Cowboys and Indians: Mailhot and the Native Spirit

Terese Marie Mailhot’s brilliant debut novel manages to not only awaken spirits long forgotten, but also to exploit every derogatory way that North American white culture thinks of Native indigenous peoples. Beginning with a state of the “Indian Condition” and emphasizing the intergenerational trauma and never-ending pain of her people, she is deliberate and clever with her navigation of this ignored world that goes on directly adjacent to a mainstream culture that is blind to it. She sums up the extent of the pity and resolve of white culture’s erasure of Natives when she describes how when white illnesses were wiping out Indians in early colonial times, priests would run out of places to put their bones; so, they would simply build them into the walls of their new boarding schools. Natives have been used since the first settlers arrived to help build this new world, just the same as white European culture has done with many others as America has prospered and grown into the nation it is today. Mailhot shows us that America has never left this mindset, and that the erasure of Indians is still prevalent even in the indigenous communities themselves.
“I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said.”

Heart Berries, p. 10

There is always an element of eroticism when dealing with the desirability of “exotic” women; Asian women, Latinx women, Muslim women, and even the often-forgotten Native American woman can be, in the wrong eyes and mouths, reduced to something browned from the sun and ordained with feathers, wrapped in tan leather and face paint. Her affair with her former teacher Casey is sprinkled with both romantic doubt and rage-inducing objectification. She uses the term squaw many times to describe herself; mostly signifying her recognition of how others may see her in those moments. Terese wrote her truth though, not just a story. The plot twists were real life, and Casey along with the children were ultimately her future. For better and for worse, she documented how their love came to be so that their children could see the best and worst of their history; just as Terese sees in her own roots as an Indian woman living in the big white world of male writers. She is able to take the best things and rise above without ever forgetting the things that need risen above to begin with.

But then there is the intersection of being Indian, and also a victim of sexual assault. Trevor Noah from the Daily show asked Terese about her father, and the pivotal moment in the memoir where memory starts to reshape the present. She was at a coffee shop when one last piece of her own erased history comes back in full detail: the day her father molested her in the shower. Terese discusses in more detail than the memoir that she actually told her mother about the assault as a child and was ignored, then again at 16. After being ignored and disbelieved by someone so trusted, Terese says that she began to just erase the memory and not trust herself either. The entire novel being a conduit of many forms of pain, this narrative of sexual assault caps the breadth of Mailhot’s confessions, and we get to take peeks at this amazingly strong woman as she began her second wind.

Reading this book, watching her emotional content manifest, I noticed that there are many things that Terese feels that I identify with also. My dad tells me that my great grandmother Minnie was a native woman who had no name until she married a white man named Ledford. My half Indian grandmother passed down the name Brewer through another white man she married in the 1930s, named Beva. My one quarter native dad had me with a white woman named Rebecca, and I am passing part of my one eighth native ancestry onto my children, whom I also parented with a white woman. Terese and her mixed children made me think of my family; of the way that even nature and love aid in erasing our culture from the earth, and how much of a responsibility my generation has to pass on the legacy and memory of the way of life our ancestors had before this one. This work is so that those ways would remain our ways, and not a thing of the past. Mailhot remembers in an interview on the Daily Show that her mother was a healer, but also exploited and left to raise her children on welfare. This also mirrors the sad truth within the story that Paul Simon had appropriated a tale of her mother’s and made it into a sensational piece of musical theatre. All of this mirrors my experience growing up in a poor, Appalachian family with our own exploitations and struggles to find upward mobility.

There has never been an America that I fit into; being born into poverty, the child of mostly white hippies, and possessing a spirit not easily boxed by values, racial identity, or gender. There is a reason I have felt invisible my entire life. It’s because the places I come from have seemed too ugly to confess to the world. I hid a very long time in the body of a white, male musician, never allowing this raging, Appalachian Indian her day in the sun and sand.

“My mother’s looming spirit guides me somedays, telling me that nothing is too ugly for this world. I am not too ugly for this world.”

Heart Berries, p. 114—sharing-an-indigenous-voice-in–heart-berries—-extended-interview

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