TRIGGER WARNING: This is a story, among other things, about childhood sexual abuse
My ancestry is a crazy quilt — different patches from across the world brought together by migrations, immigrations, emigrations, and colonization.
I am a mixed Native lesbian whose family hid its ancestry, or spoke of being Indian but did not participate in the culture. I also am a link to family murdered in the Shoah that we never spoke about until my grandmother was on her death bed.
I felt what was not there — what was tangible yet invisible. I felt it through my grandmother’s confusion, loneliness, and grief. I felt the loss my ancestors carried. I felt it through their spirits — always present, but not real to the world I lived in.
I knew to hide the spiritual experiences and knowledge I had as a child. I knew, instinctively, that if I did not I would be viewed as “crazy.”
I grew up in a violent home, and was told by the rapists in my family and outside my family that if I told anyone about the abuse, no one would believe me — people would think I was crazy,
Decades later, in graduate school in rural Minnesota, the white men in my class called a visiting author — a Native woman who is one of my favorite writers— crazy. I tucked myself into a desk, surprised, mildly shocked, angry. Silent.
That chord of silence followed me from my childhood. It came to me from my grandmothers, and their grandmothers before them — back to the beginning of the murder of the people on Turtle Island (North America), back to the slavery of Indigenous people, back to the sexual and physical violence.
The chord went back to the stolen land and houses and crops — and iron kettles left boiling when Native families fled their homes because the military was coming. It went back to the Two-Spirit people torn apart by dogs the Spaniards set on them. Back to the death marches the U.S. government sent the Cherokee, Navajo, and others on — a tactic Hitler later used on Jewish people.
The chord of silence and shock travels backwards and forward, disrupting time and space, until the notes find their place in a dismal, basement classroom in southern Minnesota, where straight white men continued the ideology that wiped out more than 90 percent of the people on this land. It is an ideology that scattered my Indigenous relatives into whatever crevice and crack they could find so they could hide to live.
I sat in that classroom like someone had my tongue.
Someone did have my tongue. A lot of someones, over the course of my lifetime, right down to the way my DNA is written.
Epigenetics is a new field of study in “Western science” (which, of course, does not include Native science, which has been present on “Western” land for tens of thousands of years). According to this new science, ancestors’ emotions become written into our DNA.
Historical trauma, something discussed in Native, Jewish, and Black communities, is not only this “thing” that happened X number of years ago, but ways of knowing and being in the world that become embedded in descendants’ bodies.
The experiences of our grandparents and great-grandparents are written into the library of our bodies.
Spiritual connection with ancestors is not unusual or supernatural in Native communities. It is a given. It is a pressure, a knowledge, a knowing. My ancestors’ loss and screams are written in me — their pain and murder and rape merged with my own as a child. I was a girl pinned to my bed as the weight and rage of the world forced its way into me.
I never screamed out loud. I screamed inside, where I met my ancestors. Our screams became one and I carried them forward in that way.
We carry them through time. We remember.
This essay is adapted from the anthology “How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse,” edited by Sherry Quan Lee. Reprinted by permission by Modern History Press (2017).