Still, the Boxes Follow

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By the time I heard about the discovery, I had been haunted, for weeks, by boxes. In class, I would sit in a circle of silent students, our heads bowed toward easels. Every day the display was simply swapped with more boxes. We tried single cubes first. Then, a tower of blocks. By the fourth week, we walked into cardboard mountains tumbling from the ceiling.

“Really see what’s in front of you, to the smallest tangents,” our teacher cautioned, “I know they’re just simple boxes, but try to record everything.” I shaded countless cubes, picked pointillism to carve cardboard peaks, and swept nubs of charcoal across canvas until my fingers were smudged in silvery black. I’d walk to the dorms, defeated, carrying my drawing portfolio tucked with torn, crumpled pages.

Still, the boxes followed. It wasn’t until after I’d seen students dragging boxes, luggage, and carry-ons, that I realized how lightly I had packed for Santa Fe. Aside from my coffee station, books, and fox tapestries, my walls were the opposite of theirs: bare. I thought of my mother then, how my sister and I were allowed a strict single box each to bring across the country. In a matter of weeks, I shrunk fourteen years into cardboard before leaving the rest by the side of the road. I tried to remember what fourteen-year-old me whittled down to the essentials. I could feel prickly splinters from a broken pink guitar my friends and I signed after smashing, a token to follow me to the reservation. I kept a stuffed animal, a large bison, his horns drooping. A week’s worth of clothes. A faded photo of me in red, arms bracing the rails of my school bus. A photo of my father and I posing at the town lake, believing water would be there when I returned. A handful of shells, zip-locking the ocean for when I needed her in desert.

I shrank my life to a box so often it became normal. So, when I saw how the University of North Dakota hid entire boxes of artifacts, a small, strange part of me no longer felt alone in that hidden isolation. There were others who had felt what I had at the bottom of those boxes. I’d gone from sketches, to a tower, to suddenly five boxes discovered. Slowly, it grew to a dozen, then a hundred. Impossibly, it climbed to two-hundred fifty, tucked into the backs of utility closets, holding ceremonial pipes, headdresses, bonnets. I saw, in one moment, faces duct-taped away, lives left behind until they were needed for display. Somewhere, my fourteen-year-old self is still hidden at the bottom of that box, trying to remember pieces she packed too far down. In others, families dig, trying to retrieve lives perched on university shelves. Were they just girls like I was back then? Did they try to pocket whole oceans too? Though we have tried to make it out from the bottom of cardboard, still, the boxes follow.

Brianna G. Reed is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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