by Animkeewa White Eagle
Her eyes filled with urgency; the teacher worked as a shepherd. She directed a herd of us four-year-olds into a tight, straight line—we pointed out into the tiled hallway. The bright sun glistened through the dust-speckled windows, revealing streaks of water and bleach. The earthy smell of pencils was combined with a stench of perfumed cleaning products and social anxiety. The line of kids was bubbly and electric. The teacher said we were headed outside.
Behind me I felt a breath, and in front I saw a pale neck; blonde hairs standing up straight.
“We should play cowboys and Indians,” one of the kids behind me barked. The world was new to me, but I knew I didn’t like this game. Maybe because it was only a game for the other kids—they played a role. I could only play as myself.
The kid in front of me turned around. He was two inches shorter than me, and yet his gaze and voice seemed to phase right through me.
“Aren’t the Indians all dead?”
The soft air brushed against the giant pine trees like a cat. Leaves rustled until they broke free and floated gently down to the water’s surface; their edges flickered as the sun’s beams pierced them though the tall trunks. We watched these pale-yellow boats sail down the stream at our feet.
Our phones had no service up in this mountain. We were alone with each other’s words. At least, that’s how they felt it. I knew the forest was listening. As it always will.
This was the first time we hung out as high school graduates. This would also be the last time we saw each other before we left for college. Despite our differences, I had grown to appreciate every one of them. We formed connections through our minds, not our faces.
I looked to my right, catching the sun’s glint in my friend’s blood shot eyes. He breathed in the wind and turned to me, releasing it back into the air, now warmed with his voice. The setting had sparked a thought in his mind:
“Imagine coming through here as a settler, when there was nothing. No cities, no roads,” as the words fell from his tongue, my back tightened. I thought of my ancestors’ territory that almost had no bounds, piercing through both borders. The millions of people who traded in all directions, and every metropolis of white faces that was once a city of brown. I opened my jaw, my tongue readied with these thoughts, but then I stopped.
Instead, I said, “Yes. When there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
I respected him. I knew he wasn’t an idiot. And my tone was enough for him to reconsider what he had said. Quickly his child wonder turned to a bitter embarrassment and all he could mutter was “oh— no—I..."
I only grinned.
My smile faded as I looked back to the rocks and the water rushing around them. When we sat down on the bank of this stream, I saw the little boys who bonded over video games and the delicate art of being an asshole. But now I saw six men. Yes, very young, but I couldn’t help but imagine the many young men who had thought the same thought as my friend—who didn’t reconsider their words.
I remember that day in school. Standing in that line, defending my place in this existence. I remember how the teacher stood idle, with no intent of defending me, she sat expecting an answer like the 19 children at her feet.
My invisibility wasn’t a result of child naivety. They're no longer children. Their parents never taught them differently because they thought the same; their education told them so. The school system hadn’t failed them.
It did its job.
Animkeewa White Eagle (born 2003) is a young artist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is enrolled in the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and is also of Kiowa descent. He won the youth Art of Technology Award at Santa Fe Indian Market in 2018 and won Best of Show at the Heard Museum Student Art Show in 2019. He is a first-year college student, currently enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is studying fine arts with a focus in digital art and plans to also study creative writing next year at IAIA.