|The following opinion by Clara Caufield appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.
Comments from Cheyenne Country: ‘We are good girls’
By Clara Caufield
A Cheyenne Voice
I tell this story as it was told to me. But, it’s not a story, rather it is the tragic truth about how too many Native American women on reservations live.
It was typical August Montana: a ruthless searing sun, sucking air from lungs and forcing sweat to every brow. Two weary teen aged girls trudged along Main Street, pushing baby strollers precariously, the little white rubber wheels bumping along the uneven rocky surface, babies asleep under meager stroller flaps. One young mother clutched the hand of a toddler who gamely followed, plastic bottle clutched in grubby little hand. Packing plastic sacks, the young women obviously returned from the only grocery store in our small town, surely financed by food stamps.
Watching from a new air-conditioned car, heavy memories assaulted me. “That was me, seventeen years ago”. Abruptly caught in teenage memories, I groped for a tissue in my designer handbag to wipe away sudden tears, perfectly manicured nails in desperate contrast to the desolate scene.
Seventeen years could be a lifetime. That’s when I escaped the same situation and how long I was away, carving out a different life. Home for a funeral, I hoped things had improved in the small poverty stricken Village on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation where I grew up. The government calls it a “rurally isolated and impoverished” community where unemployment runs to 75% accompanied by horrific social problems. Alcohol, drug abuse, domestic violence and so forth are all at unacceptable levels. There is also a very high rate of teenage pregnancy which leads to high school drop outs.
Many of these young women try to escape bad home environments by “seeking love in all the wrong places.” I know because I lived it. The child of alcoholics, my childhood was a nightmare. The only thing we knew for sure was uncertainty. Most often, our home was filled with drunks, my parents and friends. Food and security were problematic, but violence – verbal and physical - was guaranteed.
I was a “good” girl, hoping to influence my parents: gaining excellent grades, usually getting myself, my brother and sister up and off to school; a sports champion and faithful member of the Youth Church Group where the Pastor was kind. “You’re a smart and talented young lady,” he said. “The Lord has great things in store for you.”
Sometimes Mama would hug me, kiss me and through a thick layer of whiskey breathe whisper, “I love you. You’re a good girl.”
I clung to the belief of being a “good” girl. Something deep inside of me demanded that. Yet, even good girls can wind up in very bad situations.
Life changed when I was sexually molested by a drunken friend of my parents in my own bedroom. I nearly gave up then. That is not supposed to happen to “good” girls.
At sixteen I was pregnant, though finished high school. Marriage to the father, an alcoholic abuser was the way “out.” A few years later I had two more babies and more than my share of black eyes, broken bones and drunken tirades. “You’re a slut and a whore, “my young husband would scream while pounding me with his fists, pulling my hair or kicking me. He nearly convinced me. He didn’t want me, but wouldn’t let me leave.
Because church was the only social activity my husband allowed, I went faithfully. “If you ever need help, we are here for you,” the Pastor said.
After an especially brutal beating, it was time to ask. He drove us to a Women’s Shelter in Billings, Montana, a safe place. It wasn’t easy there, but going home was not an option. With the help of wonderful Shelter staff, I enrolled in a job training program requiring relocation to a far away city, scary, but safer than home.
The long grind took several years, but I completed training and got a great paying job. After the women’s shelters and years in low-income cockroach infested apartments, the children were delighted to live in a townhouse. “It’s a palace. A King could live here!” the oldest proclaimed. “A King does live here. And it’s you,” I told him.
I got my first new car and even started my own marketing business, because people reinforced the belief that I was capable. Sometimes I felt they were angels on earth, specifically to help women like me.
It seemed necessary to leave my old dysfunctional life behind. Yet, sooner or later, Native people all come home. That’s how I found myself parked along a dusty road side on the Reservation, watching a distant memory of myself in the guise of two young desperate teenage mothers. Suddenly, I knew. “If I can help even one of them, I’ve got to do it.” Perhaps an angel touched me on the shoulder.
My children were startled with this sudden decision. Knowing little about the Reservation, they agreed, exhibiting the deepest confidence in me. “What are we going to do?” they wondered.
“We’ll know when we get there”. With that, I quit my job, had a huge garage sale, loaded up a U-Haul and came back home. Because my parents died, I inherited my childhood home. It was unnerving to spend the first night in the same bedroom where I was molested as a child, but I got through it. It is a “good” house now.
My old Pastor friend still says “You are a good girl.” No longer a girl, I’m glad he still affirms that basic truth. I am a manager now, married to a wonderful man. We encourage young mothers, promoting parenting, sobriety and job-training programs and even rides to the Shelter if they decide. And, we work with a local Church Youth Group. I see my old self in many of the young girls. “You are all good girls,” we tell them. Many of them are starting to believe it.
(Clara Caufield can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)