By Kyle Taylor Lucas, Guest Writer, Tulalip News
This is the final installment in a series exploring the largest demographic of American Indians and Alaska Natives–the Urban Indian. Through in-depth interviews, the series touches on some of the struggles, hopes, and aspirations of a largely invisible population.
The series introduction, Urban Relatives: Where do Our Relations Begin and End? provided a snapshot of urban Indian demographics and an overview of historical federal policies, which, according to the 2010 census, finds an astounding 78 percent of all American Indians/Alaska Natives residing off-reservation or outside of Native communities.
The second installment, The Tahoma Indian Center: Restoring and Sustaining the Dignity of Urban Indians, looked at a heroic urban Indian program that daily saves lives while operating on a shoestring. It recognized the Tahoma Indian Center and its director of more than 22 years, Joan Staples Baum. The story featured Tyrone Patkoski, an enrolled Tulalip member, known in the art world for his unique artistry.
Third in the series was “Tulalip Veteran Wesley J. Charles, Jr., True American: “Indian Born on the 4th of July.” It told the remarkable story of Tulalip elder and Viet Nam Veteran, Wesley J. Charles, Jr., and a life well lived.
The fourth story, Why Should Tulalip Tribal Members Care About the Affordable Care Act? focused upon the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) benefits to tribal members, especially low-income urban Indians–the majority of whom have long barely survived without any health and dental care, whatsoever, and who stand to benefit most from the ACA.
More than 1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, approximately two-thirds of the U.S. Indian population, now live away from their reservation or homelands. Their displacement is traceable to broken treaty promises, the Indian boarding school legacy, federal assimilation policies, forced relocation, termination, widespread non-Indian adoption policies, overall failed federal trust responsibilities of the past century, and inter-tribal competition for a piece of the pie.
In particular, federal “Relocation” policies of the 1950s and 1960s resulted in Indians leaving the reservation in droves. As part of its “Termination” and “Assimilation” policy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offered grants and job training to entice Indians to leave for employment in urban areas. The promise of food on the table and a roof over the heads of one’s family appealed to hungry, impoverished, and un-housed Indians. Survival can be very seductive.
The intent of these federal policies was to remove Indians from the reservation in order to end federal trust responsibility. Unquestionably, the Diaspora’s cruel result is generations of Indians split from their sacred lands, people, culture, language, and traditions.
A largely untold story is that urban Indians were then and continue to be subject to devastating economic and social strife. For the most part, this invisible population receives a blind eye and a deaf ear from the federal government charged with its trust responsibility. In their opposition to urban Indian program funding, even tribal governments aid the injustice. As example, despite the fact that 78 percent of all American Indians/Alaska Natives reside off-reservation, only 1 percent of the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) budget is allocated to urban Indian health care. This did not happen by accident.
Moreover, despite a highly technological age, data to document the urban Indian condition is woefully lacking. Still relevant today are findings from a 1976 American Indian Policy Review Commission study. It found, “Government policies meant to assimilate if not eliminate, a portion of an entire race of people have created a large class of dissatisfied and disenfranchised people who, while being subject to the ills of urban America, have also been consistently denied services and equal protection guaranteed under the Constitution as well as by their rights as members of Federal Indian tribes.”
Regrettably, tribal government systems have also contributed to the struggle of their disenfranchised urban relatives. For example, at Tulalip, the Social Services Emergency Aid program, in place for countless years, disenfranchised its off-reservation tribal members by denial of access to emergency aid. When explanation was sought, none was forthcoming. Interview calls for this story were not returned. In essence, half of the Tulalip citizens were discriminated against. Already denied anything beyond basic health care at the tribal clinic, the added denial of emergency services was a bitter pill for many.
Tribal enrollment policies have also aligned to deny members identity. For example, the Tribes’ enrollment policy, based on residency rather than descendancy, has deprived generations of Indians rightful identity and affiliation with their people simply due to the accidental location of their birth and despite their descendancy and ancestor’s reservation allotments.
Even so, the urban Indian story is not all bleak. Many urban Indians strive to create and contribute to community with their urban Indian sisters and brothers, and to know their reservation families and communities. Some hope to return home one day when housing and employment opportunities align. Social media has also helped open avenues of communication and connection. Online tribal news outlets and opportunities for online language learning create new avenues of cultural affiliation and contribution. Add that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is providing critical healthcare and dental services for urban Indians who have long gone without any care.
According to Rosalie “Rosie” Topaum of the Tulalip Tribes enrollment office, since December 2012, Tulalip enrollment numbers increased by 140 for a total enrollment of 4,422 with nearly half (2037) of all Tulalip citizens reside off the reservation. All but three of the new enrollments reside off reservation.
“Urban Indian” Stories
Jaime Denise Singleton
Born in Everett, Jaime Denise Singleton, 28, Tulalip, spent her first year on the Tulalip reservation. Her father, Dennis Boon, and her grandmother, Helen Gobin-Henson are Tulalip. Her mother, Pam (Marquis) Phipps, is Aleut. The family relocated to Anchorage, Alaska following her parents divorce when she was three years old.
Eager to know her roots, Singleton returned to Tulalip at age twenty-one. “I hardly knew my Dad and didn’t know my family at all. Grandma Helen helped me find work as a temporary youth advocate in the Education Department.”
Despite its enormous economic success, lack of housing continues to be a challenge for the Tulalip Tribes. Many of those on the reservation reside with large extended family in one house. Although not unlike historic tribal communal living, today’s housing structures and work and school lifestyles are largely incompatible.
The lack of reservation housing is also a significant driver for the continuing large urban Indian population. Singleton said, “I lived at my grandma’s house for about six months. I didn’t sign onto the housing list because I knew people with children who had been on the list for years and still didn’t have a house. At the same time, my grandma also had my uncle, his girlfriend and children, my dad, and two other cousins living with her. It was very crowded.”
A common regret of many urban Indians is the isolation from tribal culture and community. “I didn’t know my family or my culture. That’s the worst disadvantage. One of my cousins showed me her regalia from dancing as a child and I felt I really missed out on things like that. Some of my cousins are weavers and they make the most beautiful things from cedar. I thought, I know how to crochet, so I could have learned how to do that.”
Unfortunately, many urban Indians also experience isolation from other Natives. “Because I am mixed and light-skinned, I feel like an outsider in the Native community. I am only one-eighth Tulalip. On my mom’s side, I am Aleut, but only one-sixteenth. My maternal great-grandma married a white man and they moved out of her home village and homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula. Our family has slowly drifted apart. I know nothing about our culture on the Aleut side either.”
Asked about healthcare, Singleton said, “Up here in Anchorage, AK, they have an excellent Indian Hospital called Alaska Native Medical Center that I believe sets the standard for Indian healthcare.” Yet, she recalled growing up visiting the clinic in Kenai where “I always got the sense it was free when I was young, but as an adult I’ve witnessed a hard push to buy health insurance. I feel like the staff and nurses look down on you if you are not insured.”
The Singletons objected to the necessity to sign up for the ACA or “Oamacare” as it is commonly known. “We filed the exemption because my husband was upset about the Individual Mandate. He didn’t understand why, as Native Americans with Treaty Rights, we should be forced to purchase insurance for the healthcare that is supposed to be provided us. He is one-quarter Inupiaq, but is not an enrolled tribal member and not qualified for the lifelong exemption; neither is our daughter.”
Economically, Singleton’s husband, Steven, has had steady employment. “We’ve been married for almost five years and we have property in Georgia where Steven was born and raised.” Having moved to Alaska after the Recession, they’re excited to be relocating to Georgia to build a house.
Grateful for the tribal per capita program, Singleton added, “Because we decided I would stay at home to raise our daughter, Sequoia, the per capita together with babysitting has really helped.” She is grateful, too, for the annual bonus, which has allowed them to “bank” for critical needs, such as their move to Georgia this summer.
On what Tulalip does right, Singleton said, “Our tribe values culture and respects traditions for ceremonies, gatherings, and funerals. It is wonderful to witness. I believe the Lushootseed language program should have greater emphasis because, like many native languages, it is on the verge of extinction. Our income from the Casinos puts us in a unique position to really “save” our language, and I would like to see that happen.”
To more equally serve the needs of off reservation members, Singleton suggested, “The tribe needs more housing! More than half of the homes in Housing Projects are left boarded up and abandoned while some of our membership lives with other family members, or homeless. I would like to see a program that opens up and turns the homes around faster and more homes available so our members have a place to live.”
“My family and extended family have always made me feel like I belong and that means a lot to me. They ask me things like, “When are you coming Home?” It makes me feel included because we know I was not raised there, yet it could still be my home,” said Singleton. She credited Facebook and social media for helping her to stay connected with her Tulalip family and community.
Myron Fryberg, Jr.
Myron Fryberg, Jr., 37, Tulalip, was adopted along with his sister, Joanne, by Myron Fryberg, Sr., and his wife, Mary. “I was adopted at the hospital. My mother is Tulalip and Puyallup, so I have ties with the Puyallup Tribe as well.” It was an open adoption allowing him to visit his birth mother, Deanne “Penny” Fryberg.
“My adopted mom, Mary, is full-blood and she knew all her relatives and family. I didn’t know myself. I was this kid who was given up by his dad. He was white,” said Fryberg who finally met his birth father’s family eight years ago. I learned that I’m Irish and Scottish, and a little French Canadian. The Irish are tribal too. The last name was O’Toole. I didn’t meet my dad, but I still talk to my brother.”
Residing off-reservation for the past five years, Fryberg said he was on the tribal housing waiting list, “but that’s a pretty slow process.” Caring for family at the time, he was forced to move “to town” [Marysville]. “I did a lot of praying and the idea came that maybe it was time to do something else. I was a janitor I asked, ‘do you want to turn 40 and realize that you didn’t do anything with your life?'”
Fryberg learned the Northwest Indian College (NWIC) offered a chemical dependency degree, so he returned to school. “I’ve now finished my third year and have a year to go,” said Fryberg, adding that he’s in the Tribal Governance and Business Management program.
Acknowledging that life has not been without challenges, Fryberg was candid about his struggles with alcohol. “I’ve been living in Bellingham for three years, going to school and staying busy. I had a rough patch at the beginning and I ended up getting a sponsor” who initiated him to service work. “We started working at the homeless shelter serving the homeless and I developed a sense of gratitude for what I had. Before that, I was hopeless about life,” said Fryberg who added, “I had lost my dad. I clung to him the most because I knew he was my relative. Me and my dad were really close. He always took me everywhere when I was a kid.”
Fryberg’s first tribal job was a blackjack dealer at age 19. “I did that for five years, but I didn’t like the structure there. I got clean and sober when I was 19, but I felt that I was treated less than by the tribe, so I went back to school and studied computers for three years.” Then, his friend committed suicide. “It put me back drinking for another four years. I finally quit drinking when I was 29.”
He again worked for Tulalip Tribes as a janitor at the health clinic and later at Tulalip Data Services. Yet, promises of raises were not forthcoming and Fryberg found the process for resolution of grievances unwieldy. He said that because he was supporting five children from family and a relationship, it was a turning point.
“When my dad passed I just didn’t want to be there. There was no chance for advancement or better pay and rather than go through the grievance process, I decided to return to school. I had seen the people that had an education made more money.”
Asked about disadvantages of living away from the reservation, Fryberg said, “There’s isolation. You get lonely. You don’t have your family, but Facebook has helped a lot.”
Unlike most urban Indians, healthcare has not been an issue for Fryberg. “We have non-profit health hospital in Bellingham. They don’t ask for paperwork.” He has also applied for Obamacare.
Fryberg said he is fortunate to live close to the reservation and a tribe with a similar culture. “The Lummi people at the college embraced me right away. I feel like they’ve kind of adopted me as one their own. It was good to see their culture is similar, but I always felt like Lummi was very close to their origins and held their culture close,” said Fryberg.
He noted having been immersed in his own culture at a young age. “We used to practice with the Jimicum family. We learned dance and songs and performed in Seattle. When my grandpa was ready to pass, my dad brought me to drum for him. My mom is Shaker, so we would go to shake on the weekends, and I helped in the kitchen,” said Fryberg. He has also studied Lushootseed.
Asked about his access to tribal social programs, Fryberg noted, “When I needed help, Tulalip said they couldn’t do because I was out of Snohomish County. There have been roadblocks there.”
He expressed gratitude for tribal per capita as having changed his life. “It has given me a chance to return to school and focus strictly on education.” He added, “The annual bonus has allowed me to put money aside to cover my rent when out of school over the summer.” It allows purchase of necessities he formerly had to forgo.
Fryberg conveyed some frustration with tribal government, “I think they are doing okay. Action seems to be a problem; presentation seems to be a problem. We try to cover up problems. We need to be more aware of where we came from. We need to change the whole philosophy. When we offer service to the people, we’re selling that service. Now, we’re offering a service that isn’t transparent. I tried to get the Board of Directors to hear my plea for non-profits, cooperatives, and getting people employed at Equal Square where there is no hierarchy. It’s a perfect example of assimilation. There’s a sense that oppression is all we know and that people don’t welcome change.”
Asked for specifics, he suggested pooling resources. “If $1,000 per capita is not enough [for people to survive], there’s a lot you can do if you pool your monies–franchising, manufacturing, businesses that have the ability to supply something. Voluntarily, as members, we could do this. If the tribe presented it to us as individual shareholders it would make it easier and if we had a business committee that knew how to invest. A $50 monthly cut in per capita could be invested by the tribe. It could create more revenue and jobs.”Regarding tribal policies, Fryberg expressed concern about structure. “I think there should be more emphasis on the other coat. In dealing with society, you have to wear two coats. One with your tribe and the other with the U.S. There isn’t enough emphasis on what they wear when they’re home. The policies have to change in terms of our leadership. Who are our leaders?” To illustrate his point, Fryberg pointed to the Onadaga in New York. “They “raise” leaders rather than choose based upon popularity. We’re left with the leadership that the federal government gave us–a Board of Directors.”
To better serve the needs of its off-reservation members, Fryberg wants the tribe to support cooperatives. “If more individuals were sharing, there’s the possibility of owning businesses and housing off the reservation. We could invest in, build, or occupy, as added income and owned property.” He emphasized the importance of water conservation and noted NWIC recycles their water. “We need to look at where we go from here, look at the environment, and go back to our customs. Solar would be good. We wouldn’t be supporting Keystone or pipelines. And it could create revenue for our tribe. It speaks to sustainability and supports our sense of identity, of who we are as a people.”
Born and raised on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, Jennifer Cordova-James, 22, is the daughter of Chris James and Abel Cordova. She is an enrolled Alaska Native of the Tlingit Indian Tribe. Her mother is Tlingit and her father is Quechua, of Peru. She has learned the traditional dishes, music, musical instruments, and regalia, but has not learned as much as she would like about her Peruvian people. Cordova-James said the same is true of her Tlingit people.
Cordova-James has resided off-reservation to attend Northwest Indian College (NWIC) the past nine months. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and has moved back home to the reservation for the summer. She will graduate next winter and, afterwards, wants to return to Tulalip to work in administration or perhaps to do marketing for the casino.
Asked about paying for college, Cordova-James said, “Scholarships! My biggest funders are the American Indian College Fund, the Comcast Scholarship, and the Embry American Indian Women’s Leadership Project Scholarship.”
In terms of employment, Cordova-James spoke highly of the excellent work experience she gained in working at the tribal hotel.Her biggest challenges have been balancing her studies with extra-curricular activities. She has served on student executive board as vice-president of extended sites where she gathered concerns, suggestions, and ideas, at each of the NWIC sites to ensure that student voices were heard and resolved. She regards these as important learning experience while also being “fun years.”
Cordova-James said the greatest disadvantage of living away from the reservation has been “Trying to make a home away from home. I lived in the dorms and the biggest issue was missing home. I suppose a huge challenge for me were family issues or obligations. I would have to make hard choices about who to support. It was my second year moving out, but I come home for summer with family and community,” said Cordova-James.
She noted employment as a second disadvantage, “There were a lot of times that I filled out applications and finally decided to focus upon my studies. The work study positions filled up really fast.”
In terms of access to healthcare, Cordova-James said she had access to the Lummi clinic, but chose to visit the Tulalip health clinic on the weekends. The ACA helps in that she is on her parent’s health plan until age twenty-six.
Cordova-James enjoyed a great sense of community while attending NWIC. “Lummi welcomed me with open arms. The campuses are full of students from other Nations. Navajo, South Dakota, Lakota, Eskimo Inuit, Alaska, and from Canada.”
Enthusiastic and ambitious, Cordova-James has big ideas and plans. In March 2014, she was elected as Northwest Regional Representative to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. They help tribal colleges and universities with foundation and grant funding, lobbying in Washington, D.C., and in Olympia.
“Also our big initiative is a culture exchange program within the tribal college. We want a program where tribal colleges and universities work together. Sometimes it feels like they’re working against each other. We want a program that includes common requirements. Right now, we’re brainstorming and tasking people to conduct research this year. It probably won’t be off the ground for a couple years, but it’s an initiative that we’re looking into–long term,” said Cordova-James.
Speaking to the crisis of drugs on the reservation, she said, “It’s heartbreaking, especially when you’re close with somebody and you went to school with that individual. It’s sad to see young tribal members dying. We need to support them, but not enable them. We need to educate the families.”
Cordova-James said it was interesting to get the question because she and her friend and classmate, Tisha Anderson-McLean, Tulalip, co-partnered on writing a grant proposal for their class final. She said, “We called it the “Quascud Traditional Housing,” which, in Lushootseed, means lightening the load or pulling forward in the canoe when someone’s having a hard time paddling. It was for traditional housing, directly for those members who are coming out of treatment to a journey of wellness.”
Quascud Traditional Housing would offer life skills classes, help with professional attire, interview and job hunting classes, and assistance applying to school and scholarships. “Sweat lodge, culture days, and bringing a traditional healing aspect to support the journey of wellness” would be emphasized, said Cordova-James. The facility is envisioned as an apartment to ensure privacy for those who want to be by themselves. Family visits are included, but it would be a closed facility with no overnight stays, and would include checkout passes in an earned program “We compared ours to Muckleshoot and one other,” said Cordova-James who acknowledged Myron James Fryberg for his support in brainstorming and advising on the proposal.
Cordova-James said, “We got a really good grade, we got an ‘A’ for that! We saw it had huge potential for carrying forward.” Although they have not yet done so, they plan to share it with the tribe. If she doesn’t have enough on her plate, Cordova-James is also a busy activist. “I like supporting the environment,” she said, adding that she worked on I-522–the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) labeling initiative this past year. She also worked against the XL Pipeline and coal trains. “I was protesting. There’s one picture with ‘Idle No More’ on my face. Generally, I work against big corporations trying to kill small businesses and I’m interested in the international issues such as Australia versus Japan on the whaling issue.”
In keeping with all of Indian Country, the effects of historical trauma are equally as devastating among urban Indian populations. It is reflected in the prevalence of social, mental, physical health, and substance abuse problems. Yet, the urban Indian population is treated as invisible with little funding devoted to services to improve the quality of their lives, indeed–their life chances.
Jan – Lakota Sioux
Some stories are so painful, so personal, that to protect their families the storytellers ask to remain anonymous. Using a pseudonym, Jan, 56, is Lakota Sioux from Standing Rock, South Dakota. Born and raised in Washington, she was in the first class of The Evergreen State College. An early activist, she recalled with some nostalgia the alliance of Native students who made and sold fry bread to help the American Indian Movement (AIM) at Wounded Knee. However, her activism began with the fish wars. “When I was in high school I became involved in environmental things, and then I became involved politically around AIM. It progressed from there. The way I’ve always looked at it, you don’t have to live on the reservation to know what is right or wrong. You don’t need to live there all your life,” said Jan.
At 19, Jan left college to live with her grandparents in South Dakota. “My grandma is Lakota and lived her whole life on the reservation. Though I visited them as a child, I wanted to connect with what I didn’t learn. I wanted to know my relatives and to experience first-hand what it was to live on the reservation,” said Jan. It was an exciting time during the early seventies and the beginnings of the American Indian Movement. “I went to the very first International Treaty Convention at Standing Rock,” said Jan.
She worked part-time for a cleaning business owned by tribal relatives on the reservation, then as a public school tutor’s aid, and doing odd jobs. In her free time, she went to Sundance.
Before long, she was married with a child, but her husband died in a mysterious swimming hole accident at Standing Rock. She moved back and forth between Washington and South Dakota and eventually worked on the film, “Thunderheart,” and her son was one of the village children in the film “Dances With Wolves”, playing with Dennis Banks’ children.” My son was healthy. He played soccer. He met Billy Mills. I have a picture with the two of them on the front page of a local paper. He even went on a 3-mile run with Billy Mills,” said Jan, proudly.
While living in South Dakota, she took her son to the tribal clinic. Yet, over the years, lack of access to IHS healthcare for him grew more difficult. She finally settled back in Washington and attended vocational school in 1992.
Jan’s life took a turn as her son grew into his mid-teens. He became unmanageable and she sent him to boarding school, where they determined he was an alcoholic. He went to treatment. Said Jan, “He was in jail for a whole year, and I wondered why he was acting like this. Something’s wrong here. And after he got out and had his daughter, then he got his diagnosis. Until then, I thought he didn’t have a dad, and his hormones are acting up, and he’s acting out. It started when he was around 15.”
He became violent and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, in his late teens. That was complicated by his alcoholism, his involvement in gangs, and recurring arrests.
For most people, we have children, raise them, and then they go off to live their own lives. In Jan’s case, that has not, nor will it ever be the case. Since his late teens, her son has been jailed for Drunk in Public (DIP) more times than she can recall. On two occasions, he was jailed for a year at a time and other times too numerous to count–for months on end.
His dual diagnosis of alcoholism and mental illness makes treatment, which is often unsuccessful for any alcoholic, impossible for her son. Jan reports that upon his release from jail for DIP or domestic violence, he drinks within minutes. When he leaves treatment, he immediately drinks. “I tried to get my son into treatment through the Northwest Region in Portland, but they didn’t think he was a candidate. It was an alcohol and drug treatment program, but they didn’t have a mental health component. How can you have somebody in recovery that doesn’t have rational thought process?” Jan emphasized that alcohol treatment programs must have a mental health component. “They need to have a communal living situation, but they can’t come and go as they please. It almost has to be a lock down place. There has to be something there for them to do, nutrition, exercise, garden,” said Jan.
Jan said treatment and work release require getting to class and work, but her son doesn’t have the rational thought process to do that. She suspects his long-term alcohol abuse and maybe meth use as potential factors. “And it’s worse now because he now has black-outs. Dual diagnosis. Mentally Ill and Chemically Affected (MICA). They changed the name to co-occurring disorder. Then, they shut that program down due to lack of funding.”
Pointing to the ACLU, Jan said, “Oh mentally ill people do have rights. They have rights to be able to have a place to live. Yes, they have rights. How do we solve all of that if they can’t manage themselves? How is harm measured? You have to hurt somebody and kill somebody. My son has DIP charges all the time. He has a felony record, which is why he can’t get a place to live. Even when he does, all the others running around who are just like him make him lose it. He’s the Robinhood of the streets. I bought him a brand-new jacket and it’s gone.”
She can’t have him live with her. He loses, gives away to street people, or spends all his money on drinking; he often has no place to stay. Other times, he has been evicted yet again. He is on Social Security Disability. In the winter months, she gets him a hotel room. The rest of the time, “I had to take a hard breath and say “no” when he wanted to stay at my house. There were times I let him stay with me, but he goes through my stuff and has stolen from everyone in my family. He brings street people here. I just had to feel rotten and just do it. I had no other choice, “said Jan.
She found a support group that gave her hope, “Mothers of Adult Mentally Ill Sons.” Yet, as the meetings progressed, and the leader advised them “there is no hope,” and their numbers decreased with only four people in attendance at the end. “There was one lady that had two sons like my son and they were worse than him,” said Jan. “My son can go to treatment all he wants and that’s not going to help him. He can go to jail all the time, and it’s not going to help him. The only saving grace of him going to jail was his detoxing. But the day he gets out, he drinks. I’ve resigned myself that there is no hope under the current conditions, under anything they now have.”
“My hope is not of him recovering from his mental illness, but I hope for a secure place like a compound or communal place where he could be safe. There are places around the U.S., but they cost $20k to $30k a month. Basically, at the heart and core of his being is a pretty good person, but his illness gets in the way just like any alcoholic.”
Asked how she coped and took care of herself, Jan said at first it was by attending National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and co-occuring disorders meetings. “I started educating myself. That helps to a point, but like the other day when I took him to the dentist, when he got into the car, he had a psychotic episode. It just kills me inside and it hurts and I just want to die. Just get this pain away. Take this pain away. Because he’s in pain. I feel sad for my son because of the way he has to live. Any mother who has a son or daughter who has to live that way–it’s just painful and hurtful. I cope with it by talking to my friends, and talking to my brother, and talking to my partner who now understands. Boundaries is a big word. I’m tougher on my son than some mothers are. And I cry. You know it’s part of coping–if you can call it that. Crying is relief. Sometimes, you just cry. Also, just being involved in other things. I’ve been involved with my granddaughter, helping her as much as I can. Just being there for her. I’ve screamed and I’ve hollered when I’m driving down the road. I go to the YMCA,” said Jan.
Among other anonymous stories, there are the Indian women in their late fifties and early sixties living urban and alone, struggling month to month with few resources.
There is also the thirty-year-old Puyallup woman who spends her days at the Tahoma Indian Center and looks for a safe place to sleep at night. She has been unable to find work. Sometimes, she stays at the mission, but she worries about the bugs, so she often sleeps on the streets. She seems detached as she speaks about drinking. She “grew up with it.” It is surprising to learn that her mother who is only 53 is in a nursing home. Asked if illness caused her young mother’s placement in the home, the flat reply was, “No, she has wet-brain.” An inquiry about it was met with an incredulous reply, “You’ve never heard of wet-brain! My mother drank so much for her whole life, so it pickled her brain and she cannot take care of herself.”
Wet-brain is a real condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome caused by long-term alcoholism. Its symptoms include mental disturbance; confusion; drowsiness; paralysis of eye movements; and staggering gait. It is primarily caused by a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1) due to severe malnutrition and poor intestinal absorption of food and vitamins caused by alcohol. The wet-brain person acts much like the Alzheimer’s victim with loss of recent memory, disorientation to time and place, confusion, and confabulation (telling imagined and untrue experiences as truth). In its early stages, it can be prevented, but it cannot be undone.
Fifty-two year-old Jack is bright and well spoken. He is Canadian First Nation, but was born in Seattle in 1960. He hasn’t visited his home reserve in more than 30 years. Jack served four years in the Army, stateside. “I really enjoyed my military service. I learned a lot and regret not staying in. It had a lot of security,” said Jack.
Jack started visiting and found a home in the Tahoma Indian Center in the early 90s. As for now, he said, “I’m doing alright, staying alive.” After the service, he got labor work, mostly moving. Today, he does recycling.
Due to his parents’ drinking, he and his siblings were put into foster care early, two or three homes while he was very young. He was five when he was permanently placed into the system, “but I have blocked a lot of it out,” said Jack.
He admits to being an alcoholic, which sometimes prevents his access to the mission. Asked when he began drinking, Jack replied matter-of-factly, “Probably in the womb.” He said he never knew his mother not drunk.
In the next moment, Jack offered, “I learned a lot about natural foods and nutrition and quit drinking in the mid-80s to early 90s. I took up running and ran 26.2 miles in the Goodwill Games. We started at Gasworks Park. My time was 4 hours and 3 minutes. If I could come up with the equipment, I would probably resume running.” He confessed that he is “always dreaming. One of my goals, too, is to climb Mount Rainier.”
“For fun, I like to read–Dean Koontz, Stephen King, history, philosophy, political science, Indian–contemporary and history,” said Jack. He brightens even more in recalling a local doctor who for about seven years took the center rafting on the Deschutes in Oregon. He misses that.
Another Jack, Lakota, Sioux, spoke of how difficult it was to secure health care in Washington State. One local tribe turned him down, so he had to travel long distance to the Seattle Indian Health Center. He is now happily enrolled in an ACA plan.
Despite a sense of exclusion for some and of being “less than” experienced by others, most urban Indians continue to identify with their people, reservation communities, villages, and land. They share a common history and memories. Displaced from their reservations they seek community ties with other urban Indians. Yet they yearn for connection to their land, people, culture, and traditions. They seek common ground and to ensure they are not forgotten.
As noted by the Urban Indian Health Commission, “Today’s urban Indians are mostly the products of failed federal government policies that facilitated the urbanization of Indians, and the lack of sufficient aid to assure success with this transition has placed them at greater health risk. Competition for scarce resources further limits financial help to address the health problems faced by urban Indians.”
The mass migration of Indians from their reservations to urban centers has been devastating in myriad ways, but most glaring are the economic, social, and health struggles endured by newly urbanized Indians and their families.
Then, beginning in the nineties, federal devolution to the states and local government in the form of block grants accompanied by more severe state restrictions to services has resulted in even more devastating service cuts to already impoverished urban Indians. They’ve experienced adverse impacts from entitlement reform and cuts to funding levels, major cuts to social service safety net programs, public housing, and jobs.
The stories of untreated illness and dental emergencies, racial police profiling and an unjust criminal justice system, discrimination in access to services, disproportionality in Indian Child Welfare, and preventable death, homicide, and suicide are legion among urban Indian communities.
Yet, the hard data is still missing; legends don’t qualify on grant applications for increased federal funding. Though they do not wish to be named, urban Indian organizations speak to horrific funding challenges often due to tribal government opposition to their federal funding requests. Tragically, as across Indian Country, the effects of historical trauma are prevalent in social and substance abuse among the urban Indian population. Yet, they are treated as invisible.
There is urgent need to address prevention and intervention, especially for urban youth. Some positive trends include the Washington State Legislature’s convening of a taskforce to address racial disproportionality in the child welfare system. While this year’s report to the legislature showed improvements overall, in its “Detailed Findings,” the report indicates, “Racial disproportionality in all intakes has decreased slightly in 2012 for all groups except Native American children, and disproportionality in screened in intakes has decreased slightly for all groups except Native American and multiracial children which had a slight increase.”
Yet, despite all the strife, there is incredible resilience among urban Indians, many of them generational, and those who have recently migrated away from their reservation communities. Many Indians residing in metropolitan areas are attending college or university, are pursuing career paths, serving in local government, and are active in their communities. They’re active in social and environmental justice efforts.
It is evident that urban Indians, most often invisible to policy makers, must become their own best advocates with their on-reservation relations, with tribal leadership, and with allies and policymakers in their urban centers.
Kyle Taylor Lucas is a freelance journalist and speaker. She is a member of The Tulalip Tribes and can be reached at KyleTaylorLucas@msn.com / Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/in/kyletaylorlucas / 360.259.0535 cell