My brother sits in government buildings like he’s in trouble. At the social security office, which resembles every other government building—restrictive and stagnant and gray—he looks like he did when he was a kid. Only now, he’s dressed better, with an ironed and tucked-in button-down, and new shoes. We’ve come a long way from our roots.
As children on Seabird Island Indian Band in British Columbia, Canada, we learned to look smaller in government buildings. Like at our band office, which handled everything from healthcare and welfare to education and land rights. There, people called it Welfare Wednesday when our relatives and many in our community had to sit and wait for our checks, in the front of the office, or standing against the wall. We barely spoke to each other as we waited. My mother hated it. We weren’t always on welfare, but we were on welfare often enough that we were familiar with the wait.
We learned a lot of behaviors to stay on welfare. I knew how to respond in case a worker called. I couldn’t say, “Mom’s at work,” even if she was out doing side jobs for money, because that would be seen as gaming the system. We’d lose the welfare check and get evicted soon after. I couldn’t tell my friends anything about our circumstances, because families turned on each other if someone believed one person had more than the other. It created a type of paranoia that still lives with me. We call it lateral oppression when your own relative reports you if your child isn’t wearing the right coat in winter. We turn on ourselves because it’s easier to do that than confront systemic racism and the legacy of colonization.
When she got an unexpected check, Mom used to say, “Don’t tell anyone when you get money!” She said it was bad luck to talk about money, and that it would bring trouble. We had to act like we didn’t have anything, in order to protect what little we had.
Whenever I’m in a waiting room, I remember the palpable shame of Welfare Wednesday. I could touch it on my skin and see it in our faces, all blank—we looked haunted—we looked like a haunting of poverty—we looked like a documentary about Indians that white people would like.
But my brother isn’t just some kid now. He’s an up-and-coming artist. He recently moved in with me in Indiana, where I teach at Purdue University, to get a fresh start and focus on his design work. I’m finally in a place where I can help him do that. On Seabird Island, the unemployment rate was recently reported as 23%, although I don’t really trust statistics about Indians, considering that when I lived there, my cousins would have rather died than report to the government how much we made, or how many people lived in our house.
“It’s like setting yourself up to get got,” my cousin said.
Where I grew up, it seemed the only jobs available to us were trades. It’s what my younger cousins do and what’s offered in terms of employment programs that teach people job skills. Women were expected to be customer service workers, or flag with construction crews, or work in administration at the band office. My brother’s body, after a decade of painting buildings, doing stock for stores, and operating forklifts, was wearing down, and I thought it was time he had the chance to aim for something that wouldn’t break his back.
He’s been working on his art for a few years, mirroring our father’s and our ancestors’ styles. His work experiments with traditional forms, like the iconography within our culture: eagles, thunder, coyote, salmon, and spirit bear. He utilizes Salish style and its concentric circles, ovals, negative space, and bare lines to form animals and silhouettes, but he mixes it up with contemporary imagery and graffiti art. Before he moved in with me, he sold his first piece at a gallery, a skateboard with a whale and lightning symbol titled “Electric Orca.” It’s stark, with a bright electric blue bolt bursting from the whale’s blowhole.
Sometimes I cry about how far we’ve both come. I remember watching my mother feel prideless, receiving what people called “handouts” as she cursed the government. That stuff sticks in my memory more than the good that’s been coming my way. Which is how poverty works. You just can’t forget all the little things about being poor. Like how I want to grocery shop for the month every payday, and I don’t want to buy perishable things, and I can do the math in my head to calculate each meal, each day of the week, because we used to be too far away from grocery stores to shop more than once or twice a month.
And now we’re in a waiting room again, applying for a social security card for my brother. I’m a successful tenure-track professor with a bestselling book. That’s how people introduce the book, as “bestselling,” with a smile toward me. It makes me smile, too, sometimes. We have no reason to sit in this office as if we’ve done something wrong. Still, we do.
My brother stares at his application and I decide to fill it out for him. We’re a matriarchal people; the women are bossy by nature and the men are mostly silent. My brother is eloquent like our grandfathers were, and pensive, and he reads people well, but the white people here won’t see that when we walk up to their cubicle. They’ll see a very brown man with an almost scared expression on his face.
We are described in government paperwork as “Canadian-born Native Americans.” It’s an odd statement for everyone I know who’s heard it. The term Canadian-born Native American is always met with this perplexed look, like, “What the hell is a Canadian Native American?” As if those things don’t go together. As if North America wasn’t once a place without borders—as if our people weren’t separated by them.
Under the Jay Treaty, a treaty made in 1794 between the United States and Great Britain, my brother and I can work and live in the United States without green cards or visas. All we need are our Indian Status cards, our certificates of Indian Blood—which specify that we are at least 50% Indian—and our birth certificates. The Jay Treaty grants us rights, but we feel like we’re getting away with something. We think if Trump knew about it he’d take it away.
So, we feel apprehensive explaining our rights to the social security office. We know they are precarious. The Jay Treaty doesn’t work on the Canadian end—Canada doesn’t honor it. American Indians can’t work and live in Canada under the treaty. On the East Coast, Akwesasne Mohawk people have protested how Indigenous people are aggravated by this on a daily basis because their land straddles the border.
Why do we always feel like we’re getting away with something when this is Indian land? Government offices make me feel like I’m trying to scam them, because of their genuine suspicion of me any time I try to receive benefits or assistance. It’s the same for my brother. Even now, when we have nothing to hide, we feel like scammers.
It took me two tries to get my own social security card when I did it years ago. It took me three visits to get a photo ID from the DMV in Texas. And it took four long weeks of figuring out how to fill out an application as a “Permanent Resident Alien” on FAFSA forms, and then two months to hear back in order to receive a student loan when I got into college. The employees at any given government office don’t know about the treaty we live under, and usually don’t believe it exists at all until they are pressed to talk to a higher-up.
“I’ve never heard of this,” the man at the desk says to my brother and me.
“It’s a thing,” I say, already regretting my word choice.
The man is friendly but full of doubt, and he goes back and forth to the manager, who we never meet. Eventually, they decide to put the paperwork through, and say my brother will probably hear back about his card in a couple of weeks.
“I don’t think it will go through,” I tell my brother outside.
“I don’t know,” he says.
We’re used to things not going through. We’re used to disappointments.
“It’s just that when we’re on paper it’s dangerous for us,” I say to my brother in the car. “They use things against us. They say we did one small thing wrong and the correction takes two weeks. This is why some Indians give up.”
My brother stares out the window, nodding back.
I think about my friend Candice, who has breast cancer. She’s First Nations from the Yukon, but lives near my band now. Her paperwork for income assistance will take eight weeks—they told her to expect it. How is she supposed to live without support? I took it upon myself to fundraise a few thousand dollars to get her through. She has three kids and can no longer work as sick as she is, and the cost of cancer adds up when you’re a Native single-mother in Canada. The government pays for her treatment, but some things require special permission and extra paperwork. Her doctors are mostly helpful. Still, she wouldn’t be able to make rent if it weren’t for the fundraising. She’s doing chemotherapy and can’t visit me on this end of the border, because if something goes wrong in the states with her health it might cost her thousands of dollars.
It’s times like these the border feels ever-present. As families are being separated and detained on the Mexican border, I think of how indigenous communities and networks on the Canadian end have been separated for centuries. Our people have always known we were here before borders, thousands of years before. Still, this arbitrary line renders so many powerless.
In composition classes, I tell my students that long before Trump, before Obama, back in 1917, there were the Bath Riots in El Paso. Mexicans, who were largely day-travelers coming to work in the States, had to undress in front of border patrol and take a noxious gasoline delousing bath, because mayor Tom C. Lea III was scared of a typhus outbreak. Carmelita Torres objected, and wouldn’t undress. She began speaking out against the officials, and other people joined in. We owe a lot to women like her, I tell my students. We discuss how white people have long perpetuated the stereotype that brown people are dirty. When I teach this event in border towns like El Paso and Las Cruces, students always respond that things haven’t changed much.
For my people, many children were apprehended during Canada’s beginnings as part of a campaign to assimilate Indians. Stretching into the 20th century, kids were put into residential boarding schools, where many were beaten, starved, and abused. The first thing the nuns did when children arrived was delouse the children and cut their hair.
“They called us dirty Indians,” my mother told me. She ran away from residential school.
After waiting for weeks and checking the mail every day, my brother’s social security card comes. Like mine, it can’t fit all of his names. My card reads: Teresemarie Olive Willy Marya—and stops short. It’s traditional in our family to receive names from our grandparents and uncles and aunties. People always ask us to explain why when they see our full names. I got tired of it and stopped letting anyone see my ID beyond bartenders who barely read it.
All this waiting for the card and this is the first step in making my brother a visible human being in the eyes of the American state. In order to get a bank account, and a credit card, and a job, he’ll need a valid photo ID. His Indian status card doesn’t count here. It’s inadequate.
“Do you want to go to the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles) today?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
I understand. They will turn us away the first try, I know. It will take several visits.
My niece invites us to come back home for her graduation. My brother says he wants to go, and then we remember he’s only allowed to drive with the papers he has, and it’s thirty hours away. He needs a passport to fly. After 9/11, Canadian Native Americans require a passport to fly between the United States and Canada. With Indian status and a certificate of Indian blood, you can only drive across.
I leave town for a book event and ask my husband to take my brother to the BMV while I’m away. I know he doesn’t get it because he’s too white. He’s never had to deal with the bureaucracy of being Indian.
“You don’t understand,” I tell my husband. “It’s not that he’s helpless. It’s that these bureaucratic offices do everything to prevent a Native from doing things within their rights. I had to go alone and it was hell.”
At the airport, getting my coffee, my husband tells me they’ve turned my brother away. Instead of getting discouraged, I look up law and advocacy groups that have information on the Jay Treaty to show BMV workers. I link my husband to supporting materials. I tell him it’s possible the BMV could turn him away and we’ll just need to get an immigration lawyer. I know the terminology to cite. I understand that under the Jay Treaty we have the right to “live or work in the United States,” because I’ve recited this many times.
My brother messages me that it’s not going to happen. They both tell me they’re going to wait until I get home, because I’m the Jay Treaty aficionado, even though I don’t want to be.
At this book event, I am underprepared, worried about my brother. I’ll be receiving the First Peoples Literary Prize from the Blue Metropolis in Montreal. American Indians and Canadian Natives have received this award before—from Ojibwe author David Treuer to my auntie Lee Maracle, who has been writing since she was a radical activist in the ’70s. It’s my auntie who has always said, “There’s a direct connection between violence against the earth and violence against women.”
At the ceremony, there appear to be no Native women in the audience to see me receive this award. I don’t know any cousins in Montreal, and when I look out to the people, all the white faces, I ask where all the Indian women are and say, that’s why it’s easy for us to disappear. I can’t wait to be home, I think, to all the stress of taking care of my family—to all the stress of being the type of developing matriarch my mother would honor.
“It’s your duty to take care of your people,” she often said.
I can see the future for my brother and it’s gallery openings and a website with a credit card he’s able to receive after getting his ID, because he’ll need a credit card and bank account to sell his work. I can see him as a person on paper, and eventually, as someone who is unafraid to cross a border. But as he is now, he was barely able to fly between Indiana and New York to see me receive another award, the Whiting Award. They patted him down on both trips, to and from. They asked him many questions. Over and over, we explained, “It’s the Jay Treaty. His paperwork is in process. He has a right to be here.” And somewhere between both of us are the children we used to be, waiting with our mother for a check she doesn’t really want, that all of us need. Somewhere between us and our homeland is a border my best friend can’t cross.
“Why would we even want to be residents of Indiana?” I say to my brother.
He laughs, but we know the answer. It’s better than living on our reserve, where he’s breaking his body and I’m working the front desk for a bureaucracy I don’t trust. It’s better here, where we have a different future.
It’s today I finally have the energy to take him to the BMV myself, to reign down on these administrative folks who mean well and do very little. Like a joke, the local office is closed on a Monday. I suggest we drive out to an office in the next town. My brother and my husband agree, reluctantly. We listen to Too Short on the way, and I think about how if I was making less money, if I was on welfare, or food stamps, or was out of work, I wouldn’t have the morale or energy to battle these bureaucrats. I would give up. Something about having money makes me feel like I’m safer and more capable, and I resent it.
At the office, a nice woman tells me that she can’t accept my brother’s ID because there’s no place on her computer to click for it. “There’s a place to click on for a passport,” she says.
“What if we got him a passport?” I ask.
“Then we could do it.”
On the forty-minute drive back, I plan our next move: a passport application. Already, in my brother’s eyes, I’m seeing him think I’m a madwoman, and that this will never work. Already, I feel like a madwoman, who will stop at nothing to see him on paper, because he seems like a ghost right now.
Late at night, my brother sees me up and writing. He shows me his birth certificate, which displays his Indian name instead of the name we’ve been calling him his whole life.
“Mom is a trickster still playing with us,” he says.
“What do we do?” I ask. It’s almost unbelievable what a problem this could pose.
“I have to change my name from my Indian name to my name, or I can’t get a passport. It’s going to cost three hundred dollars. I don’t even think I can do it from the States, unless I can get a waiver approved.”
We both sigh.
During this period of paperwork, of hoops, my niece walks across a stage in Canada to receive her degree in a cedar crown made for her graduation day. She sends me pictures, and she’s beautiful, and I don’t feel too bad about the state of our nation, on this end of the border or hers. She’s not Indian enough to use Jay Treaty rights, nor are any of my sons, but they are Indian enough to wear crowns.