My father, my self
When I was a boy, I would often be caught daydreaming, mostly about my father. My behavior was not unique. Many boys, particularly those who grow up without their dads, spend time creating and adjusting their own identities by trying to get at who their fathers are. Growing up with my petite white mother, my father’s influence on me was obvious. I looked distinctly Native. I had brown skin, brown eyes, dark straight hair and thick eyebrows. I also had his talent for art and his tendency towards depression. My father’s life gave me plenty to think about because his story is a complicated one.
His story begins in a trash can in William’s Lake, British Columbia on a chilly afternoon in the fall of 1959. My grandmother (or Kye7e in our language) on my father’s side is young, drunk, and unprepared to raise a baby. She does what one does with unwanted things: throw them away. My father is picked up by an Indian lady from Sugarcane, a reservation nearby, and taken to a hospital where he lives until the age of five. While at the hospital, he learns to read.
It’s 1987, and my father is now twenty-eight years old. He’s made it off the Reserve and is holding a job as a printer for Tyler Graphics in New York, but it seems like the Rez hasn’t left him. He has a knack for drinking, and at this point it’s debatable whether his artistic talents outweigh his drinking abilities. The lights are dimmed at the Shadow Brook Bar & Restaurant. The air is filled with smoke—the general population has not yet fully realized the side-effects of tobacco. My mom stands behind the bar. She notices my dad, and pours him free drinks all night. My dad becomes a regular at the Shadow Brook, and he often spends nights sleeping in his car outside the bar.
It’s March 18, 1993, and my mother and father are welcoming me into the world at Fairview Riverside Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. My first visitor is a Red Laker named Robert Rosebear. My mom calls him Rosey. “Good looking boy,” he tells her, “Why’d you name him after vegetables?” The Anishinaabe believe that the first person who sees you gives you a piece of their character. Rosey always spoke his mind, and he didn’t much care for my father. Diabetes took Rosey in 2005.
It’s almost Christmas 2006. I am a thirteen year old, excelling in my last year of middle school. Hockey season is in full swing. I am poised to graduate and soar into the glamour of high school. Life is on the up and up. My father, however, has hit rock bottom. He lives on a North/South stretch of interstate that runs from Albuquerque to Billings. He is involved with a girl half his age in Crow territory Montana. His girlfriend is the daughter of a famous Native painter. There isn’t much else for me to say about her, except that she took her own life a couple of years later, and that’s a terrible thing.
My dad is in a heated battle with the bottle. Again. His last thread of sober sense is trying to convince him to stay in Santa Fe with his five-year-old daughter. But instead, he spends more and more time in Montana with his girlfriend and her child, and less and less time in Santa Fe and California with his own. I seldom see my dad and don’t much want to talk to him.
My mother seemed to have some idea that 13 was the magic number when I could handle the truth. On the way home from hockey practice one day she says, “You know, your dad is only a stone’s throw from Timmy.”
“Timmy Frank? My dad? Didn’t the doctor tell Uncle Timmy that if he didn’t stop drinking he’d die? ”
Timmy Frank lived across the street from my Kye7e. I knew his stories: the ones about him, the ones told by him, and the ones you could hear from Kye7e’s living room as drunken fights broke out across the street. I knew that he took up the bottle when he was nine years old and never put it down. We picked him up on the side of the road once, and he graced us with his own words. He claimed that he used to drive down the road that bisects the Reserve with his best buddy and the car in reverse. They would drive that Indian car as fast as they could, two boys trying to prove their bravery as warriors fighting nothing more than their own faltering self-images. His story is an implausible Indian cliché, but worth retelling all the same.
As I sat there, sweaty, weighing the likelihood that my father was no more nor less than Timmy Frank, my mother added to my burdens, “You know he could die.” Her words came screaming in from left field. It’s unbearable for a thirteen-year-old to imagine his father in a coffin.
“You think he drinks so bad he could die?”
“It’s a strong possibility, and I want you to be ready if it happens.”
“It’s not going to happen. My dad can’t die. He has Crazy Horse medicine.” I referred to the Indian medicine my dad told me made him invisible so that he could drive like a maniac yet avoid the radar guns of highway patrol coast to coast. But even Crazy Horse’s medicine ran out at Camp Robinson, Nebraska in 1877.
It was October when my mom dropped her next bomb. “Your father’s in jail. He assaulted an officer.”
In a moment of misguided, drunken valor, my father took on the Red Lodge, Montana police department with a carving knife. The officers used a taser and used it repeatedly, in an effort to restrain my dad. Had he not been such a large man, he would have died. The police threw him in the drunk tank, or maybe it was the jail, I’m not entirely sure which it was or what the difference is. Somebody, probably my mom, posted bail and he managed to walk away from the incident with minimal legal reprimand. When I asked him about it years later, he told me that he fully expected to die that night.
My dad still stands, and by way of explanation, my mother tells me, “Son, your father has horseshoes up his ass.” It’s a saying my Mom learned from my Grandpa.
As a child, I found it difficult to separate my father’s story from my own. We looked the same, shared many of the same talents, and had similar dispositions. To a certain extent, we all believe that we will grow up to be like our parents, or even be our parents. As a child, I feared I would grow up to make the mistakes my father made. However, now, as I take my first steps into manhood and self-determination, I have charted my own course separate from his. Part of Rosey’s outspoken character has become a piece of my own, and though I have compassion for my Dad’s struggle, I recognize how his decisions have hurt me and my family, and I reject the idea that I will ever become him. Instead, I want to take my father’s story and use it to show that where we come from does not determine where we can journey to. He had better choices that he could have made, and I have choices I will make better.