In 2018, my then-boyfriend and I sat next to each other on the couch. I caught his gaze in my periphery and turned to him.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
He continued to look, inspecting features I suddenly felt self-conscious of. His lips parted but no words came. Then he shut his mouth.
I placed a hand on his knee. “What,” I pushed. “Tell me.”
His expression was questioning– apologetic even. Then he said:
“You look so native right now.”
I choked out a small chuckle– don’t make him uncomfortable– and he watched me a moment longer before turning back to the TV. He draped an arm over my shoulders, unaffected.
My skin prickled with humiliation. I sat and looked but didn’t see. I heard but didn’t listen. I was engulfed by an ancient shame. It snaked its way around me, coiling and compressing, keen on squeezing what residue of Indian remained.
“It will always be a crime–” it whispered, “to look as you are.”
With his six words, I was a child plucked from her community, hauled away in the back of a police cruiser. I wept as my braids were chopped off and razors bit into my scalp. The river of my language dried up on my tongue until the only words I understood were the same ones used to chastise me.
Only until the savage was scraped from my insides would I be tossed into a world that measures success by the lack of pigment in your skin. The one thing they can’t erase. And I was wrapped in my greatest sin.
In my exes history of blonde hair and blue eyes, in his line-up of privilege and manicured family relations, there I stood. Like a stain. And with those six words– “you look so native right now”– he sank a dagger in my gut. A dagger he borrowed from his colonizing ancestors who had it plunged in the backs of mine.
But underneath this native flesh lives a blood memory. It’s stronger– more resilient– than the shame planted in the hollowest and emptiest of spaces. It rises to the surface in knots of cheekbone and eyes the color of rich soil. Robbed of everything then condemned for coping, but still– as I look back into the eyes of the woman in the reflection, I’m reminded of what the white man forced generations of my family to forget: