When 10-year-old Ben returned from the reservation, he always brought back lice with him. We counselors learned this through an unfortunate circumstance when Ben gave one of his peers those lice, who gave them to another child, until we had a residential foster home full of lice-ridden orphans. We were tasked with explaining to the kids that their bodies and belongings were crawling with ten-thousand mostly invisible scavenger pests–but stay calm.
After a couple years of experience in foster care, I was disparaging about kids’ visits to the reservation. I once told a new co-worker that kids who came back from trips to the reservation were either pregnant or covered with lice.
One day we got news that Ben’s young uncle, only in his late twenties, had died unexpectedly. He had gotten drunk and ran his car off the road. Ben was just a kid, but he had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of bad news and was overwhelmed by this latest event. He went to his room and refused consolation.
A few days later, I was called into my supervisor’s office. I would be taking Ben to the reservation for his uncle’s memorial and funeral, she explained. Oh, and I needed to know that it’s not confirmed, but likely, that Ben was abused by this particular uncle, so he would probably be having a lot of feelings.
When we arrived at the reservation’s community center, Ben exited the van and ran to his family. I walked into the memorial service alone and maneuvered toward the back of the room. It was big White me, with my agency ID around my neck and one hundred Native Americans in mourning. I tried to hide behind a wooden pole in the back of the auditorium. I tried to be small. There were a few old women sitting in the back row who turned in their seats and stared at me, then whispered to each other, then stared some more.
In 2012, within Washington state, 42 of every 1,000 Native children were removed from their homes and placed in foster care. That’s a lot, and of course it’s only the latest chapter of a long, sad story. Before the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, it’s estimated that between 25-35 percent of all native children were removed from their homes and generally sent to boarding schools for de-culturizing purposes. In short, if a White person from an agency shows up on the reservation, there’s reason to be suspicious.
Under the gaze of those women, I felt like a manifestation of oppression, and I felt suddenly angry. “If you people could take care of your own kids,” I thought, “then I wouldn’t have to be here.” I wanted to scream it at the old women. I wanted to interrupt the memorial service, take the microphone, and announce to everyone that it wasn’t my fault that another one of their kids had been put in foster care, that another one of their alcoholic young men had ran his car into a pole.
I stewed in the anger, crossed my arms, and leaned harder into my pole. The service began, a piano played, and there was a lot of loud sobbing. At one point an elderly woman a few seats from Ben fell from her chair onto the floor shaking and crying hysterically. It scared me a little, and I thought of how Ben must be feeling right there in the middle of all that unrestrained mourning. It was hard to stay angry in proximity of so much sadness, and pretty soon I started to feel ashamed that I had been so angry. I thought of slinking into the bathroom and taking some breaths. Maybe hiding in a stall for 10 minutes or the rest of the day.
From my spot in the back of the room, I watched Ben’s little shoulders bounce as he sobbed. There is too much hatred and tragedy to make sense of. It’s all a mess, and sometimes kids get stuck in the middle.
The memorial ended. Ben and I got into our fire-engine red, 12-passenger agency van and joined the procession toward the cemetery. We arrived and walked to the grave where a small group had gathered, maybe 30 family members and me. Someone began hitting a drum, and a small group of men started chanting and singing in unison.
Then, something remarkable happened. Ben stepped forward to the foot of the grave, took a breath, and let loose with a wilder, louder song of mourning than his pre-adolescent lungs should’ve been capable of. The other men stepped back and let Ben go. Ben’s wailing was throaty, melodic, and it was brimming with sorrow. He was tapping all that confusion and grief and unleashing it. Ben knew how to mourn.
Watching Ben, I began to think about my own childhood. I was much better at grief and confusion when I was a kid. I used to whimper. I could fall on the ground and curl up and rock back and forth. I’d let the tears and snot just flow. Then I grew up and started analyzing and interpreting and verbalizing and verbalizing. Now I can’t quite recall how to open up with all the sadness. I think it’s possible to remember, but it might require doing something really crazy, like admitting that you can’t control everything, make everyone love you, or stop anyone from dying. It might mean being vulnerable and weepy, like a child.
After the funeral, Ben said goodbye to his family, and we began the ride home. I tried to express the sympathy I felt, really wanting to tell him I was proud of his extraordinary singing. Maybe I even wanted to confess my anger and repent a little, admit that I was part of the problem. At any rate, he didn’t want to talk. He was upset that I had been there, that I had lurked around watching him all day. He wanted to listen to offensive rap music, and I decided that, given the day’s events, it was not terribly important to resist. He put a CD into the console and turned the bass up. We drove down the freeway in the agency’s van, just the two of us, nodding our heads to the music.