Nicole Hallingstad stands outside Rockefeller Centerin New York City, New York, on the morning of September 11, 2021. Photo courtesy Nicole Hallingstad
New York Native: A 9/11 Indigenous Remembrance
Sunday, September 12, 2021
The feelings I carry about being in New York City on 9/11 run through me, right under my skin, like mercury. This day every year is the magnet that pulls the emotion through my pores, until I’m shiny with the quicksilver of memory. The ripples of remembrance gradually reabsorb and settle back into the hollows of my cells. They will live there forever, in my blood, in my bones, in my heart.
I relive the shock and sorrow of 9/11 on every anniversary. But I also recall the love, compassion, and infinite depths of kindness shared in the months that followed. The intense need to be connected to other people is what I remember the most after twenty years since the Twin Towers fell.
How do we process a traumatic experience like 9/11? It was my indigenous cultural values that helped get me through. Those values include acting toward a communal purpose, respecting others, and knowing that your ancestors walk with you. At a time when I was alone in a city on fire, living three blocks from that smoldering and sacred pile, those principles held me steady.
Indigenous peoples have rich heritages of communalism. You have to work together to survive, everyone has a role to play, and progress is experienced as a community. Success relies on cooperation and is not defined by individual achievement, but by integrated efforts.
In my tribal Tlingit culture, when a family loses a loved one, there are ceremonies that involve all our clans. This practice shows an understanding that mourning can be a heavy burden, so the weight is carried with others. Celebration and sorrow are experienced collectively.
Photo courtesy Nicole Hallingstad
NYC can be a ruthlessly individualistic place. But on 9/11 we were all indigenous. In a time before Facebook, we needed to physically be together. We gathered to find loved ones, to mourn their passing, to celebrate our first responders, to help rebuild. Vigils, funerals, benefits, and fundraisers were held on a big scale with thousands of participants. It felt better to be with each other.
I was in the crowd at the Today Show the morning of 9/11. I handed my camera to a woman to my right and asked if she’d snap a picture. Looking at it days later, I was shocked to realize it was the moment breaking news reached NBC of a plane hitting the North Tower. All eyes are looking at the broadcast except for mine.
There is no hiding from the anguish of that day. What stays with me are those moments of shared humanity, support, and empathy. There was an immediate alchemy in the energy around us.
The man next to me handed over his phone even as cell signals were dropping and calls were jamming so I could assure family in Alaska I was okay. My mind was scrambling because I couldn’t get to my apartment three blocks from the World Trade Center. I couldn’t wrap my head around what that ground now contained.
I knew one other person in the city and started the 3 mile walk to her apartment. I was about a mile away from midtown getting into more residential neighborhoods when I noticed there were people out walking their dogs, having a late breakfast, chatting over coffee. How could there possibly be anyone who didn’t know what was going on yet?
As I made my way up Broadway, a digital tsunami roiled at my back. Long lines started to form at ATMs. Then the ATMs failed. I walked and watched banks put up “Closed” signs and lock their doors as the wave of financial infrastructure failure rolled past me. By then everyone was reaching for each other, hugging and crying together.
I felt the blood between my toes from my cheap flip flops with a half mile left to go. The owner of the shoe store where I stopped didn’t charge me for the tennies. She looked like my mom, and I burst into tears at the sight of her. She gave me a hug and then had to close up shop.
A woman I had met only four days prior through mutual Alaskan friends took me in. The next morning she told me that if I left and went outside she could not let me back in because of what might be in the air. I respected her choice to stay and she respected mine to go.
Every snick and clack of the four locks that snapped into place behind me echoed down the empty hallway of her building. I imagined the strength of my grandmother who died when I was seven and asked her to please stay near me.
The closer I got to what was already being called Ground Zero, the louder the roars became. I turned onto West Side Highway where emergency vehicles were headed into the rubble. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers lined the street, cheering and clapping for the brave workers on board each truck.
The release of this uplifting energy was a physical thing, flowing for miles through the crowd. I dropped to my knees from the kinetic force of it, throat closing in gratitude, sobbing. At least 5 people rushed to see if I was okay and helped me up.
Unbelievably, I found my landlady. And thanked my grandmother for sending me to her. We weren’t allowed back into the apartment for 6 weeks while FEMA cleared the buildings of the ubiquitous gray dust that billowed in through the open front window. We were very lucky when so many weren’t.
I volunteered at the Red Cross and tried to jumpstart the NYC economy through the sheer volume of Dunkin Donuts I bought. Act toward a communal purpose, respect others, and know that your ancestors walk with you.
The 9/11 Memorial in New York City, New York. Photo: John Sonderman
Twenty years ago, during a national crisis, accurate information was hard to discern. People were isolated and afraid. Life was thrown into turmoil. Populations within our nation turned against each other. We needed to act in a way that protected one another and advanced our goals as a society.
With Covid, we are there all over again. Indigenous values solve many of the world’s challenges if we choose to use them as a model.
When we talk about 9/11 and say that we will “never forget”, let it be a positive act of healing. We will never forget to stay connected. We will never forget the importance of collective action.
We will never forget to love one another.
Nicole Hallingstad is a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
This remembrance is her own.