Tattered Moccasins

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I wish I could tell you that the story of my first pair of moccasins was a happy one. It never went without notice, through my time submitting under “Moccasin Millennial,” that there has been a strange, well, lack of moccasins. Surely by now, a story would’ve featured maroon crescents as dawn split the Sandias. Blue birds would’ve been singing in those stories. My mother would’ve been slapping together dough slices in the kitchen, feeding them to a pan angry with oil. We would’ve slipped pollen into our pockets for the day, or fingerprinted ashes into our hair.

But this is not that story. Those weren’t my moccasins. The corn-pollen was a desperate call for connection; the ashes, a long-gone comfort from rez days passed. The frybread would’ve tasted less like memory, more like mimicry.

As I’ve said: this isn’t a happy one.

My first pair, soft and dough-white, landed at my feet in a crumpled trash bag, thank you-come again bleeding into the plastic. My cheeks burned. I knew what my mother would say before she said it and braced for her scoffing.

Since you’re finally graduating, you can stop crying about it. This, the omnipresent promise hanging over every piece of turquoise I never received. Every rug-dress I’ve never slipped over my head. Every rite of passage I saw my eldest sister twirling in, a sunset vision.

Under her instruction, I twisted them over my calves, stretching into their unfamiliarity. Do you like them? My mother asked, pointing at my toes.

Of course, I wanted to answer, but I felt my eyes heating with a sudden tide. How do you explain that after so much time spent wanting, you’ve numbed yourself against constant rejection? That my indigeneity should’ve never been dangled like a carrot on a stick? That my culture wasn’t surface deep, that I carried it in my bones all along? That, with each twist, the hide felt more like chains, like dressing up in a costume I never actually earned at all?

I forced a smile, folding the wraps into little white nests. I buried them in my closet, feeling as if I was covering a tomb.

Toward their end, as I faced each testimony in the three-year trial against my attacker, I excavated them from my closet and pretended I always walked with their beauty. I was screamed at by his lawyers in them, carried my victim impact statement in them. I unleashed three years of rage in them, as my attacker towered next to me in the defendant’s chair, finally silent, finally listening.

It never felt right wearing them after that. When I returned from his sentencing, alone and mascara-streaked, I watched my pain unravel like golden threads with them. Quietly, I thanked them.

I split the fibers of the moccasins with a knife, or scissors, or maybe my own fingernails. Whichever one, I wasn’t sure. By the time I buried them at the bottom of yet another trash bag, I could hardly see at all.

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

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