Month: April 2016
Back in February I posted a letter I wrote to the inmates of a South Dakota women’s prison who were reading Neither Wolf nor Dog. I wrote with a presumption and an intimacy that was perhaps unwarranted because it presumed to be able to speak to the minds and hearts of some people whose experience I could never hope to fully understand. Still, it seemed worthwhile to step forward and say what was on my mind.
When I shared the letter with all of you in a blog, the responses were predictably diverse, reflecting the internal ambivalence that I myself had felt when I had written the letter. I asked the woman who ran the book group to send me the responses of the inmates themselves, and promised that I would share them with you. I truly did not know what I was going to hear.
Well, here they are. Feel free to write your responses to the women themselves in the “comments” section. I am sure that Vonnie, the book club leader and facilitator, will make sure that they are seen.
This is a rare way to reach inside the walls to touch some women who are separated from friends and family and would surely appreciate knowing that they matter to the rest of us.
So, without further ado. . .
Comments from the women in the book club in regard to your previous letter.
I think Kent’s letter touched me. I think it is awesome that he took the time to write to us. I agree with him about getting wisdom from prison. I feel after four years here I have gotten very wise. I have been curious here and have absorbed everything I have seen, heard and learned. I cannot wait to read the other books he has written. He truly has moved me in a way that is indescribable. I was a nurse in a locked Alzheimer’s unit prior to prison, so I really enjoyed every part of the book. His letter is just everything God has put in my way. It is all a life less that has molded me into the strong-willed woman I am today.
I loved your letter. It gave me a new found hope that I am going to be okay, and that I am not worthless. I can make something out of my life, and share my experiences with others. I feel lighter at this moment than I have in a very long time. You truly are a gift and I thank you for taking the time to write us a letter.
Your letter spoke to me in a deep place. I have found a voice within me, for those around me that are too afraid to speak up for themselves. I have taken action to my convictions while still here in prison. I was always shy, afraid to be seen and heard so for me to be the spokeswomen for the underdogs in prison is totally out of my scheme of being, but here I am. While I stand in this position though I am at peace because I know the answer to the only question I ask is deciding if I wanted to lay my life on the line-“Is it the right thing to do?” I know you understand.
Reading this letter from you really hit home. Since I have been in prison, I lost my home, and everything we owned to a house fire. I lost my husband to a heart attack one year later. These things almost had me out for the count. But my children are thriving, my 18 year old daughter, who watched house burn to the ground buried her father, without her mother by her side, is going to college on a full-ride scholarship!. If she can come through the ashes like that, there is no reason I can’t take this experience and turn it into something constructive. So hearing about bad hands I am well aware of, learning to make the best of it, a learning experience. Being in book club is an amazing experience. That you for taking the time to write us such an amazing letter!
I thought it was interesting to tell us that being here was a gift. I always thought in my own recovery that to share my story with others before they get to a place like this may stop them. My road to this place I am in was paved with abuse- physical and mental and other violence: but I tried to cover it all with a big dose of drugs and alcohol. I did not want to feel anything. However, that is all I got to do and continued to do it! It is okay now. I look forward to life now. I didn’t before. Although I can’t wait to leave this place, I know there are many caring people out there.
The letter is really down to earth. I have decided years ago, when I first got locked up, that this time I am doing is a time for me to stop allowing myself to be a “victim.” I want to be a better “me” for myself and family. I have been through so much in my life, and it is crazy how I’ve survived. I always knew there is a “good” that comes out of a “bad.” For example… when I was 14 years old my older brother was just 16 years old and killed himself. I understood that his life was ended to solve my own, just two days before this life-altering event I too wanted to end my life. Thinking back now, I can see the wrong choices I have made, and that I believe you are an amazing person. This book didn’t surprise me. Or make me want to put blame on any one person for all these memories you have written about, but it has made me more proud of being native. As people, we learn from people whether you are Native, Asian, or Hispanic, it just doesn’t matter what your skin color is, only that you have open ears and a listening heart. Thank you for all you listening heart has endured.
How do I feel about your letter? Your letter is right about some things. I did take a long look at my life since coming here, and had made a few revelations. This place will never break me, nor will I let the people change who I am inside, what happened to me could happen to anyone. My judge did not see the person whom I believe I am, nor did he change me. I am still as strong if not stronger than I was before coming here. I’ve learned so much about myself, also for standing up to my abuser. I will never let another man dictate my life for me. There are a lot of people I hope to help change their lives by telling about my abuse. I am a survivor! I am moving forward with my life in the most positive way I know how- to better myself will be my gift!
Your letter has inspired me and also confirmed what my Pastor has told me and that is I have a story to tell. Also, that I can help people.
Thank you so much for your words of encouragement and hope.
I appreciate the letter. It was very kind and thoughtful to take the time to write an insightful, meaningful, piece of wisdom. I am a quiet observer. I came to prison at 17 in 1998. I have spent more time inside these walls than out, but I did my time (after I grew up) in hopes of a future outside of prison. I am an avid reader which has kept my mind healthy. I have been on a long journey and I am grateful to say it now has an end. I had life without parole but it was reduced by the Grace of Good, and the mercy of my sentencing Judge. I know your time among the Native people was not always an easy one, thought you treaded with respect. I used to be way involved in the Native ceremonies where I was accepted by the old ones, or elders. But every time someone new came, I felt like I had to prove myself again. Maybe I didn’t accept myself. I stepped away. I do my time in my room, keep to myself, but I get along with Natives more than others. I just wanted to say thank-you for your journey. Thank you for sharing yours and theirs.
Sincerely with much admired respect,
To all of you here on the outside, this is a glimpse into the goodness and reflective awareness of the folks on the inside. To those of you on the inside, thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight with us, and reminding us that the walls that divide us are nothing compared to the common humanity we all share.
Amid all the political news filling the airwaves and print pages, a tragic and little known story has been unfolding in northern Canada. In a small Native town far outside of our cultural consciousness, over 100 people out of a population of 2000 have attempted suicide in the last few months. The oldest was 71, the youngest, 11.
You can read about it here, as well as elsewhere: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/canada-first-nation-suicide-attempts-attawapiskat
As you know, I’ve spent the better part of the last three decades writing about the unseen reality — both the gifts and the tragedy — of the Native experience all across this continent. So this story hits very close to home, and I want to do what I can to open your hearts and minds to the reality that lies behind this barely-noticed string of tragic occurrences.
After many years of looking at the apparent disjunction between the putative wisdom of the Native peoples (which is very real) and the social and cultural dysfunction of the contemporary Native reality (which is also very real), I came to the hard realization that we are looking at full-blown cultural PTSD, born of the boarding and residential school experiences.
I try to tell this story in one of my quieter books, The Wolf at Twilight
which has been overshadowed in many ways by its siblings on either side, Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo.
But with this spate of suicides, I want raise this book up and encourage you to read it. All three of the books in the trilogy make reference to the tragedy of the boarding and residential schools, but The Wolf at Twilight tells the story straight on. Please go to Amazon and read a few pages of it. I think you will see that it is an enjoyable read, though the story it uncovers is difficult to hear.
But the fact is, we need to hear that story. Imagine your child being taken from you, denied the right to speak his or her own language, made to accept a strange religion and way of life, and told that everything you had taught him or her was a lie and from the devil. Imagine your child coming home and not knowing you; imagine looking in his or her eyes and seeing a stranger. Then imagine that child growing up, having children, and passing along this spiritual emptiness and all the anger and hopelessness that had been bred into the bone by this heartless social experiment.
These people trying to commit suicide are the children, and the children of the children who lived this nightmare. They can’t be who they used to be and they don’t want to be who they are told to be. And the world ignores them or celebrates them as The Washington Redskins with leering grins and big bulbous noses.
I am not much for self promotion, and promoting one of my own books is not comfortable. But, as a Native woman wrote to me a few years ago, “We entrusted you with our stories. You need to stop thinking of your books as your own. You just got to write them. They are our books. You need to use your white man’s status to get our stories known.”
I stand accused, and the writer was right. But if I can open a few eyes by asking you to read The Wolf at Twilight and to pass the story on, perhaps, together, we can move our societies a little further along the road of healing.
So I’m asking you to help me tell the story by learning the story and passing it on. Somewhere in the future, some little girl of 11, or an elder of 71, either in the north of Canada or on the city streets and on the reservations in America, might put down that bottle of pills or that rope or that gun because someone from the outside looked at them and said, “You exist, and your story matters.”
Perhaps that someone will be you or your children. We are all in this together.