By Jacquii Cue, Covenant House Alaska Ambassador
In celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we’d like to introduce you to one of our Covenant House Alaska ambassadors, Jacquii with a Cue from Kotzebue. We have asked her to share her perspective on Indigenous Peoples’ day because we believe fully in using our platform to spark conversation and spread awareness around our mission to ending youth homelessness. As a fact, more than half the youth at Covenant House Alaska are Alaskan Natives, and it is our duty and honor to shed light on the rich history of Alaska.
It was springtime here in Anchorage and I was on my way to a therapy appointment. Driving down Benson Blvd in a brand-new car, I was feeling the relief of the stability I’ve found in my life. Waiting at the red light to turn left onto A St., I started thinking about other ways to improve my life. Even though it was comfortable, and I’d reached a place with a stronger foundation than I’ve ever had before, somehow it still wasn’t enough. Basically, I was trying to imagine more ways to advance my already lush life. Gratitude wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of my mind, but rather, desire had me wishing for more.
The bright sun was bouncing off what snow was leftover but the roads were dry. It was a beautiful day. I pulled down my visor as I turned to pass Barnes and Noble, stopping again at the corner on Northern Lights Blvd. I was in the lane all the way to the right and somebody caught my eye from the sidewalk next to me. It was my childhood friend who I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years, who moved down here when she was just approaching middle school.
She was wearing a big brown shirt, baggy jeans, white socks, but no shoes. She looked exactly as I remembered her, just older and rougher. I’ve got to be about 10-15 feet away from her and she doesn’t see me. She’s walking out of a tent, squinting one eye, and trying to look for someone further down the street towards Walmart. I’m frozen. It looks like she just woke up and I realize what that means.
The light turns green and I’m shaking, incredibly thankful that it happens to be a therapy appointment that I’m driving to. But also, deep guilty feelings start bubbling up as I try to remember how our paths went separate ways. How did it come to this? We grew up dancing with each other. She was protective like an older sister. Our families weren’t rich, but we shared a lot of love and laughter. We were neighbors and I went to her place all the time. She once beat someone up for trying to pressure me into smoking cigarettes and I never picked up the habit because of it. She was there through my parents’ divorce. The only other time I can think of hearing from her was on my eighteenth birthday, when she called my dad’s landline phone because she remembered not only the date but the number from nearly ten years before.
Ever since moving here to Anchorage five years ago, I’ve tried to make sense of the plethora of Natives experiencing homelessness in this city. It’s something I was never exposed to growing up in Kotzebue. We all take care of our families and loved ones, even when it hurts. How can this community (including me) just drive by my people? I’d wonder. My heart broke as I realized this must be why I confront racism here, too — this exposure and the lack of understanding behind our story. At times, I’ll even internalize this racism. I felt it try to creep in that day, too.
Here in the city, I can’t drive past a corner of familiar relations without thinking of our complex history. What brought them here to the corner tents?
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time for us to check in with our real truths. The act of renaming it from Columbus Day is doing just that and I wanted to take this time to share some insight for empathy that we can all tap into for these Natives experiencing homelessness. This year, the day comes with a little more weight because of the mass graves of Indigenous children being exposed throughout Canada and the U.S. Although the current official number is reaching nearly 7,000, this is just a small fraction of schools revealing their truth.
It’s not coincidental that at any given time, over half of the youth being served by Covenant House is Alaska Native. It is directly related to this part of history being revealed. I want people to understand this connection as they see my people while they wait for red lights to turn green. Every single Native is experiencing generational trauma which can result in substance abuse, relationship issues, estranged family members, emotional dysfunction and even homelessness.
The only way I can truly share a perspective is to pull from my own story. My great-grandmother was the first in my maternal lineage to grow up with outside contact, back in the early 1900s. Back then, it was Inupiaq custom to be adopted to a stable family if the father isn’t around at birth. My great-grandmother’s father was gone on a long hunting trip for the family when she was born. Once he’d come back to find her, he had to respect that she was already imprinted into her adopted family. It was about the protection and safety of the child. My great-great grandfather accepted this out of pure selflessness. It was tradition. His newborn daughter deserved a structured home.
My grandmother, then, was the first to experience boarding school. The children my great-grandmother gave birth to were brought to Mt. Edgecumbe High School. While many Elders do not have great stories of this time, my Aana (grandma) and her sister speak highly of this period for personal reasons. However, overall, the generation that was sent out of their homes for cultural cleansing raised my mother’s generation differently, and it led to my experience of being maybe the most disconnected Inupiaq generation since contact. The way that I see it, a part of this mission was to interrupt the capabilities of traditional parenting. So, between the ancient ways of maintaining a family structure and the sudden change with residential schools, there are a lot of emotional battles that trickle through these four generations.
For my generation, we are finally taking more control over our narrative and putting more intention into healing this inherited trauma. The idea of recovering from something that started 100 years ago is only just beginning to take root. The Indigenous Peoples that we see on the streets are refugees of a colonial history that happened on their own lands. Many of them were at these boarding schools with the same histories as the ones revealing their mass graves. All of them were shamed for their identities and never learned to properly process that pain. A lot of them were either raised by parents whose skills were disrupted by the relocation efforts, or they were orphaned and adopted out. Every single Native we see in these corner tents now faces deep traumas that don’t even begin with them.
The only big difference between myself and this childhood neighbor I came across at a red light is that I’ve been intentionally going to therapy for a decade now. I don’t really know what made me so lucky to have made it this way because our narratives are not too far off from each other. Maybe, it has to do with my Aana and her sister feeling a different connection to their schooling experience. It might be related to the fact that I was able to stay in Kotzebue until I graduated high school— so my sense of community was different from hers here in the city. It very well could have made an impact on her to see our people in that homelessness light, too. Whereas I didn’t really know or recognize it until moving here to Anchorage in my mid-twenties.
There are many, many explanations as to why our paths went different ways. Each one of them can be linked back to Christopher Columbus and all that had happened since he set foot on Native land. That is why it’s important to shift our focus with the renaming this day and changing our ways of celebration through holidays such as this one. Along with this one, we should be mindful of how we celebrate mascots, the way we dress for Halloween and what we teach children about Thanksgiving.
This is an incredibly complicated time to face as a Native, so I feel grateful that we are reclaiming the meaning behind this early October holiday. I invite non-Natives to think deeply about this story of mine, especially as they pull up to corner tents and see my face reflected at them. I share the same features as them, and I just happen to have gone down a different path. We are still one and the same, and if I deserve any respect and space for empathy, so do they.
I am proud to share that my childhood friend is doing great in recovery. She received help from an auntie and has a stable job that makes her happy. We stay in touch through Facebook now. I was able to remind her of the nickname I used to call her when we were kids, and we felt the love through that exchange.
Above all this history, our people still find faith and hope through the darkness. We believe in better days. I encourage everyone to spend their Indigenous Peoples’ Day learning more beyond my words to decolonize their mind when it comes to our story.
Quyanaq. Thank you for reading a glimpse of who I am and who we are as Indigenous Peoples today.
Jacquii with a Cue is Inupiaq from Kotzebue. She is a writer, graphic designer and publisher of the Native Time Archive magazine, due to launch on October 21 at nativetimeak.com. She runs an online platform under the name Jacquii with a Cue that raises dialogue on cultural knowledge, generational healing and Inupiaq language learning. You can find her on all social media outlets and learn more about her work at jacquiiwithacue.com