Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Going Away

It’s that time again. A new wave of baby birds will spread their wings and fly away to college. I bet parents and families are buying up bed sheets (half will be too small on move-in day), small refrigerators, desk junk, $30 microwaves, school supplies and permits.
My experience as a college student was a blur. It went by so fast. There are things I’m glad I did and things I wish I knew when I left home.
I started my college career in Las Vegas, baby. During the summer before I became a freshman, my family and I took a drive to New Mexico Highlands University. As we drove farther and farther away from the reservation a hot lump became ever bigger in my throat as I watched my desert disappear and a forest take over the scenery. This was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life; leave my family and everything I have ever known.
We were met with promises of a great education and a friendly atmosphere. There were smiles and free purple things for everyone in my family. That hot lump in my throat was still there.
In the days before I left home everything around me became sentimental. I teared up all the time and even broke down at the thoughts of leaving my family and my home. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so there were no older siblings to tell me that it’s going to be OK; no older siblings to tell me how to navigate a white man’s city or a college campus.
When my parents dropped me off at the all-girls dorm we all cried and hugged for a long time when it was time for my family to leave me here; 200 miles from home; four hours from my house. I felt devastated and so alone and vulnerable in that moment. But everyone’s comforting words made me feel better. About an hour after they left I felt energized and happier. I wanted to explore, I wanted to clean my room and set everything up for my classes in the next few days.
When I think of Highlands I think about my friend Vivian. She was vital to my survival there. She was the only person I knew because we graduated from Crownpoint High School together (we were probably the shyest two girls in that class; never got much attention, didn’t have many friends, but we’re probably the only two women who have graduated from a four-year college in that whole graduating high school class — or at least as many as I can count from my small circle of Facebook friends... It’s true what they say about nerds, wink-wink.) Vivian and I did everything together during the two years I was there. She’s my best friend still.
I took my studies seriously. That’s one thing I’m glad I did. I never got a C and even made it a mission to earn an A+ in one history class. At that time my major was English. Until I found journalism.
In the frustrating search for scholarships I stumbled upon a scholarship from the American Indian Journalism Institute in South Dakota. I applied and was surprised that they wanted me there that summer of 2007. That opened a new door for me.
Applying for numerous scholarships is also another thing I’m glad I did. There are so many scholarships for Native American students I believe there is no reason why any Native student should quit because of money. No reason. Through Native American student scholarships alone, I have had my whole college experience paid for — and then some.
After that first summer at AIJI, I decided to switch my major to journalism and then transfer to a school that offered it. I came to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; 300 miles away from home; five hours from my house. I felt sad for leaving Vivian and the cool people I met at NMHU, but I wanted to be a journalist.
I joined my sister, who was already a sophomore and I, a junior, and became her roommate. It was a good pairing. My parents were so relieved that we were together to take care of each other.
Here I kept up with my studies and attended AIJI for two more summers. By now I was used to leaving home.
Another thing I was glad I did was not go home all the time. There are some Native students that go home every weekend, literally. They used up all their money for gas, they missed assignments and lowered their grades, they missed their families too much, they dropped out. Sometimes I went home about every two months or so and for breaks. Sometimes I don’t understand why they go home all the time, there’s nothing there (but that tone has its underside. I never want to go home now and when I do go home, it’s like a reverse culture shock that makes me feel sort of terrible; distant from my own people and foreign in my native place.)
 I experienced so many things and met so many different people during my college years. With AIJI I got to travel around and experience different cities and their people. I lived in Montana and North Dakota for two months and learned about the people there and wrote stories about them. This “white man’s” world became smaller, less daunting and familiar.
As a young Native journalist, I think I had the upper hand in college. For assignments and homework I had to research the place I was in and talk to the people. I had to go out into the community and see things for myself. I think this is the No. 1 thing I’m glad I did as a college student. I explored and experienced the community wherever I was at. I met people of all colors and learned about them along the way. I attended community events in and outside the university and I learned to appreciate every community.
But everywhere I was, I stayed close and in touch with the Native student community. I’m glad they were always there to be my first friends. They provided a sense of home and camaraderie. But the sobering truth is, many of them dropped out. The sobering truth is Native American students have a very low retention rate. As a Native student there are many more obstacles to face.
There is the initial shock of leaving home and the following culture shock of living in a different and foreign community. Native families are very close knit. All our family members live very close to us as opposed to other people where they have cousins and uncles who live all over the country. It’s scary and there were times when I thought I couldn’t do it and I wanted to come home. But I kept in there, kept my mind on my school work and I graduated.
Many Native parents haven’t been to college and I think they sometimes don’t see the importance of it. They don’t prepare for all of it and they always tell their children to come home. I can understand if they go home for traditional things and holidays, but every weekend is ridiculous.
To the parents: Let them be homesick, let them be sad, they’ll get over it, but don’t tell them to come home every chance they get. Ask them about their grades all the time and keep telling them that they’re doing a good job, you’re proud of them and to keep it up. Let them do something they love or let them find it. Find out ways to manage money. Help them and go the extra mile when they have questions about how to rent an apartment, how to cancel credit cards, how to file taxes or how to fill out lengthy applications. (Well, maybe you can tell I’m clueless when it comes to official documents and applications, but we don’t leave the house knowing everything — thank God for cell phones.) I promise this will all pay off when you get a college graduation invitation in the mail — even though you helped your son or daughter pick out said invitations, but still wanted to experience the thrill of it coming through the mail.
My parents did all those things for my sister and I and I’m thankful for that. They were there when ever we called and said “Mom, what’s my social security number? Dad, how do you change the windshield wiper? Mom, which box has my CIB?” and “dad, there’s cockroaches!”
To the students: Get to know the community you're in; explore it and attend their community events. Taste different flavors, they're lovely. Fall in love with learning. Don't take your classes for granted, you are there to learn and someone is paying for you to learn. Take advantage of every program and privilege you can as a Native American student, there are a lot out there, there is no reason you should go back home empty handed. And do not take a "break" from college. Chances are, you'll never come back. If your college has it, take Native American studies classes. Learn about your history because you most likely never learned it in high school.

A few things I wished I learned when I was in college:
• “Thrift stores are awesome.”
• Taking advantage of grocery sales and coupons.
• “Recycling is awesome.”
• Fun can turn into too much fun really quick.
• Labels and brands are not "all that."
• Just in case, save money for when you graduate. You might be unemployed for a while.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Whiskey Lake (short story/fiction)

I used to write many short, fictional stories back in the day — that's how I started writing. Most were horror, some were gore and some were like this; a fond memory from a place back in time where you find yourself escaping to when you have a free moment. I wrote this this week. Enjoy.

“Fishing!” I said excitedly, not hiding my lisp.

My dad chuckled at my lisp and the way my tongue always seems to peek out of my teeth when I say “sss” and “sh” words.

“Let’s go fishing than,” he said to both of us, his daughters.

Whiskey Lake is a gem on top of the Chuska Mountains. It’s a green paradise protruding from the dead, desert reservation below. If you look north of the Chuska Mountains you can see the ugly Shiprock, which has become an iconic image of the Navajo reservation like Monument Valley is — I don’t know why.

We packed the ice chest and knew by heart what we needed to survive; hot dogs, bread, a fire poker, a spatula and a few gallons of water. Our tent and folding chairs were always at the ready in the outside storage. Our fishing poles and tackle boxes were never dusty either.

My pole was green with gold filigree. Lisha’s was blue and a little shorter than mine. My dad’s was the tallest black one and my mom’s was red and the shortest. We each had our own tackle boxes too filled with handpicked flies, baits, hooks, weights and extra line.

We packed a pair of clothes and loaded up on blankets and sleeping bags. We took a short stack of paper plates and a few trash bags. We could get ready and leave in less than an hour. It was spontaneous and it would always start with my dad asking everyone, “What should we do tomorrow?”

The first leg of our weekly adventure was to Gallup. Walmart was usually full with weekend shoppers and us. We picked up some hamburgers, charcoal and new bait.

In the outdoor isle, me and Lisha would be the only girls excited to see all the flies.

“Just pick one,” my dad said.

I scanned through small packages for something realistic; in size and color. What kind of insects have I seen near the lake? I’ve never seen ones with long tails. I’ve never seen purple ones. I’ve never seen bass in the lake or something that could swallow this giant keychain thing.

Rooster feathers fashioned into fake bugs. A brown one with a big fuzz in front and small, black wings on the side. Two tiny red spikes poke out where antennae would be. The hook was black and medium sized and big enough for a nice trout. 

Lisha always picks similar ones. We have the same mind. Dad always got the expensive ones. Mom usually stood by, smiled and bought everything.

With an ice chest now full of burgers, diet soda and ice, we were on our way to paradise 20 miles north of Gallup on a paved road and about 15 miles up the mountain on a dirt trail hardly fit for a vehicle.

Most of the time, when the dirt road came up, me and Lisha sat in the back bed of my dad’s blue Ford truck. This vehicle always took a beating. At some parts my heart would race and my dad would yell out the window at us to stay away from the edge. I could see him turning the wheel quick to get around a ditch or avoid hitting the bottom of the truck on a bump. He is a good driver that can make his truck do anything.

This road, I think, is the reason why a lot of people were never at Whiskey Lake when we were up there.

It’s a placid body of water that wraps around several oddly shaped banks. An island in the middle is host to a few trees. There are no bathrooms or silly park picnic areas. For a long time, there were no park rangers either, until about a year ago, when they had to regulate permits and laws and crap like that. For the longest time I never knew you needed permission to fish.

The lake sides were clean and green. The east side of the lake had the mountain’s shoulder and went up about 100 more feet. It was quiet, except for the sound of the trees and the air.

“Set up first,” mom said sternly before we all took off and started baiting our lines.
With all of us working together, we could set up the tent in about five minutes and lay down all our blankets and sleeping bags. Dad would start the grill and mom would prep the food and make everything ready for lunch.

I rummaged through the Walmart bag with the new flies and found mine. I clipped the old fly off and put it back in my tackle box. Lisha followed suit. In a special knot I learned from dad, I restrung the fly, wrapped the string around 13 times, did a little magic and tightened the whole thing.

“Dad,” I said and held out my fly for inspection.

With his big hands dirtied with black charcoal, he pulled on the fly and scrutinized the knot.

“It’s OK.”

He inspected Lisha’s and her knot was OK too. Working on his stomach and chest, he finished tying his fly. We were ready.

Finger on the line, let the stop go, make sure the hook is not caught on anything and swing everything toward the middle of the lake making sure you let go of the line before it flies. 

Plunk. Plunk. Plunk.

When fly fishing, the fly trails 3 or 4 feet behind the bubble weight, which keeps it all afloat. I reel it in slowly, but sometime I prefer the jerky movement; reel-reel-reel pause. Reel-reel-reel pause. Because some insects move like that.

In less than 10 minutes Lisha snags one. As soon as the fish nibbles and she’s sure she has one, she jerks her pole back to get the hook in for sure. We reel our lines in real fast, so the fish doesn’t cross lines and get everything tangled. My dad goes into his tackle box and gets his pliers and line retriever.

It’s a small trout. We don’t hoist the fish in the air like some people might do, we leave it on the ground and pick it up from there. I, personally, never like to hold the fish in the air on the line because I know that this ordeal is probably quite painful for it and it doesn’t need to be in the air hanging on a hook too. My dad picks it up and takes the hook out of its lip with the pliers. He doesn’t toss it back in the water either, he places it in there.

The smell of charcoal is making me hungry and Lisha’s first catch makes me want to be the next.

We throw our lines back in and reel them in slowly. Two times, three times, four times.
I can feel a small jerk from my pole. I slow down and go into that jerking motion like the fly is now injured. I see it under the water; he’s swimming by and picking at the fly. I can see its pretty tail, its green eyes and the spots on the top of its body.

“I got one!”

I start reeling it in fast and my pole bends a little. As it gets closer to the shore, the pole bends a lot.

“It’s a small one again,” I said, but I’m still happy with this catch.

It’s still one point for me, one for Lisha and zero for dad.

It flops on the ground a lot and I want to tell it to “stop, hold on a second, you’re hurting yourself.” But they never listen. My dad gets a hold of it, brings it up and drops it. He picks it up again and we can see blood. My dad grabs it firmly and assesses the damage.

Since its a little fish, the hook went through its mouth and into its eye. Me and Lisha do a reverse hiss.

My dad’s pliers get bloody when he wriggles the hook. Hooks are designed to keep the fish on there. While the hook is bending one way, tiny spikes poke out the opposite way. My dad struggles with the hook. It’s in the fish’s eye and he can’t pull it out easily. It’s stuck on the bone or something and it’s bleeding. Its eye turns inward and its mouth is still moving, gasping for water. For about a minute, dad struggles to get the hook out.

“Darn it,” he said when the pliers slipped or he couldn’t get a hold.

It’s out. Dad hurried to get it back in the water. He put his feet in the water and holds the fish there. It’s not moving much. While still holding the fish he glided it through the water, head first, to get the water going through its mouth and gills. He has to let it go.

It floats crookedly and bobs there for a while. Me and Lisha watch it while my dad washes his hands and pliers. A few shiny scales sparkle in the water where he rinses everything off.

It smells like fish. Poor little guy. It was only about 6 or 8 inches. I wonder if it can still see. I wonder if it felt anything. It looks traumatized.

It starts moving its mouth more and waving its fins. I dip my fly into the water to get the hook and feathers clean of the dirt and blood. 

It wriggles around more and slowly starts to swim strait. Me and Lisha watch it swim away and disappear.

“It’s gone, it swam away.”

What a relief.

I walk up the shore to my mom who is finishing up her food prep. There are sliced lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cheese stacked neatly on a plate and covered with plastic wrap. The hot dog package is open and the hamburgers are sprinkled with salt and pepper. Her hands work fast and diligent with the plastic wrap and the knife.

The coals in the grill are still black.

“I should put mine in, huh?” she asked me.

“Yeah. Me and Lisha already caught one.”

She tips a jug of water over her hands and rinses them quickly then wipes them dry on her white apron. She takes a look at the lake, scanning for a good spot.

She unhooks the fly from her line and attaches a bait line. In her tackle box she rummages around a few different bottles for a blue pasty bait with silver glitter and bright red fish eggs. She dips her finger in the blue paste and retrieves a small glob then enfolds it around the hook then smoothes it out to an oblong ball. From the other jar, she grabs one, two and three bright red fish eggs and pierces them on another hook.  At the bottom she removes one weight. At the top, she fills the bubble weight with a small amount of water, just enough so the weights will sit on the bottom and the bubble with bring the hooks up to full view. If the bubble is empty, the bait will move around too much and it might drag and get tangled.

With her pole ready and loaded she walks to the left edge of our fly fishing zone. Almost awkwardly, she swings the bait behind her shoulder, make sure it’s not stuck anywhere, positions her fingers, raises herself on her tip-toes and swings at the middle of the lake.


“Hahahaha,” we chuckle.

Her line went about 50 feet in the air and about 20 to 25 feet out. She laughed along with us and left it where it was. In her pocket she took out a bell and twisted it onto the end of her pole.

“Tim, I need something to hold the pole,” she said to dad.

He was pulling weeds off his fly, stopped and looked around for a stick. A few feet up the shore was the perfect one. He picked it up brought it over to my mom’s pole and stuck it in the ground. He put the pole inside the y-shape at the top.

“There,” he said.

Mom went back and set up her folding chair above us to watch. Dad cast out again. Me and Lisha tried again and again.

A few minutes of this; peaceful and extremely fun. We didn’t really have to talk to each other. Fishing together was bonding enough. The air was cool and fresh, the trees were quiet, the sky was brilliant blue and the trees were tall. It wasn’t so forested like other mountain areas, which can feel small and almost claustrophobic. There was so much space. This was our paradise.

“I think the grill’s ready,” mom said.

“Woo-hoo!” dad says.

“Dad got one!”

He starts reeling in fast and his pole bends, almost double.

“It’s a big one!”

For a big one, or one that puts up a fight you reel-reel-reel, let some slack and point your pole at the water, then swing it back the opposite way again and reel-reel-reel. My dad did this as we reeled in ours faster.

It fought all the way to the shore and jumped in and out in the last few feet. It was about 14 inches long and chubby. Its rainbow was very defined; pink, blue and green.
“Oh, wow,” I said.

“We’ll keep this one,” he said. 

Lisha goes inside his tackle box and untangles a long rope with a ring on one end and a 4-inch sharp metal length on the other.

With the pliers he takes the hook out and Lisha hands him the rope. He puts the metal end through the fish’s mouth and gills. He pulls the length of the rope through the fish’s gills and then through the ring at the end. He sticks the metal in the ground and lets the fish stay near the shore. It’s not dead and it still tries to get away.

“We need to start putting the hamburgers on,” my mom said to us.

Me and Lisha are looking at the fish. It’s still very much alive and breathing OK despite the rope in its gills. It’s a monster. I look at my dad and he’s looking at it too. He looks back at me and raises his eyebrows and smiles a silly smile. I smile back.

“We should just let it go,” I said.

“Yeah, dad, we have hamburgers,” Lisha said.

He looks at the fish again, still smiling.


He bends down, takes the metal out of the ground, lifts the fish up and takes the rope off. As with the other fish, he tries to lay it gently in the water, but it splashes in and takes off quick.

“Dang,” he said.

“I’m putting the hamburgers ooo-on,” my mom announces again.


“Ohhh,” she said in a playfully annoyed tone.

Her pole is wriggling and jerking at the shoreline. Her eyes light up and she smiles as she trots down to her pole. She reels in a medium size trout.

“I knew it,” she said. “It’s the blue bait!”

My dad unhooks it and lets it go.