I always heard stories of the past. The struggles our people here in North Carolina and abroad suffered. I heard stories of the Tuscarora War in North Carolina, the bloodiest battle in our state’s history. I heard about the conscription of our people at Fort Fisher, one of the reasons Henry Berry Lowry and his allies rose up to fight colonial leaders. As an adult, I heard about residential schools from those who had family who were forced to attend them — they call them “residential school survivors”.
Of course those times in history have always bothered me, but never more than 2021. For the first time in my life I feel myself fighting between retribution and peace, something I feel a lot are struggling with, especially fellow indigenous people.
I recently drove through Fort Fisher, once a confederate stronghold during the Civil War, only built because our Native men and other men of color were forced to do so, through conscription. If they resisted, they were arrested and jailed.
As a child I heard stories about how men were worked to death to build Fort Fisher. As I rode through the area, I saw many families having picnics, smiling, enjoying their time. It made me angry, something I’m not used to feeling so raw. I wondered if that’s how Black folks feel when they see weddings at plantations. Places where horrific things happened to their ancestors.
I promised myself that in 2021 I was not going to hide my feelings. I would feel how I felt and be honest about it, both with myself and others. I told myself that we are entitled to our feelings and when we bury how we truly feel about something, the person it hurts the most is ourselves.
As Native people we’ve seen atrocious parts of the past covered up or simply not covered at all. Back in May, media reports said that the number of children’s bodies at residential schools could be “as high as” 6,000. Recently the total number of children’s bodies found rose to 6,128. They’ve searched only 20 residential schools, there’s hundreds more yet to be searched in the U.S. and Canada. These were children as young as three years old, with hopes, dreams, favorite colors, favorite foods and just learning the freedom of walking and running on their own.
When our children’s bodies are found…no coverage. When our women go missing…no coverage. When our men are shot by police…no coverage. The public doesn’t know much about residential schools, or much about our history. But they do think they know our history and culture. They think we live in teepees, even though here in North Carolina many of our people lived in longhouses. They think we hunted buffalo, though in this state we did a lot of fishing and trapping, no buffalo here. They think we have long, straight black hair, even though in this state many Natives have curly hair.
As we turn the corner of the end of the world as we know it, we straddle the precipice of a new time, a new understanding. A time when the veil is lifted and we’re forced to come to terms with the past, present and what could have been the future.
I know for many non-Native people who had not been aware of residential schools and our true history before, that have recently been made aware, I see them suspended in time. Like the Hanged Man tarot card. Unsure of how to move.
Eddy Charlie, a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School says in reference to the residential school issue: “Don’t try to see what can [you] do. We want people to hear this story for us. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s not something from one of the Stephen King novels. This truly, really happened to 150,000 children.”
Perhaps being suspended in time is exactly where you need to be, because in that stillness is where we have the most growth. In the stillness you can digest the truth and instead of stepping forward in a way that you feel is safe, you will step forward in empathy and understanding. The right place to be.
This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, instead of catapulting yourself into action, step back and sit in the silence. Allow yourself the time to truly understand the past and present, and when you do that, you become a true ally.