There is much I still don’t understand about her. I don’t understand how someone who had been told, in ways direct and indirect, that she wasn’t supposed to achieve anything could end up driven by so much ambition. She was simply wired to want, despite the country’s attempts to prevent it. My father seemed to labor under a vow of engagement with the country and its institutions, but my mother was moved by something else.
For her the answer was not engagement but armor, and the best armor wasn’t what money could buy; it was money itself. She was obsessed with it. Having it. Having more of it. Making sure more was coming in than was going out. Accumulation, for her, was key. Money—and nothing else—was going to keep her safe. In 2002, Walmart came, at long last, to Bemidji, Minn. She was pretty excited about it. I chided her by asking if she wouldn’t rather support local businesses. “Local businesses?” she sneered. “You mean the ones owned by the people who used to follow me around to make sure I wasn’t stealing when I was kid? No thanks.”
One story she fixed on, the one that would come up regularly no matter what we were talking about, was how, when she was 12, the sheriff stole her rice. Every fall the extended family went, en masse, to harvest rice in the old way: in boats that were pushed along the weedy margins of lakes and rivers by a long pole while another person used carved cedar knockers to beat the ripe rice into the bottom of the boat. It’s arduous, even under the best circumstances. At the end of the season, the rice was sold by the pound, and that was pretty much the sole source of income with which to buy school clothes, kerosene, lard and flour to get them through the winter.
One fall, they spent a few days camping and ricing at Raven’s Point on Lake Winnibigoshish near the village. The weather was terrible: stormy and windy and cold. My mother and her ricing partner had been given a flat-bottomed plywood duck boat to use. It was awkward, and the wind caught it and blew them sideways. My mother, who weighed less than 100 pounds, leaned on the pole and tried to keep them on course. By the time they got back to the landing, everyone was exhausted, hands numb and tingly from gripping the pole and the knockers, covered in rice beards and rice worms, but content: They had managed to collect hundreds of pounds.
Waiting for them at the landing was the sheriff. He told them they had been ricing illegally, and he confiscated the harvest. Everyone knew, because everyone knew him, that he was going to take the rice and sell it himself and keep the money. But there was nothing she or anyone else could do. I think this small episode stood in for what the country was “up to.” It was, to my mother and to my community more generally, never up to any good. As for the “community” itself, it was made up of our relatives and neighbors and the village of Bena as well as the other smaller villages at Leech Lake and White Earth in a loose constellation of relatedness. But it was mainly among the family where my mother was comfortable. She would be tight, rigid with distrust the farther away from Bena she traveled. Back among her uncles and aunts and cousins, she would really laugh.
And so I inherited from her the same distrust, the same belief that it was a matter of time before the country came for me. I did all the “right” things: I achieved, I barely misbehaved, I earned and I kept my hands, metaphorically and literally, where they could be seen. I inherited, too, for better or worse, that desperately wanting. Ambition and greed, for her and for me, were the armor that protected us from the spears that would pin us to the ground if they could.