away my self harm tools, or that I flushed my prescription meds down the drain and took up holistic medicine and meditation.

In reality, all that could mean is that I actually dragged myself to therapy today, or that today I was able to say, loud and clear, “I have an eating disorder,” or that I washed and dried the dishes. Those things are all herculean tasks for me, requiring a lot of strenuous use of coping mechanisms and my beloved prescription medication. 

We do what we need to do to get by. Some people need to portray their mental illness always through the lens of recovery, of improvement, of a far off, golden “someday.” Other people choose to live within the harsher and uglier realities, posting at length about their trauma, their poor decisions, and how jaded they are with themselves and everyone else. Some people choose to say nothing at all. 

Hey. Existing is difficult. We all get through it in different ways.

I cope with the validation I receive on social media, in the form of likes, shares, favorites, retweets, reblogs, comments, follows, and whatever else they’re calling it now. 

One of those things we don’t really talk about when we talk about mental illness is that living with all of this pain can often sap your personal reserves of not only energy, but also self esteem. It’s hard to love yourself when your brain is constantly telling you that you’re so worthless and that you should be dead. It’s hard to say, “I look pretty today,” when the image you see in the mirror is constantly distorting.

But likes on social media are essentially temporary hits of self esteem. It’s another human being saying:

“Yes. I like this, and in this moment, I can see you, I am acknowledging you, and validating your existence.” 

Or, even better: “I feel this way, too.”

That sentiment is meaningful. When you struggle every day with the validity of your existence, your place in the world, and whether or not it’s worth it to wake up tomorrow, you’ll take anything that makes you feel better. 

I don’t have a real following on the Internet. I don’t even have a modest following on the Internet. It’s mostly just people I know in real life who aren’t immediately put off by nihilism, constant swearing, and self-indulgent wonderings on various pop culture happenings. However, there’s also some people who aren’t afraid to tell me they feel the same way, which is a gift beyond all comprehension.

The people who follow me see me. They’re accepting me into their Internet world, whatever that means to them. And I can point to that and say, “Why, yes. I do exist.” 

Girl, It’s Only You: A Feminist's Take on One Direction’s Year

By Siobhan Thompson

Courtesy of Billboard

Courtesy of Billboard

The moment I began to openly embrace my love for One Direction was the very moment that people started to ask me why. No one was able to understand why on earth I would, without even a bit of irony or shame, listen to a boy band—especially a boy band as notoriously teeny-bopper as One Direction, Simon Cowell’s own pet project from season seven of the X-Factor. 

I don’t waste time feeling shame for the things I like, especially those things that are immediately categorized as “silly” (also known as: feminine). But it seems that time and time again, I’m asked to explain myself when it comes to my love for One Direction. Time and time again, people say, “You don’t look like you listen to One Direction.” 

I’ve written about this before. The misogynist mist that seems to surround the unwarranted and occasionally aggressive hate of One Direction and boy bands like them is something I find deeply troubling. In short: the things that are loved by teenage girls are often the first things that society dismisses because teenage girls are not taken seriously, ever. Meanwhile, the things teen girls love become enormously successful and popular due to the incredible amount of energy, devotion, and passion that teen girls have.

2015 was the year that I began to notice that, unlike many others, One Direction seemed to deserve the love and devotion they conjured out of their fans. The hoards of people that rushed to their side through the good and bad this year seemed to feel appreciated, loved, and sometimes most importantly, seen.

This year brought a lot of firsts to the band. In March, Zayn Malik quit in the middle of a tour. Malik’s departure made the band a blindingly white quartet, but the boys didn’t stop. Less than three days after his departure, they played for a crowd of 95,000 in South Africa. Those who attended the show said that the boys were profusely thanking the crowd with a new kind of sincerity, as though the ground being shaken beneath their feet at Malik’s departure was steadied when they focused on their fans, who remained a steady constant.

One Direction’s lyrical content has shaped up considerably, especially with their last two full-length releases, Four (2014) and Made In The A.M. (2015).  When reflecting on their previous work, it is important to recognize that bands as high profile as One Direction are largely the creations of their marketing and PR teams, and most of their content is what the label wants it to be. 

The band’s first smash hit, "What Makes You Beautiful" (2012), is at best pandering to the insecurity of young girls and at worst capitalizing and exploiting their insecurities.

“Baby, you light up my world like nobody else,

The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.

But when you smile at the ground it ain't hard to tell,

You don't know you're beautiful,

If only you saw what I can see,

You'd understand why I want you so desperately…”

Two years later saw a huge shift in gears with the release of the song "Girl Almighty." The 2014 single is a girl power anthem of sorts. I didn’t think too much of it until I saw just how empowered other One Direction fans became from the song. You couldn’t even count the number of “girl almighty” tattoos that decorate the arms of fangirls everywhere. "Girl Almighty," as a simple phrase, is empowering and endearing. As a feminist, that message was good enough for me to take One Direction out of the category of a Band That I’m Simply Tolerating.

It’s not a lot toward advancing feminism—it’s a crumb, really—but that’s really most of what we get with mainstream media, especially in musical groups that are men-only. Personally, I don’t have the energy to be constantly angry and bitter, and when I see people that probably mean well, that try to do well, that seem genuinely appreciative, I let myself feel good about it.

When 2015 came, I continued feeling good about them. Their lyrics seemed to be evolving—while still mostly about love, loss and girls, it was becoming more sophisticated, less condescending and sickeningly sweet.

On their 2015 release, the song "End of The Day" goes like this:

“All I know at the end of the day is you want what you want and you say what you say

And you'll follow your heart even though it'll break

Sometimes    

All I know at the end of the day is love who you love

There ain't no other way…”

Besides the songs themselves, the boys as individuals have promoted more of a feminist rhetoric and even make a point to reach out to queer fans. This year, Harry Styles performed more than once draped in a rainbow flag, especially after the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Much discussion throughout the years has been had about Styles’s sexuality, and he doesn’t address it. That’s fine. He shouldn’t have to. But a gesture as simple (and in some ways, powerful) as wearing the rainbow flag was a marker of love and acceptance to many queer fans.

Even after another member of the band, Liam Payne, expressed his dislike of the flag itself due to the inappropriate behavior of fans who vehemently ship Larry (Louis + Harry), Harry kept wearing the flag. It’s a quiet statement, but it’s a statement. Queer fans will (and should) always demand more, and it’s my sincere hope that they’ll get more.

The members of One Direction are incredibly young, incredibly famous, and horrifically rich. A lot could go bad. But they’ve been in the spotlight a long time, and 2015 saw them at their very best. From where I am now, at the very end of the year, I’m happy to be a fan of One Direction, I’m happy to be a woman, and I’m happy to be a feminist, but most of all, I’m happy that all of those things can co-exist.

THE FOUR FATES

by Siobhan Thompson

what a shame it is

to have this body for four seasons

winter summer spring and fall

what a shame it is

to have this body

to take care of

myself.

 

my mind freezes in the cold.

my brain can’t handle the jagged bite of frost.

it’s got this fight or flight thing,

and it always chooses the cowardly way out,

and it always wants me to come with.

 

when Winter comes on pointed heels,

every weak slight of sunshine is a hail mary

now, and at the hour of our deaths

i beg her for release

from her unmentionable

her unnameable pain.

but she only dusts her snow on my chest

and drips her icicles from my mouth

Winter never says much.

Winter never has much to say at all.

 

“it was the cold,” i tell Spring, who sweats at the temples

as they try to bring back what Winter took away

they listened to Demeter wail for Persephone, too

Demeter didn’t realize she brought the frost herself

and Spring didn’t have the heart to tell her

the same way they won’t tell me

so they listen and listen

work and work

to melt the ice

and thaw the rivers

to convince the terrified Sun

to come out again.

 

we say rebirth happens in Summer,

we say pretty girls are summer colored,

and everyone else is not.

Summer lingered when i was young 

and i had something to give her.

she liked to kiss my skin,

and lighten my hair.

but now i’m gray all over,

my hair and skin and teeth and eyes,

and all i have in my hands are the husks of memory.

i try to smile at her and say:

“remember when we were happy?”

“remember that tan on my wrists?”

“remember the way i used to be?”

no, Summer doesn’t worry about the past.

pretty girls don’t worry about much at all.

but she has a dead dandelion for me, 

and when i blow on its whisper-soft head

i don't wish for anything.

i know it doesn't work.

 

Autumn looks just like Spring

and a little like Summer

he’s scared of Winter too, but he’d never tell admit to that.

sometimes he gives me more time than he should

he knows that Winter isn’t gentle,

he knows that his sister isn’t kind.

he does the best he can to prepare the trees

but he always ends up killing the leaves

when i beg him to stay with me, among the dead

the corpses of Spring’s hard work

and Summer’s easy upkeep

Autumn tells me to bundle up

because Winter is almost home

and Winter loves it here,

with me.

 

what a shame it is to have this body

last for all four seasons

what a shame it is

that every four seasons

this body and i

start again.

A Living, Breathing Political Statement

by Siobhan Thompson

Courtesy of Siobhan Thompson

Courtesy of Siobhan Thompson

Political statements were riots and protests and demonstrations. I saw riots and chants as incendiary devices for young people to make the government listen.

The Vietnam War protests were political statements. They were an awakening of people, an uprising of youth, a brave and sometimes foolhardy counterculture that refused to accept things the way they were.

The Pride parades were a political statement. They marched through the streets of major cities in America and even through the dirt roads in Uganda, those lines of brave people draped in rainbows and perseverance and community.

It was a long time before I realized that these things felt like art to me—the gathering of people, the mosaic of flushed faces, the music of incessant chants. Art was not limited to museums, and politics were not limited to colossal buildings in Washington.

I was born to a hippie liberal mother who never really left the Sixties, and I learned to be a pseudo anarchist through the music I liked early on. It all sort of bled together. I’ve always been far left. I’m way far left. Radical, even. I gave an impassioned speech advocating the pro-choice movement in eighth grade, and I scoffed at trucks with Bush/Cheney ’04 stickers on their bumpers.

But still, I didn’t think of myself as political until Barack Obama ran for office. On Election Day in 2008, I was in my freshman year of high school. I wore a Barack Obama shirt and at least twenty Barack Obama pins. I couldn’t vote yet and it broke my heart. When he won, I cried, floating on patriotism and the promise of change. I didn’t understand anything about foreign policy, but that didn’t matter to me then.  All I knew was that I wanted things to be better.

I tried to be political beyond my unyielding support for Barack. It was hard when I lived in northern Wisconsin, but it didn’t get easier when I moved to Chicago like I thought it would. I thought I would be able to speak my mind more. This was not the case.

In art school, the question of whether or not our art was going to be political came up often. I’m a fiction writer. I don’t think I could write any manifestos. I don’t think I could write anything academic, or intelligent, or persuasive. I like to write about emotions and feelings and even ghosts and monsters, and none of that felt political.

But, there’s more to me than that. My identity as a fiction writer, as a person who understands emotions far better than foreign policy, intersects with the other parts of me that I have come to realize are inherently political.

I am a Native American. I am a woman. I have mental illnesses. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I am not a thin person. I am many things. What I have lived through—what I have survived—are not things you are supposed to survive. Because of this, my life is a political statement. I did not choose this.

My life is art—I am in love and loved. I surround myself with what I find to be beautiful, and I have a tendency to think most things are beautiful. I see most everything as art. I choose to live this way.

As a result, all the art I create is inherently political. My existence is inherently political.

Some of this I chose and some of this I did not—but I’m embracing it all anyway. Some political statements are quieter than marching on Washington, but I think there’s room for all of us.