Growing up on an Indian reservation is not like what you see in the movies. Not all reservations are barren land with homes built on stilts or tracks, or tents made of bearskin. In Tacoma, Washington, in 1978, the Puyallup Indian Reservation was as urban then, when I was 10, as it is today. Nothing Indigenous stood out. Not the students in the schools, the people in the diners or the music heard from passing cars. Nothing told me I lived somewhere unique. Did my memory work to erase where I grew up? What brought me to the world of books? Stories? I discovered the kindness of others through storytelling.
The reservation’s rain swept through Tacoma, taking the sweet and the bitter memories. My fourth-grade teacher paved my way out. Under gray skies, I discovered Billy and his hounds in Wilson Rawls’ “Where the Red Fern Grows.” Yet, it was a girl like me, drowning in her Native Americanness in search of her tribe, who returned my memories. My fourth-grade best friend was a motherless girl, who lived across the alley. Her intoxicated father never knew my name. We were girls who craved belonging.
Uprooted to Waipahu, Hawaii, when I was 13, where the blistering frizzy-hair heat changed the scenery and altered my momentum and focus. In a sea of brown — the lighter-than-me good kind of brown. My Blackness stood out like tar splashed against a white wall. The thought of fitting in disappeared as fast. Mainlanders were foreigners here, neither liked nor disliked — just invisible. Fights amongst the locals broke out everywhere. Violence followed us here.
In Tacoma, there were drugs, alcohol, wooden paddles and tree branches for instant punishment. In Hawaii, beer and smoke filled our four walls. We lived in constant fear of hands around our throats. The new boyfriend suffocated our lives. We had to find a way out.
Books filled my time; “The Color Purple” and “Roots” served as motivation. The Oprah Winfrey Show, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker served as mentors. They said, “If I can, YOU can.” Oprah survived abuse. Maya Angelou said, “Still, I rise.” Despite poor grades, second-hand clothes and food stamps, I remained hopelessly hopeful.
Call it luck or a blessing, my out came knocking. College? No way. I was a reader. A writer. I wanted to be Oprah. I wanted to be a star. An A never graced my report cards. College, no way. If you get in, “Go,” Mom said. And so, I did.
I dropped out my senior year.
Books directed me towards strength, forgiveness and memory. My 30-year college hiatus landed me at Antioch University Los Angeles, then LMU for a master’s program. Friends thought I was crazy. A leap of faith, they called it. What 50-year-old returns to school? I write screenplays. Short stories. Novels. Essays. For crying out loud, not dissertations. A doctoral degree never crossed my mind.
The leap of faith was worth the risk. There is nothing I love more than telling stories and remembering with gratitude those I lost. I applied to only one Ph.D. program. The year of the pandemic, of protests, of the awareness of Black murdered bodies, preoccupied me. Everyone is on the search to make a difference. At LMU, I gained courage from the forgotten voices of those I once knew — those who beckoned me to tell their stories, our stories.
My college education motivates my storytelling. Let your path define you. Your friends, your family, old loves, all those you touch and who touch you, open a world of inclusivity. Your ancestors guide you. My youth inspired me to teach.
My diaries were full of stories with characters like me. Girls, women who thrive. My stories are not all Black stories. I write with my Indigenous, Asian, Brown families in mind. I write our shared stories. Once you no longer feel victimized you can see human growth. You can see forgiveness.
If I listen to the voices from my memories, they say, “Don’t forget me.”
“I won’t.” I whisper back.
Nina Louise is a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the author of “The Sea of Dead Souls.” Follow her @Ninalouisewrites.