“how much do you charge to landscape the front yard?”

I was 12 when my Dad became president of American Indian College. He wouldn’t get any type of raise for a few years. The board at the time knew that he would need supplemental income because the president would have to raise money for the college as opposed to personal finances, since he was under a mission’s appointment. The board failed to act until a few years after he took the position when faculty and staff advocated for us because they saw our family struggling. My Dad, and even myself now, have always taken the position that people will take care of you, and that if people fail to pay your worth, it’s a reflection of their own integrity.

When my Dad got a raise (just enough to get us over the poverty line) my Dad continued to live like we didn’t have the money. I turned 15, and using the equity from my childhood home and the money he saved from his raise, we moved to Anthem, AZ. I stepped in the house and looked at the 20ft vaulted ceilings and thought, “we can afford this?” First my dad was frugal, we stayed out of debt, and lived below our means. We moved into that $225,000 in the middle of July. My Dad was still working as president, so he was traveling frequently. It was the first time I was in charge of moving. My Dad borrowed Big Red, an old maintenance truck from AIC, and said, “there it is, thanks.”

I love moving. And I’ve moved more people than I can remember. There is something about moving in 110 degree weather with a sweat dripping shirt that makes me feel good inside. It would get so hot, to the point your body would start to get chills, and I could feel the heat radiating off the top of my head. It took me two days to load and unload most of our stuff. But it was the craziest thing, because for the first time in my life, we could afford a few nicer things.

Before the raise, we hardly ate at restaurants unless it was Taco Bell. We would each get a hardshell taco and bean burrito. If we ever did go to Denny’s, we shared plates and only drank water. After the raise, coincidently when my oldest sister Joy was still in college, we could go to the Sizzler buffet and even order soft drinks. Eventually we ditched the foil antennas, and vice grip tv, and got a new 32 inch tube tv and cable.  It was an exciting time in my life.

After we moved our stuff into the house, we started looking at the landscaping. I had worked a summer job and laid flagstone for a few years, but my Dad wanted to get professional landscapers. As he was out front looking at the yard, a lady approached him and said, “how much do you charge to landscape the front yard?” My Dad smiled and said,  “I live here.” She apologized and went on. A seemingly innocent mistake, but this happened all the time. We could now afford a few nicer things since the raise, but the family was still treated like we were incapable of living in a nice house, having good jobs, or eating at a few nicer restaurants. This certainly wasn’t the first or last time someone would mistake our family for not belonging, and it happens even in places meant for Native people.

The landscaping interaction wasn’t the worst thing in the world. As a kid I remember walking with my Dad up the hill at AIC. I was about 15. A well respected White minister was at the top. As we got closer my Dad called out his name and asked, “It’s good to see you, how’s it going?” The minister just glared at us and walked away in disgust. I asked my Dad, the most reputable man I know, why that minister did that, he shook his head and said, “some people are just like that.”

I asked why my Dad put up with so many people like that, especially being underpaid for the job he had at the college and often being treated poorly. He told me, “It was never about any glory or recognition, we will do anything and put up with anybody to help Native students. Secondly, if I leave, nothing will change.” It was the first real lesson I had in commitment. It was good reminder the work isn’t about myself, the institution, but about the people and especially Native students.

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