This past long weekend was Thanksgiving. When living in Germany though, life takes on a different rhythm. The calendar is based on different traditions. Holidays and birthdays, back home, are sometimes forgotten. But on Thursday morning I finished a book that made me hyperaware of what I was missing back home.
Typically, I don’t get home sick. Nostalgic maybe, but never home sick. This is something that probably frustrates my family. But I think my dad gets it. He also moved away from his home, his culture. His exodus was from the center of the heartland to the fringes of the United States. The Pacific Northwest called his name, and then because of his teacher’s schedule, he became a seasonal nomad.
The school year was punctuated by vacations or long weekends that took us to various locations: the peninsula, the high desert, the mountains. Wherever the salmon were running, whenever the bird season was open, we were out there hunting or gathering because we could.
It was on these journeys that I learned to love the west. The west was my home, my culture. The need to be in the high up open spaces, the need to feel the stinging cold of salt air on my face, the need to buck the system and venture out into the unknown.
I even learned to love the ugly places. Places like Aberdeen and Hoquiam that struggled to survive after logging and industry had left them. Places like the Quinault or Yakima Indian Reservations where a once great people lived in a level of poverty that didn’t make sense to me. How could these kinds of places exist in the home of the American dream?
On Thanksgiving morning, I woke up early and finished reading the An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexi. The book takes place in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. Alexi’s semi-autobiographical story is about a boy who decides to leave the reservation each day to attend high school. His destination-Hope.
The protagonist takes us on a journey through his freshman year where he learns about living in a white world and how this white world plays by different rules than those he played by on the reservation. He is like many freshmen in high school: looking for friends, questioning teacher authority, playing basketball, and falling in love. He shares with us the challenges of being poor, the challenge of having a loving but dysfunctional family, and the challenges of losing friends and family to death by alcohol. The protagonist ultimately releases himself from the shame of leaving his old tribe for a new one when he realizes that he is a member of many tribes, from many places, that give him love, acceptance, and belonging.
I closed the book and began to cry. I didn’t cry because it was sad. On the contrary, it was quite hopeful. I cried because the themes of the story dredged up all the experiences and hard choices I have made that got me here.
I cried for the traditions and way of life that I can no longer participate in. The Friday night game, the game of games, that determines the fate of the young and could destroy the reputation of the community that fails to win. The weekend walks through the ponderosa pines where your only companions are the stellar jays scolding you for stepping in their territory. Or the lonely drives across an empty expanse where there is nothing and no one for miles.
I cried because, like the protagonist of the book, I made the choice to leave what I loved because staying was turning me into that person I had fought hard to never become. Alexi reassures us at the end of his book that we all belong to our home tribe, but we also belong to many tribes that help us navigate and survive in our world. Some of us are nomads and some of us are meant to stay. Not that leaving makes us love our land or tribe any less, and not that those who stay are stuck. It is just who we are.
I cried because my students of wealth and privilege deal with loss and poverty too, but their loss and their poverty are not tied to material wealth. They have food on the table and will probably go to college, but they may never know a life where they stay in one place with two parents who are always home for dinner. They may never have an understanding of what their culture is as they are continually inventing their culture. The loss they deal with might not be a death in the family, but the loss of friends who move on, or the loss of a home when they are asked to move on themselves.
I cried that some of my colleagues don’t get this book. When they read the book, they see a world they have never experienced, a culture too foreign from those they have lived in or traveled to. They read it and see a world that they don’t think our kids will understand. How could our students from X, Y, and Z countries relate to a Native American teenage boy living in abject poverty?
I cried because it was Thanksgiving. In the evening, I would be celebrating with my tribe. The Czech, the Brit, the Aussie, the Mexican, the Americans, and the Germans were going to gather for our Thanksgiving feast. We would give thanks that we were nomads. We would give thanks that we found each other. We would give thanks that we made the hard choices to be where we were in order to be who we are.
Illustration above by Ellen Forney which appears in An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.