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Authors: Deborah Ellis

Looks Like Daylight (5 page)

BOOK: Looks Like Daylight
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What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

Crowfoot, Blackfoot Confederacy

Myleka, 13, and
Tulane, 14

The Navajo Nation is the largest Indigenous nation in the United States, both in land size and in population. It takes in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico and has 250,000 citizens.

But Navajo history has been marked by painful and traumatic events. During the 1860s, the US Army waged war on the Navajo by destroying their livestock and crops, driving the people to starvation. In 1864, large numbers of Navajo were forced marched hundreds of miles from their traditional territories to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, in what is known as the Long Walk. Many died.

In 1930, a US Senate committee admitted that churches were kidnapping Navajo children and forcing them into boarding schools
the churches received more government money if they had more children. Then, in 1951, huge deposits of uranium were discovered under Navajo land. The government employed Navajo miners but did not give them protective gear and proper ventilation. The water the miners were given to drink was radioactive. When they got sick from radiation, they were fired. High rates of lung cancer among former miners and their families were due to these practices. The mine companies left huge piles of radioactive waste on the reservation, going bankrupt as soon as they were told to clean it up.

Yet the Navajo culture thrives today. Navajo arts are known worldwide. Blankets, pottery, rugs, jewelry and sand paintings are traditionally made using the natural materials found in the desert and mountains.

Tulane and Myleka live in Kayenta, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. They are part of a new generation of artists.


My brother and I were chosen to create artwork for the poster for the 90th annual Santa Fe Indian Market. Every August, a thousand or so Native artists gather to show and sell their work. It's amazing. Thousands and thousands of people come to it. They have never had young artists create the poster before. My brother and I were the first.

We had to submit our work to some judges. We submitted five pieces each, and the judges chose both of us! Tulane's piece is a mask made out of Legos. Mine had four circles in it, one on top of the other. They both have colors from the earth and sky, and they go really well together.

My design came to me in a vision when I did my Kinaaldá. This is a ceremony Navajo girls do to mark our coming of age, becoming women. It goes on for days. I went through it when I turned twelve. You get up very early, before the sun. You sing at night, grind corn, do prayers and ceremonies. It's a very sacred, special thing. It helps you grow into a strong woman. My mother went through it. My grandmother too, and probably her mother and grandmother way back through the generations. You do it so the gods can know you. You do it because you are Navajo.

At the end of my ceremony I was told I would receive something from the Creator, and I received the vision of the circles. I felt really honored.

Artwork for the Santa Fe
Indian Market poster

I come from a family of artists. My father, Alvin John, is a very famous artist, and he and my mother, Iverna Parrish-John, got us started. They didn't push us, but art supplies were always around when we were growing up. I think we are all born with the love of making art, but most people tell themselves that art is a childhood thing, not something to do when they get older. When really it's something people can love doing all their lives even if they have some other job they do that brings in money.

My dad does amazing work. He paints, he sculpts with steel, he did this big mural near the Navajo transportation headquarters. He's really well respected. My uncle is also an artist. His name is Melvin L. John and my Uncle David has an art gallery in Santa Fe. We learn from all of them, but we also go our own way.

My mother works as a lab technician at the health clinic here on the reservation. We used to live in Phoenix, but we moved here not long ago because she got that job.

It was a big change moving here from Phoenix, and sometimes I miss the city, but overall living here is a good experience. It's different from what most kids get to experience, so I'm lucky. Plus, it's beautiful! It is SO beautiful! There's lots of natural light and not a lot of noise.

I'm attending Kayenta Middle School. I'm on the basketball team — the KMS Colts. The other students know about the art that I do, and they think it's interesting. Even the teachers ask me how I do things in art. In college I think I'll study design. I'd like to design clothes as part of my career. Or maybe be a nurse.

I'd love it if other people would keep doing art all through their lives, even if they don't think they're good at it. Art helps you to see things.


I just started high school at Monument Valley High, and I like it. I play basketball, football and do track. I'm with my own people. It's a Navajo high school, so I'm with other Navajo kids. I've been to mixed schools, and I like this better. I guess it's better because we're with our own people. There's things we just understand. We don't have to be explaining all the time.

My father's parents didn't get to go to school. My grandfather was a railroad worker for thirty years. He did sandpainting as a spiritual practice and a cultural expression. My grandmother spoke only Navajo. She did traditional weaving and took care of the family. Because of that she was cut off from attending school. My great-grandfather was a blacksmith and a medicine man. He worked with his hands and was very traditional. My father says they were gifted both traditionally and spiritually. I wish I could have met them. Where my grandparents came from, there's still no running water and the community only just got electricity.

I like school. My parents also liked school. My mother's parents did not have a good experience of school. They were sent to a Christian boarding school where they were told they were only allowed to speak English. The only language they knew when they went in was Navajo, and they got beaten for speaking it. So you can imagine, it was not good.

My art inspiration comes from a lot of places. When I was a kid I loved cartoons and comics and playing with Legos. My folks took me to Legoland and I couldn't believe what I was seeing! All the possibilities! So now I use a lot of Legos in my paintings, and I bring them into traditional symbols.

For the Santa Fe art show poster I did a painting in acrylics and Legos. I did a Yébîchai head made of Legos on canvas. I've done several pieces like that. I found out that some people from the Lego corporation wanted to buy one of my pieces, but a Navajo family wanted it more, so they got it.

My sister is really talented. She uses all sorts of materials in her art too. She's made Navajo dolls out of felt and tinfoil. She does sand paintings of yé'iis. She's won all sorts of awards. We both have. The good thing about awards is that they open up more opportunities to learn and to create in new ways.

The Santa Fe festival was amazing. It is so big! All kinds of nations were there — Navajo, Cherokee, Shoshone, Penobscot, Ojibwe, Pueblo. So many! Baskets, dolls, paintings, jewelry, clothing, ceremonial pieces, modern sculpture. There were films, there was food. It was hard to take it all in. I had so much fun! I spent a lot of time in our booth watching people look at our art, talking with people. People wanted to take pictures of us and have us sign their posters. I know that art isn't about that kind of thing and that's not why I want to keep doing it, but I had a great time.

I love living on the reservation. We live right by Monument Valley. It's breathtaking. It's a famous place because a lot of Western movies were shot there. And we get to see it every day.

I'd like to study architecture at university — maybe at Stanford or the University of Kentucky. And of course I'll keep learning about art.

My parents stress how important it is for us to learn traditional values like respect for our elders. Native people used to be told they had to forget who they were and what they knew. Like my grandparents being told they had to forget their language. That time is over. We are remembering all that wisdom and learning from it and building on it.

There are a lot of ways to get distracted from who we really are. Art helps us find our way back.

Valene, 18

In the 1960s, it became common practice for the Canadian government to “scoop” Indigenous children from their homes and put them into the care of the state. This became known as the Sixties Scoop.

Although the official government policies that led to the Sixties Scoop are over, it's hard to tell. The number of Indigenous children in care is higher than it ever was.

In Ontario, First Nations children make up 2 percent of the population of children, but make up 10 percent of the children in care. In South Dakota, Native kids are 15 percent of the population, but make up 52 percent of the kids in care. In Alberta, 70 percent of the children in care are Indigenous, 55 percent in Alaska and 84 percent in Manitoba.

Many children are removed from homes affected by poverty or substance abuse, instead of providing families with the support and resources to raise their incomes or heal from addictions so that children can stay with their parents. Often poor housing is used as an excuse to take the kids. Many northern First Nations communities struggle in homes that are extremely crowded, have no indoor plumbing and are contaminated by mold. The children are taken instead of the homes being made safe.

Being taken into foster care is no guarantee of a better life for an Indigenous child. In six months of 2011 in Alberta alone, four Aboriginal kids died in foster care.

A class-action lawsuit is trying to hold the Canadian government accountable for the way First Nations children were damaged during the Sixties Scoop. The Indian Child Welfare Act in the United States gives tribes legal authority to have a voice in what happens to the children in their communities, although they don't always have the resources to be able to properly use that authority. And attention is being paid to keeping better records to make it easier for children who are taken to one day be able to find their way back home.

I've lived in the North Bay area since I was seven. Before that I lived in Moosonee on the shore of James Bay. My parents liked to move a lot. I am Cree.

I don't live with my parents now. My father is in North Bay. My mother moved to Kapuskasing.

The chaos started when I was five. I don't know exactly what went on. I remember my parents fighting a lot. My little sister Raya had just been born and I'd take care of her a lot, rocking her and protecting her when the fighting got bad.

We got put in our first foster home, but it was not a good place. One of the adults was a pervert. He did things to me that I didn't understand, and when I asked my mom about it, she complained to Children's Aid. He got caught and we got moved to a new foster home.

Mom and Dad got themselves straightened out, got us back and moved us back up to Moosonee for a while. My little brother was born there. Then we moved back to North Bay, and my little sister Kiyana was born.

My parents started fighting again. All my siblings would hide in my room. I was scared too, but I tried not to show it. I gave them games to keep their minds off the yelling and crashing. One time my mother made me run out into the street to find the cops because my dad was out of control.

We got sent to another foster home in another town, then got split up into different foster homes in North Bay.

After a while, our dad got stable and we were able to live with him. Then he had a stroke and we were sent back into foster care.

I think his stroke was brought on by stress. My little sister Kiyana was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a disease of the spine. She was flown to the hospital in Ottawa with only a 50 percent chance of surviving. She pulled through, but she was paralyzed. The doctors said she'd never walk again, but she proved them wrong. She can walk and run now, but her hands claw up when she's at rest. We look exactly alike. She's ten now.

When Dad recovered, we went back to live with him, then things got out of hand again and it was back to foster care.

One of the foster families I got put with treated me really great, like I was one of them. They took me to Disney World and Universal Studios. I saw the real Jaws!

Then at long last we all got put with my mother, all four of us. For about six months everything was great. I had a long walk to school each day — about an hour each way — but I didn't mind.

I kept getting sore throats. They thought it was tonsillitis, then strep throat. Over and over it was happening. I constantly felt sick.

I came home from school one day to learn that black mold was in the house right where I was sleeping. We were given an hour to pack up and get out. Black mold is dangerous. We were taken to a crisis center and stayed there for a couple of months. The people who ran the center were nice, but it's not the sort of place where you can have a normal family life.

The day finally came when my tonsils were supposed to come out. I went into the hospital and on the same day my sister was in an accident on her bike and crashed her skull. She was put into another hospital and my mother went frantically between the two. I had an allergic reaction to the anesthetic, which delayed my recovery.

We went back to the crisis center and I started the new school year.

We finally left the crisis center and moved to a new house in the suburbs at the far end of North Bay. I was lonely. I don't make new friends easily, but I was glad to be out of the center. That is until there was a big drug bust across the street and we realized what a bad neighborhood we were in. There was violence all around us. One of my brothers was badly beaten up by some of the guys.

It got worse when my mom and her white boyfriend started dealing drugs out of our house. I think it was cocaine maybe, but I'm not sure. There would be all this money around that I knew was not supposed to be there.

All this stress made my grades slip. My teacher kept going at me to get my grades up. She had no idea about my life.

Around this time it came out that my brother Skyler had been badly abused by his foster mother. Constant hitting, slapping, punching and pushing. His foster dad had no idea this was happening. The foster dad was a good guy and was devastated when it all came out.

My mother was really angry about it. She was going to sue Children's Aid, but she started doing the drugs she was dealing and that made her fall apart. When she went into withdrawal she got very foul and angry and took it out on us. One time she was going after my sister. I told her to stop, and Mom threw me out of the house. I had no shoes on and the weather was bad. I had to walk a very long way to get to a friend's house.

The police came, and then it was off to another foster home. Then back with Mom and her boyfriend.

I started high school, a Catholic school where we wore uniforms. I went home from school one day to see the police outside my house. The house had been trashed — broken plates, drug needles everywhere, busted lightbulbs. A real mess. I didn't see much because the police wouldn't let me. They wouldn't even let me change out of my school uniform. So I was wearing the uniform when they took me to the hospital where my mom was in the emergency room.

She was all beaten up, black eyes, swollen all over.

She said the police were taking her boyfriend's side because he was white.

Then, of course, we got taken away to another foster home. We were split up again too.

I was sent to a really strict foster home. I wasn't used to having rules and I was not in good emotional shape. I asked to be moved to a home I'd feel more comfortable in. The worker kept promising but nothing would happen. Finally I took a bunch of Tylenol. Not enough to die. Just enough to wake up my worker. After I got out of emergency, they found me a new home. A good one. With really great people.

My grades went up. I got sent to a new foster home with a single woman heading it, and this one was good too.

One weekend a month, I'd get sent to a relief home. This is a place for teens who are hard to place — dropouts and runaways and kids with challenges. We'd go there to give our foster parents a weekend off. The relief home staff were always glad to see me because I'd be quiet and always did my chores.

My younger siblings all got adopted together. I was too old to be adopted, but I'm glad they have a proper home now, with good people.

Moving around so much is really hard. Every new foster home has rules you have to learn — both spoken and unspoken. I'd get very angry, but I'd try not to show it because I wouldn't want the foster parents to get a bad impression of me. I'd often have to change to a new school when I got a new foster home. After a while I stopped even trying to make friends.

My workers changed all the time too. I'd have to keep explaining my life to a new person, over and over.

Every time I got taken away from my parents, or from one foster home to another, I'd leave empty-handed. Just the clothes on my back. I'd get these comfort bags from the Children's Aid — a little bag with pajamas, a change of underwear, stuff like that.

I don't get attached to things. I don't get attached to people either. My younger siblings can say I love you, but I can't.

But for all that, I'm doing okay. I'm in a First Nations high school, and I'll be able to graduate. We learn traditional things as well as academic things. It helps me feel calm and grounded.

My plan is to go into nursing and then earn enough money to go to med school. I like science and I like helping people.

It's my life now. Finally. My life is mine.

BOOK: Looks Like Daylight
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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