A Long Way from Home

A Water Protector's Boots by Chaz John of the Institute of American Indian Arts

A Water Protector’s Boots by Chaz John of the Institute of American Indian Arts

Picture it. The judge telling you that you are to move to another state 1,000 miles away: away from everything and everyone you had known your entire life. My baby sister was almost one, but she would be in good hands with my grandfather. My mother was gone on another of her drug binges, and she signed custody over before we could be taken away. But if I gave everything else up, I could be with my dad who I had not seen in six years. My dad said we were moving to a place where there was nothing, but I didn’t care because I was going to live with him, and I would be happy.

My dad’s girlfriend accompanied me on the plane from Chicago, IL to Minot, ND. I got off the plane around 10 p.m., darkness surrounding us as we left Minot, heading for our destination. The following morning, I awoke to look outside. There were very few houses around us, prairie as far as the eye could see, and way off into the distance a small town. Other than birds chirping, I heard silence, and the air was different, crisper and cleaner than Chicago air. Chicago is called the “Windy City.” I don’t know why, as it was far windier here.

It was a few days. My new family asked me if I wanted to see a movie, and I said yes thinking it was just in town. We got into the car, passed New Town, passed the only gas station along that highway for the 70 miles to Minot. In Minot, there was a Walmart, a Kmart, and a small mall. This was such a shock to me, as in Chicago I had never seen a Walmart or Kmart, and the mall was so small. Maybe it was the shock of realizing I really had moved to the middle of nowhere, but I got a headache on the ride back home.

School was another story. While registering for school, my brother-in-law had brought his classmates to come see me as I was taller than most kids my age. When I turned to look at them, they ran away. Every classmate asked where I came from, and although I was bullied for being taller than most of the other kids, I was glad I wasn’t bullied like the African American student that had transferred after me. She transferred again not long after arriving. My schools in Chicago were multiracial. My sister was half African American. Why were kids so cruel to a different race here? Being a Ho-Chunk, Apache, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Irish child, I didn’t feel out of place, but because I was from somewhere else, they didn’t accept me. Most of the kids, I found out, were related to each other. Some of their grandmothers even taught classes at the school. At our elementary school they taught Hidatsa, as the reservation we had moved to belonged to the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara). I was always around Mexicans previously, but this language was harder to pick up. I threw myself into my studies as that’s all I had in New Town.

Every day, I wondered if that would be the day my mother would get clean and come back to claim me. Every night, I was disappointed that she didn’t come for me. I suppose during that time I thought the move was temporary as everything else in my life had always been. Every three months we moved to a new apartment, and I switched schools at least once a year. The numerous times she left me at different relatives’ houses was always temporary. This WOULD BE TEMPORARY. Every time the phone rang, I would get excited that it was my mom calling. She never called.

Everything was so different here. There were very few trees. If we wanted to go shopping, we had to make the hour drive to Minot. The stores opened at noon on Sundays and closed at 6 p.m. We never ate out. Anytime we went into town, we ran into someone we knew who would greet us with a “hello” and stop to chat for a few minutes. While driving down the highway, people would wave to each passing car. If we ran out of water, we would have to go in the water truck to go haul it back as we had a well. Although it was always faster paced in Chicago, I could take a breath in New Town, take my time to enjoy the little things. I suppose it was these little things that helped me to remain in New Town.

I’ll always wonder what would have happened had I chosen to stay in Chicago and not taken the leap of faith that I did. Would I have gotten pregnant at a young age? Would my mother have gotten herself together and come back for me? Would my father have been happier not having to care for a child he originally did not want? Would my life have been easier in Chicago?

My mother overdosed in 2003, leaving behind four children. My sister just turned 18 and is on her way to college. My family drifted apart, some not talking to each other for years after my great-grandmother and mother passed away. In some weird sense, I feel like had I stayed, I would have made everything better. My mother would have decided to get clean, my family would understand the importance of family, and when I was around my family they would not look at me like they have seen the ghost of my mother. I do believe every choice in my life led me to my destiny and it is up to myself to choose which route to take, as I don’t believe life is easy in any way. I chose the harder route, but I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be.

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