Your mother seemed to believe that going to school off the reservation would make things better for you. It didn’t. Not really.Read Jillian Morgan's The Bridge
I decided to write about the subject of bullying on reserves, because I feel like often it’s something that is ignored. I feel like it is ignored because we want to feel like our community is great, that it is infallible. Sure, we may have a few flaws, but in the end, we’re still a community that treats each other with respect. But is this really true? How many times have we seen someone within our community be subject to rumors and trash talk and sometimes even physical beatings without doing anything to help them? More than that, why don’t we do anything to stop it? As a community, aren’t we supposed to help each other? Now, we often let those who are being bullied or hurt fall to the wayside and hope they can figure out how to pick themselves up. Where did we learn this? How are we, as a community, failing our own people? What more could we be doing to teach our children that blind hate is not the answer? By writing this story , I hope to bring this issue to light, to ask the reader to step into another person’s shoes and realize that maybe something isn’t quite right here. I want the reader to look at themselves and ask what they can do to change their world.
Your mother seemed to believe that going to school off the reservation would make things better for you. It didn’t. Not really. On the reserve, no one wanted to play with you. When you asked to join in a game of House, you watched your friends become Mother, Father, Daughter, Son and were appointed Dog or Slave, depending on how your classmates were feeling that day.
After a while, you start going to detention during recess, even though you’ve done nothing to get in trouble. You’re a good student, you do your homework, and your favorite part is the reading assignment. Every night you read your mother a story. But still, you go to detention. It’s boring. There’s no classroom for detention, you just sit on the floor in the long hallway outside the principal’s office. Sometimes she comes outside and gives you a strange look, like she’s going to ask what you’re doing there. But she doesn’t and you remain sitting until recess is over.
Detention is better than going outside. You watch your friends – or at least, the ones who are your friends when you’re at home and they want to play on your swing set – running all over, playing Tag and climbing the monkey bars. You tried to join in at first, but were steadfastly ignored. They didn’t want to play with the Half-Breed, what would their friends say? There might be other half-breeds, but you don’t know them. No one boasts about it, they all look native. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. You look like your dad, dark blonde hair, pale skin; only your brown eyes come from your mother. So you spend most of recess with your back against the brick wall of the school, plucking blades of grass and trying to turn them into a whistle. No, detention is better.
Off the reserve, it’s not so different. Instead of being the Half-Breed, you’re now the token Native kid. All the other children come from wealthy families whose parents can afford to take them on a vacation to Myrtle Beach and Florida during the winter and summer. Their uniforms are brand new, their shoes shine, their socks are a pristine white and the teachers adore them. Your uniform is used, fished out of a box in the school office, the black of your shoes is dull and your socks are grey from water that isn’t quite the quality it should be. The teachers frown at you a lot, worried, but not enough to get involved. Even if they did, you’d only glare at them, a glare you learned from the kids at school, the bus driver, the teachers, your mother. The one that says, ‘Don’t talk to me. I hate you. I don’t care about anything you have to say.’ You learned early that white people don’t care, that they can’t be trusted. It occurred to you that your father is white, you are half-white, and doesn’t that make you untrustworthy? But you try not to think about it.
Later on, more native kids start attending the school with you, their parents shuffling them off reserve because they’re like you. Not half-breeds – you’re the Half-Breed – but rejected all the same. One of them is gay, painfully so, and even at such a young age it’s impossible for you not to notice. You don’t care, you never have because you think you might be different too, but it mattered to the kids on the reserve. His parents think he’ll be safer in a school with white kids, but he’s not. The thing parents don’t realize is that kids are kids and no matter their color, they’re cruel. You band together in solidarity, ostracize yourself from the white kids, form a gang. You protect each other.
One day the gym teacher makes the class run a mile. You do one lap before you can’t breathe, you collapse on the grass next to him, beg for a break. He frowns, but gives you two minutes. Breathe. Breathe. Blood. Your nose is bleeding. Not much yet, but you know it’ll get worse. Without a word, you start making the trek back to school. It’s far and when you get to the door, your hands are covered in blood. The teacher doesn’t notice your absence and you don’t want to leave blood on the door knob. When someone finally comes outside, it’s a class of first graders and your hands are painted in blood. The teacher tells you to get cleaned up. No one helps you.
You miss your dad all the time. He lives in Nevada. The first time you go visit him, you’re eight years old. You’re an unaccompanied minor and your dad is waiting for you at the gate. It isn’t until you hug him that you notice the pretty blonde smiling down at you, the young boy standing next to her and the two year old in the stroller. They’re his, he tells you. His wife, her son, and their son. You don’t know what it feels like to be punched in the gut, but you imagine that it’s something like this. But you try to love them because your dad loves them and you love him.
Another school, another city, off reserve. You stop boasting about being native because it’s safer that way. When the other kids ask where you’re from, you generalize. A country, a province, a city. Not a reserve. They don’t know it; they don’t know what it’s like, what’s the point in telling them? You push away the native in you because all it brings is trouble.
The first school wasn’t so bad, you made friends. You roamed in packs, holding hands and tittering about boys, and crushing on your best friend (but never saying anything because you were taught early on that it was Forbidden). The second was worse. It was too big, too many people, and no one cared. Your books are pushed out of your arms by someone you don’t see. You start begging not to go to school. By the time you’re back on the reserve, you wish you could be homeschooled. But there’s no money, mom works all the time, this is the only way.
It’s just as bad as you remember, maybe worse. You have friends this time, kids who are pushed away for being different. Too poor, too weird, too morbid, too gay. Every morning you greet your friends with a hug and ignore the cries of disgust from the other kids. Hugging is Not Allowed, hugging is gay, who would want to hug their friend? They must be gay. Rumors spread, but you try not to hear them. Words are shouted at you, the other kids start calling you Ozzy, they call your house and ask if you eat bats. It digs under your skin, right down to your bones until you ache, but you try to bury yourself in happier things. You know it would be so easy to turn to drinking, cutting, drugs, like the rest of your friends did, but you don’t. Because you know there’s something better out there, something outside of all the hate and the words and the glares.
You hold on to that. You keep art in your locker to remind yourself that the world isn’t really like this. You write an essay for a public speaking contest. Your speech talked about the reserve. You spoke of reaching for something else, something outside of booze and drugs and smuggling and teen pregnancy. The judges stood up and applauded. Your classmate pulled an ugly frown and dragged a finger down her cheek, following the path of a fake tear. You pretend you didn’t see it, that it didn’t sting, cutting away at your pride. You win the contest.
You bounce back and forth again; on reserve, off reserve, on, and off. Off is usually better, you can just be one of the white kids. You only mention your heritage when asked, try not to mention it too often; try not to be offended when the other kids mock it. You watch them slap the palm of their hand over open mouths and holler and bite the inside of your cheeks to keep from howling. Your just one of the white kids. It’s easier that way. Things get better.
Years pass and you’re in university. You watched your friends try and fail, heard stories about them going back to the reserve, getting pregnant, getting arrested. You soldier on, because that’s not what you want. You want to be a teacher. You want to go back to the reserve one day, tell the children that their worth so much more, because they are. You never had someone tell you that there was more out there, you had to learn it yourself, but you want to teach these children. You want to tell them not to let go of their souls, of their joy, of their heritage. To hold on to it with two fists, to stop glaring, to see beyond their reserve.
You wonder if they’ll believe you. You wonder if, to them, you’ll just be another white teacher, one that doesn’t care, doesn’t know what it’s like, and doesn’t care. You hope no, but think, yes. They’ll take one look at you standing in their classroom and they’ll hate you because you’re white. Because that’s what their parents taught them, their grandparents, and their neighbors. You could tell them that you’re different, that you grew up here, that you have every right to be there, but would they believe you?
You go to a party with old friends. The native girls push past you muttering about stupid white girls under their breaths.
Your mother tells you about the bridges, about the Canadians wanting to bring guns to their borders and, therefore, to the reserve. As if we don’t have enough guns, enough ways to hurt each other. She tells you that we’ve kicked them out, that they blocked off the bridges, no one in, no one out. Not if there are going to be guns on Our Land. When they’re open again, you’re with your cousin. She tells you that others are coming from other reserves, ready to unite against the Canadian government. It makes you smile. The line on the bridge is long, but it’s not until you get on the reserve that you realize why.
It’s a caravan and you’re in it. Lines and lines of cars from other reserves come to stand with you. Your cousin asks you to stand up, to go through the sunroof, to take pictures. The caravan is moving slowly and there are other protesters standing along the side of the road watching it come in. You recognize a few faces, classmates, teachers, family. They see you stand up, top half protruding through the sunroof and start waving wildly. You’re too far away, you know they can’t see you, you know that your blonde hair marks you as white, but still they wave. They smile and wave and whoop with joy because the cavalry is here.
You wait for them to realize that you’re white, for their waving hands to fall, for their smiles to turn to glares, but they don’t. It strikes you then, that same punch of realization. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not skin color, not blood, not eye color or glares of steel. It doesn’t matter. Because you care. You realize that you really do. You care that they’re bringing guns into your home, you care that it’s dangerous, you care. And they know it. They know you look white, but the point is that you care. In that moment, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like or who your parents are because you care. You feel like you can change the world. And then, you realize, you can.