I want to sing.
This is the feeling I have, learning about my indigenous history.
There is a sound inside of me. I want to sing.
I want to express the feelings of my indigenous and two-spirit ancestors. The ones who came before me.
In my veins. In my body. There is a history that I can feel. A history lost.
I feel the pavement under my feet with every step through Manhattan. An empire built by the oppression of an entire nation. A murmur escapes my tongue. Ancient suffering is stored in my DNA.
Melodies escape my lips and I remember the Lenape Tribe who once lived here in Lower Manhattan. I’m taken back to my elementary school in Long Island. A well-meaning teacher taught us with a song:
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
Christopher Columbus was a hero, at least this is what I was taught. A man who saved “savages” from the error of their ways. I was taught that the primitive people of that time were a thing of the past. I learned to deny my own heritage or else I would be primitive too. I was taught to assimilate into European culture. I now know better.
The sounds get louder as I walk through crowds of people on the sidewalk. The songs and teachings imposed on me are being replaced with wordless sounds. I don’t know the languages of my ancestors and right now I don’t need to. Melodies are universal.
“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” These were the words of US Cavalry Captain Richard Henry Pratt who opened the first boarding school for Native Americans. White Americans who had pushed natives west of the Mississippi were running out of space. The solution was to move further west and force the remaining natives to assimilate into European culture. These schools destroyed centuries of culture and countless lives. History that lives inside of me and other indigenous people.
The demonization of indigenous culture included two-spirit, non-binary gender identities. When colonizers reached America, Christopher Columbus and his crew threw two-spirit people into pits with starved war dogs. This an early example of the erasure of people like me in this country. People who were once honored as leaders were reduced to slavery or tortured to death.
Boarding schools were also used to erase two-spirit and third gender identities. Two spirit children were quickly identified and forced into gender roles they didn’t identify with. There gender was deemed incompatible with American culture. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Indian Child Welfare Act gave Native parents the right to take their children out of these boarding schools.
This mentality of oppression over indigenous people still lives.
Currently, there is an epidemic of violence against both indigenous and transgender people. This year, as of this writing, 21 transgender people have been murdered because of their identity. In Montana, dozens of indigenous women have gone missing. This epidemic of violence includes self-inflicted trauma. According to the CDC, the suicide rate for Native Americans is 16.9 percent, compared to 12.08 percent nationwide.
In the transgender community, nearly half of all transgender people have attempted suicide, many before the age of 25. These numbers don’t include the transgender and indigenous people who were misidentified or misgendered. These numbers also leave out the moments leading up to these attempts and the violence that indigenous and transgender people face daily.
I’m very open about the fact that I’ve considered suicide as an option. I stand at the intersection of oppressed identities. The weight is heavy and there are times where I feel like I am carrying it alone. Why be a part of this country that has spent so much effort to erase me?
I think about the stories of Taino people in the mountains of Hispaniola, which is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The peaceful Taino people were enslaved by Columbus and his men to mine gold. Conditions had become so unbearable that many on the island had resorted to taking their own lives.
How many were lost this way? How many were taken away from us that we will never know? How many more will we lose? Transgender people afraid to leave their houses because of harassment from their families, co-workers, and friends. Native Americans trapped in cycles of poverty and violence on reservations without the economic support they need.
How much will be lost if I were to take my own life?
I never want this question to be answered. My friends and family should never have to consider why I didn’t want to grow old with them. Instead, I choose to show them everything I am capable of. They need to see that the indigenous people who chose to survive made the right decision. They chose to endure genocide, enslavement, and erasure. Because of them, I am here.
I may never know my exact ancestry and history. Too much has been erased from history by forced assimilation and violence. No DNA testing can give me back my culture or language. What I have is my blood, my body, and my ancestors. The voices of the past that lead me.
I will sing even if I can’t make sound. My life and my journey is its own song. I will keep this history alive by staying alive. I am here because of those that were here before me. They endured because they had hope. They imagined a future where our story endured. Where our song continued into the next verse.
My ancestors are depending on me. I won’t let this song end too soon.