Leah Myers

Skinwalker


It is 2013 and I am 20 years old. I walk on a broken foot for two days. I shift my weight to the inside of my shoe and take a few shaky steps when people tell me to seek medical help. I do anything I can think of to prove I am okay and it isn’t actually broken from falling out of an office chair. When I finally crumple under the pain, I drive myself to the Indian Medical Center in downtown Phoenix, AZ. It is the only place I can afford to go with no insurance.

I limp across the reception waiting room. Dozens of Native faces watch me as I shuffle towards the intake window. I see the weight of their long braids, black and silver and in between, and I feel the fragile weightlessness of my close-cropped pixie cut. I tug at the ends mindlessly; unconsciously willing my hair to grow out on the spot. When I get to the window I am greeted by a woman my age. Her face is darker than mine. The way she pauses when she looks at me suggests she is keeping track of that fact too.

She asks for my Tribal ID. She double checks my registration. She asks why I am here. I feel the cutting double edge that question may hold but choose to only give her the medical reason.

“Something’s wrong with my foot.”

I am given a wristband. My vitals are taken. Every pair of Native eyes is on me and it feels like they are waiting for something. Every pair of White eyes, largely belonging to the doctors and nurses, moves over me as if I am not there.

When I am back in the waiting room I text my Native mother and my White fiance. I make a joke to make them feel better about letting me come here alone. I go to the most empty corner of the packed waiting room and I try not to show my discomfort. Instead I smile, showing my teeth to those around me. They don’t smile back.

***

I was talking with my Aunt Gloria on her porch in Sequim, WA one night in 2018. I don’t remember what the bulk of the conversation was, but I remember learning that other local tribes sometimes call our tribe “White Indians.”

“White Indians? Why?” I felt the nervous smile creep onto my face. The kind of smile people get when a friend tells an offensive joke and they don’t have the stomach to correct them.

“I’m not sure really,” she said, long since dulled to the sting of the label. “We are pretty good with money, so that’s probably part of it.”

Silence overtook us for many drawn out moments. I thought about how little of my culture I grew up with. I thought about how I had to piecemeal our mythology together from scattered stories on the internet. And how I never learned the language. And how I barely knew any songs to welcome canoes home from a journey. I thought about how my idols growing up were not real Native women but instead cartoon caricatures that Disney made in the form of Tiger Lily and Pocahontas. I thought about how much other Natives disregarded me when they weren’t from my tribe.

“That’s fucking stupid.” I gave a hollow laugh as I said it.

***

The S’Klallam people were around long before colonizers came to the coast. In our earliest told histories we moved from village to village in our territory, keeping pace with the seasons. We hunted game and thrived from fish and shellfish harvested off of the coast. The crafters among us found strength in cedar. It was woven into baskets and hats and carved into canoes and masks. Cedar was chosen in part for its abundance but also for its connection with the spiritual world, and its longevity. The things made then were meant to stand the test of time.

***

There is no open chair in the waiting room for x-rays. Every seat is filled, so I move to the opening that leads to the hall. My sandal, which barely fit over my swollen foot this morning, is now too tight on my bloated skin. Every shift of weight sends pain rocketing up my nerves and I know I have to sit. I press my back to the wall where I am and slide down, trying my best to keep my foot as comfortable as possible.

The other Natives continue to stare. Children that point in my direction and seem to be asking about me are shushed by their elders. The mistrust makes the air heavy. Despite my skin they see me as other.

The doctors, all White, glide past me in the hall. Not a glance is spared my direction. After an hour they call out number 10, and I glance down at the plastic number I have been given: 18.

A passing nurse bumps my foot and I shudder and grit my teeth through a sharp inhale so that I don’t scream. When the blinding pain subsides in what feels like minutes but is probably just a second, I focus on a man standing over me. The nurse that bumped my foot. He has an ice pack in his hand.

He says he is not supposed to give me anything since a doctor has not seen me, but he feels bad for taking my breath away. I take in his face. He is neither White nor Native, something outside the two major circles that move in this space. He is the first person I am sure has seen me as just a person during this trip. I gratefully take the ice pack and try to shrink further into myself.

***

Eventually my aunt went to bed and I was left wine drunk and stewing over “White Indian” in her living room. What the fuck does “White Indian” even mean? Who says that? Assholes. I poured another glass of rosé and went back to the porch so that I could feel the cool air in my lungs.

The house was outside of any city, and the only light was from the stars and moon. A breeze caught the green scent of growing plants and pine trees and grass. I could feel the boil in my blood settle, leaving a thick, cooling rage. It was, at least, manageable.

“What do they know anyway?” I say to the sky. There is no answer except the doubtful echo in my mind. What do they know? Do they know I was raised without drum circles? Do they know I have never pulled a canoe? Do they know that I don’t like the traditional foods as much as I should?

***

The S’Klallam people first met colonizers in the 1700s, but the overtaking tendrils of White society increased dramatically in the 1800s after the establishment of Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Posts.[1] There was no official treaty until 1855, when the Point No Point Treaty was drafted. It took many days, and the chiefs of the present tribes continuously voiced their concerns “with vigor”[2]. Eventually they were worn down and the treaty was formed, but with the notation that the S’Klallam people would not move. We remained on our home land.

In 1874 we had enough of the encroaching settlements. Tribal members pooled together $500 worth of gold coin and purchased 210 acres along the water. There is where we staked our independence and thrived as a community.

***

After many hours a Native nurse leads me back to the x-ray room. I hate the way she’s talking to me. She switches between refusing to meet my gaze and appraising me, trying to judge the purity of my blood. I forget the pain for a time and focus all of my attention on making her as uncomfortable as I am.

I pull my phone out of my pocket as she sets me up for the x-rays, and I begin to take pictures. I smile too wide and laugh and pretend the angle that she’s making me position my foot doesn’t make me want to scream. Through the vibrating pain I see discomfort playing across her features and this whole show is worth it.

The news comes that my foot is indeed broken, not sprained. I am not told this directly but instead find out as a soft quick-splint is put on my foot. The White doctor assures me that there is no way I can get my cast on this side of the hospital and instead must use crutches and get myself to the other side. I have never used crutches before. The doctor laughs and tells me that there is no better time to learn.

On the way to the room where I will get my cast there is a large waiting room. It is packed full of Natives watching small, outdated TV screens. Every three or so steps I mess up and land squarely on my splinted, broken foot. Before I am even halfway across the large open waiting area I notice a collective gasp each time this happens. I look up to see a sea of eyes leveled on me. Most do not look away even as I match their gaze.

I have become more interesting than whatever dances across those screens. I am the latest zoo exhibit, and I have to suffer this audience until I am through the hall. Part of me wants to snarl or snap my jaws. I want to prove them right and turn into a beast before their eyes. Instead I turn my eyes to the end of the hall and do not look away until I have made it there.

***

I never escaped the pinpoint pain of the term “White Indian.” I scoffed at it. I made fun of it and refuted it. I joked about it with friends and family to prove to myself how much I didn’t care.

Ever since then, though, a stem of fear sprouts in me. When I hear someone move fluently through their own tribal tongue, I flinch at their authenticity. When I watch Natives dance in elaborate ceremonial regalia, I swallow my awe so that it can instead fester into shame.

This feeling of being fake doesn’t influence reality. I still get stopped at airport security, followed around stores, stopped by police in border states, talked down to by people paler than me, and asked racist questions about where I’m from or what kind of magic powers I have. I still get treated like a liar or a relic when I tell someone I’m Native. I still feel a rooted, thrumming connection to the beach and the ground whenever I go home to Sequim, to where my tribe is. I still keep a mental record of all of the stories I have learned, either from family or from historic documents. None of it validates me enough to remove the blight of impostor syndrome.

***

In 1953, the federal government decided that members of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe were not Natives anymore. The rights granted to us were stripped again, and doing any hunting or fishing on the land granted to us by the treaty was now prohibited.

We did not take kindly to that.

All three bands of the S’Klallam tribe came together to fight the issues in court. The case went through rounds and rounds, continuously appealed to higher courts. It was not until the fight was taken to the Supreme Court that we were given back our hunting and fishing rights.

Problems still rose. Healthcare and education also suffered with the lack of federal recognition, as well as more federal level rights to fishing. True effort went into establishing this recognition in 1974, although it wasn’t fully achieved until 1981. We became a fully recognized tribe and even registered a flag, being the smallest tribe to do so in the country.

***

I finally arrive at what is apparently the only place in the hospital that can do a cast on my foot. The nurse is Native but welcoming; for the first time I feel something akin to comfort. She clicks her tongue at me when I stumble and catch myself on my broken foot.

“That can’t feel good,” she says as she helps me to my seat.

“It doesn’t, but I’ve gotten used to it over the past few days.” I smile at her.

She stops moving. “You’ve been walking on a broken foot for days?”

“Yep.”

“Wow,” she moves again, prepping long strips of cloth in whatever material casts are made of. “You’re pretty strong to do that.”

I’m more than a little caught off guard, but simply thank her. I take one picture as she’s wrapping my foot and explaining what my healing process will look like. Later, when I show my grandmother, she pales and tells me that woman is the spitting image of my great-grandmother.

When my foot is thoroughly casted I am wheeled back to my car. The kind nurse that looks like my ancestor asks me if I drove myself. I tell her yes, and she looks worried but only tells me to be careful.

I drive myself home.

***

Mentally, I’ve made a list of everyone that I think would possibly refer to me as a “White Indian.” Some of them are concrete names of people I know do not like my tribe. Some of them are faceless groups, entire tribes on the Olympic Peninsula that notoriously do not get along with my tribe. I came up with a list of things I would say to them all, if I could.

Fuck you.

You don’t have the right to define my identity.

I’m as valid as you are, asshole.

Do you know what “S’Klallam” translates to?

***

Today, we now have and operate eleven different enterprises, ranging from dental and medical centers to seafood and construction. Every building sports carvings that tell the stories of our people through fluid imagery. Between federal trust land and purchased land, we own 1,388 acres on the Olympic Peninsula and are by far the largest employer on that same land mass. We help tribal members get degrees and buy houses and enrich their lives and start businesses, all from funding generated by the tribal enterprises. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. I don’t speak the language, but even I have learned that the word S’Klallam comes from the Salish name “nuxsklai’yem” which means the strong people.

[1] Jamestown History https://jamestowntribe.org/history-and-culture/jamestown-sklallam-history/ [2] Treaty of Point No Point, 1855 https://www.historylink.org/File/5637

Leah Myers is a Native American writer with roots in Georgia, Arizona, and Washington, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. Her work has previously appeared in Spillers No.7 and RED INK: International Journal. Leah is a member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and can be found on both Instagram and Twitter under @n8v_wordsmith.

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