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I Shaped My Life

I was born in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. I am the youngest of seven living children. When I was growing up there were nine of us brothers and sisters. My oldest sister died of alcoholic liver disease, and my younger brother was killed in an alcohol-related car accident when he was nineteen years old. He was passed out at the time of the accident. My mother was forty years old when I was born. My father was fifty.

I identify as raised-poor rather than working-class. There were more times when my father didn't have employment than when he had work. My second-oldest sister was raped and murdered on her way home from a movie, about five years before I was born. This affected the economic situation in my family because it was the time when my dad started drinking. When my dad went off on one of his binges, oh God, we went from poor to very poor! I often didn't have shoes or eyeglasses, not to mention the things that school kids shared with each other, such as valentines and Christmas gifts. I had a close friend in a similar situation. One Christmas we traded our classmates for each other's names, and we bought a package of Lifesavers [a type of candy sold in the U.S. -- Ed] for each other as a gift. I think the cost was fifty cents. My friend and I threw in with each other for the gift wrap, and we sat together and wrapped our gifts to each other. We pretended it was a big surprise. I appreciate her for sharing that time with so much love and laughter.

My dad did carpentry work. We were also migrant farmworkers before they started bringing in workers from Mexico. The growers would bring trucks onto the reservation and load up people and transport them to Washington State to do the labor in the fields. I remember taking a commercial bus to Washington with my parents and older brothers and sisters, so they could do migrant farm-work. They picked strawberries, or whatever the crop was, and we would stay in these little shacks. There were rows of little one-room shacks that housed the workers.

During the day the younger children were left with the older children, like my sister, who is seven years older than me. She was probably eleven years old at the time. One day we all decided to go find our parents. All of us got together, and we just started walking. We didn't know where we were going or even what direction we were supposed to take. I didn't have any shoes, and I got this big thistle stuck between my toes. I remember sitting there crying. My sister pulled the thistle out, and we continued our journey. Later we all became really frightened because one of the children thought he saw a lion in the woods waiting for us. I don't remember how our little journey ended, but I do know that we didn't find our parents.

I remember another time when the sister who was taking care of us had an allergic reaction to strawberries. She was admitted to the hospital, and my mom had to take me and my little brother to the fields with her. The field bosses gave my brother and me this crate of strawberries to eat so we wouldn't bother the adults. At that time I was too young to know anything about pesticides or other contaminates. It looked like the ultimate feast to me. I still love strawberries, but now I wash them before I eat them.

When the growers started getting lower-wage labor from Mexi-co, they didn't come to our reservation looking for Indian laborers anymore. We left the reservation for a time, when my dad got a job helping to build the Hungry Horse Dam. When I traveled with him later, as an adult, if we went anywhere near that dam we always had to take a side trip so he could show me the dam he built. Later on my family went to other parts of Montana to pick potatoes. I was in school by then, and I did not travel with them. My dad found employment, but it was never steady.

One of things I appreciate about my family is that when they were there, they were really there. My dad was very traditional, so despite the alcoholism and the violence he gave us a lot of connection to our culture. The Blackfeet people are aware of how much knowledge my dad carried. He knew all these songs for different ceremonies. In the evenings, my brothers would stoke the fire in the wood stove, my mother would light the kerosene lamps, and we would all gather around my dad as he told us stories. The Blackfeet tradition is an oral tradition, and my dad was the best teacher. When I was thirteen years old, my parents joined the Horn Society, which is a very revered religious society based on the Blood Reserve in Alberta, Canada. In August of each year we would travel to Canada and camp for two weeks. My dad would sober up before, during, and after this time period. It was an absolutely beautiful time, and I think it gave me a lot of strength to face the other parts of my life.

My life was hard, but I was always able to figure out what worked for me. One of the things that worked for me was finding other families to live with when it felt like I couldn't take my home life any longer. This was easy to do in our culture. I made friends with girls whose families were in a different situation, and I moved in with them for a bit of time.

My parents sent me to the Blackfeet Boarding School. I was small for my age and I had been very ill several times in my childhood. My mom was concerned about my health. She was afraid I would sicken and die if I had to catch the school bus each morning during the cold winters. I enjoyed the boarding school. It was very structured, we had three meals a day, and I had a lot of friends to play with. But there was also a lot of violence. The boys and girls fought with each other -- I do mean fist fights -- and I did my share of fighting with both the boys and the girls.

When I first arrived at the boarding school, they put bug medicine in my hair and cut it short. When my hair was long, it was thick, straight, and black. One of the matrons gave me a lot of abuse about my hair, and I thought it was ugly. It wasn't until I started RC and I attended Charlie Kreiner's workshop, where he gave me an excellent session on the oppression I had received about my hair, that I was finally able to accept that my hair is beautiful. In fact I have been able to keep my hair long (rather than short and permed in an attempt to make it look "white") because of the discharging I did with Charlie at that workshop. This is only one example of the oppression perpetuated by the boarding school in an attempt to make us assimilate into the dominant culture. The director of the school was violent towards us. Because he did not always have direct access to the girls, the boys received the brunt of that violence. But I had my run-ins with him, and I was on the receiving end of his violent behavior. I think my experiences with him caused me to believe that if I wanted to survive in the white world I was going to have to fight, and fight hard.

I stayed at the boarding school until I was kicked out in the ninth grade. I tried to attend public school, without the structure I was used to, but it was hard. I transferred to Flandreau Indian School, which is an off-reservation Indian boarding school for high school students. The time spent there was one of the better experiences in my life. I successfully completed high school, thus becoming the only one of my brothers and sisters to graduate. Only one other of my siblings ever made it to high school, and he dropped out in the ninth grade.

When I graduated, I went to work. I worked at any job I could get. My mom, not understanding the oppression, once remarked, "June can get a job anytime she wants. Her brothers can't do that." But that was the way it was set up. It has always been easier for the Blackfeet women to get jobs, though now that is changing and the Blackfeet men are also finding employment.

One time I was holding three jobs. I bussed tables, worked as a police dispatcher, and was also employed as a phlebotomist for the Indian Hospital. The place where I bussed tables allowed me to do anything they needed done -- waiting tables, taking money, whatever. They were impressed with my competence. They would say, "Man, this girl buzzes!" The Indian Health Service hired me as a civil servant, GS-2 grade. I don't know of anyone who works at that low a grade level today. I didn't have any training, so they trained me on the job. I drew all the blood, set up cultures, set up urine specimens, did all the EKGs (a procedure where you obtain an electrical tracing of the contractions of the heart). I basically did all their scut work. At one point, they decided that they wanted to train me to obtain sputum from the patients for culturing. I drew the line and refused to learn how to do this. I told them that if I had to learn how to obtain sputum, I would quit. They backed down and decided to do this particular task themselves. I always felt like I had to fight.

One time a doctor came into the lab and was talking about a white nurse who had contracted mononucleosis. He said, "That's what she gets for kissing those Indians." I asked, "What did you say? What Indians has she been kissing?" He said, "Oh, she's been going out with those guys from C -- ," I said, "Hell, those guys aren't Indians. They're honkies like you!" Later my boss told me I shouldn't have said that. I told my boss that the doctor shouldn't have said what he did about Indians. My boss was concerned that I wouldn't make it in the Indian Health Service. I was in my mid-twenties then, and here I am, still in the Indian Health Service.

When I turned twenty-two, my mom became one of my best friends. She focused all of her energy on me after my younger brother was killed. I was breaking up with my ex-husband, had just given birth to my second child, and was very sick, though I continued to work. I realized that if I was going to have a relationship with my mom, I was going to have to be completely honest with her. So I was. We developed a deep friendship, and she shared a lot of her feelings and experiences with me. I was able to really share with her and to count on her being there for me. I admire her very much. She had a hard life. And no matter how hard it got, she always bounced back. She maintained her sense of humor and her love amidst all the poverty, the loss of loved ones, her poor health, and the violence and alcohol. I've been told by my friends, "Your mom is beautiful," and she was. I just couldn't get along with her for the first twenty-two years! At least not like I did later.

I continued to work. I was raising two small children by myself. You cannot live on welfare. They don't give you enough money to do anything with, and that wasn't the kind of life I wanted for myself or my children. So I made the decision to work three jobs if I had to. Soon I realized that if I wanted to make more money, I would have to go for formal training. The people I worked for at the Indian Hospital recommended me for a program in Gallup, New Mexico, that trained Indian people to become certified as laboratory assistants. I did not get accepted into the program initially. There were some problems with my recommendation from my boss. He said I was too outspoken and that I had some problems with time -- that I wasn't very responsible timewise, late for work, etc. This was true, and I guess I am still outspoken, though I have learned to temper it some.

The school called in January and said I was accepted into the program, which was in transition from a one-year Certified Lab Assistant program to a two-year Bachelor of Arts Medical Lab Technician program. It was poorly set up, and the students in my class took four years to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree. I went there for six months. I could tell there were problems with the program, so I quit and moved home. One of the most valuable things I gained from that experience was knowing that college was something I could do. I had been afraid to go to college, even though I'd been given a lot of positive support from my high school teachers and counselors and had been put on the college track in high school.

That fall I started college and ended up getting my pharmacy degree. After I graduated I joined the Public Health Service as a commissioned officer, and I have worked for the Indian Health Service ever since.

I met my husband, Tim, when I was in Gallup, New Mexico. He was working for the City of Gallup at the time, though he returned to school shortly after we met and earned his Master of Social Work degree. We married, and he adopted my two children, Denielle and Tim Jr. Our son Joel was born while I was in college. Tim received his law degree when I received my pharmacy degree. We adopted our daughter, Kimberly, eleven years ago. So we now have four children and four grandchildren.

My parents are both dead. After my mom died, I decided to leave the reservation. I moved to Oklahoma, sight unseen. The first time I'd ever entered the state of Oklahoma was when I moved there. My husband used to think I was impulsive, but he later realized that I do a lot of thinking before I act. He wondered why things always turned out right for me. He says, "I figured you were just lucky, until I realized how well you think things out before you move." I never used to share what I was thinking about doing. It was just, "Okay, we're going!" Now I trust him and our children to help me with the process of figuring out what to do with our family. That may be one of the reasons we have stayed in Albuquerque for so long.

While we have been a two-income family, my career has been the dominant one. My husband has been the primary parent for our two youngest children. He stayed home during the majority of their childhoods. We transferred from Oklahoma to the White Mountain Apache Reservation, where I started RC. Then I returned home for a period of time, and now we have been in Albuquerque for almost seven years.

What I appreciate about myself is my courage and how smart I am. I think part of my courage is the ability to be honest with myself. This has probably made the biggest difference in how I have moved and how I have been able to shape my life.

June Birdrattler Humphrey
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00