“It was also the last time the photographer took our picture”

Luna, my daughter, has cut her hair five times now. Every time we take a picture, it makes me laugh because the more she cuts her hair, the more she looks like a chia pet. I feel like Luna does it to wreak havoc. Just a little. Because it’s something she has control over and a way to express herself. It also makes parenting a challenge, because Luna is such a wild spirit. I still think it’s funny and cool to have these types of pictures of both my kids (Gordie just got a trim and looks like Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber). Having these pictures is awesome because there isn’t nearly as many funny pictures of me or my siblings at that age. However, we do have a few memorable ones.

Each year, my family and I would take a family photo. There was a professional photographer who would come to my parent’s work at American Indian College, and volunteer to take the faculty, staff, and administrator photos. If it wasn’t free, we probably wouldn’t have decent family photos because we couldn’t afford those types of luxuries. I know there is some people who don’t understand that we grew up below the poverty line because both my parents have graduate degrees. So, I’ll explain it a bit.

The college was, and still is very small. Less than a 100 Native students from different nations across the US, on a small 10-acre campus with more than enough facilities. The college was originally created to train Native pastors, because in 50s it was difficult to train Natives in the mainstream seminaries. So, they created this place. As the institute evolved, it went from offering a certified minister credential to becoming fully accredited and issuing bachelors’ degrees in elementary education, Christian ministry, and business. The college can’t survive on tuition from Native students alone. So, about half of the faculty, staff, and administrators were paid through raising their own support as US missionaries. You must be a licensed minister, and have the proper academic credentials to take this route. And it’s the route my Dad took. My Dad raised his support to work at American Indian College, and my Mom took a very modest salary to work as an elementary education faculty. Problem with the model is that the supporters don’t always pay. The actual salary is based off of pledges and it’s up to the donors to send in the payments monthly. Not all of the donors send in money on time, and resulted in my family being poor, as far as money goes. As far as knowledge, friendships, family, experience, traveling, wisdom, and living life, we were as wealthy as could be. My Dad was an administrator and taught a few courses each semester. He started off as the dean of students, moved to vice president, and eventually president. My Mom taught 5-6 courses a semester, and was the department chair for a while. And despite their heavy work load, we couldn’t afford to take family pictures unless they were free.

That photographer would set up his lights and backdrop in the lounge of the girls’ dormitory. My Mom and Dad would dress me up in my best hand me downs, and would put in three flowers or hairspray and tell me, “don’t touch your hair.” We would wait in line for the other families to take their picture, and eventually it would be ours. We would sit and take a few photos and be done… But every year, I would cross my eyes. For no particular reason. I would just cross my eyes because I thought it was funny. I guess it was because I liked to wreak havoc occasionally. My Dad would get mad and say, “JD, QUIT IT.” He always did it calmly but loud and firm, because I knew he was trying to protect his reputation with his colleagues. Meaning I knew I could get away with it, so I would cross my eyes again and again. Eventually that photographer would get a photo of me without crossed eyes. One year though, the frustration of my Dad, Mom, and sisters set in, and they weren’t having it. I was determined to cross my eyes in every picture, and I did, and the photographer kept insisting on taking another photo. Eventually my Dad said, “Forget it.” He was done, and I finally captured one of my favorite childhood family photos. It was also the last time the photographer took our picture, but certainly not our last family photo.

I know I frustrated my parents. However, my parents were always there to redirect my focus and intentions. My Mom explained to me that some kids are born with cross eyes, and it shouldn’t be something I do intentionally. And I remember my Dad sitting with me, and saying, “I hope I’m a good Dad, because I didn’t have a Dad around to teach me to be a Father.” And now, I look at Luna and I say, “I hope I’m being a good Dad, because I had a great Dad who taught me a lot.” Vanessa and I constantly work on being good parents to Gordie and Luna. Especially when it comes to their mischievousness (Last night they found the candy basket and were eating candy secretly under the dining room table). We also know we tend to focus a little more intently with Luna, because she has a hard time with her speech delay. I know for me, it breaks my heart to watch other kids constantly making her the monster because she can’t talk well. I’m also reminded of my Mom’s advice. I constantly remind myself, if we can direct her focus and intentions we can build her compassion, resilience, and help her wreak havoc in the right environments. As we all should occasionally wreak havoc.

“WHAT’S YO NAME?????!!!!!”

If you don’t know, Native boarding schools still exist, although not like those of old. And one of the most memorable times I went to a boarding school was when I was 16 years old. My friends’ band was playing a concert in the Spring of 2002 for the students at Sherman Indian high school in Riverside, CA. I normally didn’t play with the band, but they needed an extra guitar player at the time. So I went. It was fairly calm. I remember walking on campus, I saw some kids my age studying studiously, some kids playing ping pong, some other kids snagging under a blanket in the grass area, and some other kids playing basketball with hickies. It seemed like a cool place to be. The show went well, we met some kids, and then our host took us on a tour. The tour was rather dull, but whatever. I was 16, and there were Native girls all around. So like I said, it was a cool place to be. Well we were nearing the end of the tour and they were going to give us sandwiches in the kitchen and send us on our way.

We walked up to this old brick cafeteria, trying to avoid breathing in the asbestos. Looking back, and just judging by the state of the infrastructure, the school was underfunded. To the point that it felt like you could get hepatitis C from touching the walls. This place was old. Anyways, we’re about to walk into the cafeteria and of course one of the doors was broke. It meant there was only one way in, and one way out. All of my buddies were in college, and I was the youngest, so I walked in the middle of the pack. When it was my turn to cross the threshold into the rundown cafeteria, this Native girl was coming out from eating lunch. She had on a green t-shirt and was with a bunch of other Native girls all wearing green t-shirts (someone told me the green t-shirts meant they were on discipline, but I’m not sure). But I didn’t know what the green shirts meant, but they were walking and talking loudly. At the time I was extremely shy, and as I tried to pass through the threshold, that pretty/ scary Native girl with corn rolls wearing a green t-shirt, stepped to my face. She stood in the doorway squarely looking at my eyes, and in a deeper tone than what I can even speak now as a man, said, “WHAT’S YO NAME?????!!!!!”

I was extremely intimidated, and bashful. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. I looked in front of me, and my bros looked confused. And I looked behind me and my other bros shrugged their shoulders without any counsel. I looked back at the girl for a second, because it was all I could muster to do, and looked down quickly in what felt like fear of my life. And I pushed myself against the wall, taking chances at getting Hep C, and tried to squeeze past her. It didn’t work, she stepped in front of me again, and I wasn’t about to risk getting worked over in front of the school. So, in a quiet voice I gently responded, “J.D.” In that same deep tone she said, “ALRIGHT,” and some other things I can’t remember. She moved through the threshold first, and since then, I have never lived that moment down.

And now, every couple of years or so, I’ll get a message from my bros that reads, “WHAT’S YO NAME!!!!???” And it adds to these reasons why I can never forget about boarding schools.