Lessons in the Darkness: Young Life Unsupervised in Montana

We will call her "Lydia Bearback." Lydia Bearback and I were elementary classmates on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in a town called Browning, Montana. Browning is a small town in Northern Montana with a population of a whisker over 1000. Like most Indian reservations on the Great Plains, the Blackfeet Reservation was governmentally engineered to be poor, and my family was poorer than most. Destructive public policies have decimated Indigenous economies. These policies, combined with utterly remote geographic location, have led to 70 percent unemployment for decades. "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated," General Sherman said, "as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance."

I was a big-headed, shy kid who didn’t interact too much with girls or boys. My single mom and two older sisters raised me and I was pretty much left to think that my new sexual urges and alleged wet dreams were weird. This was decades before Google and, as in many Native families in the nation, there was no man around to help me make sense of what was happening to my body.

I was not an exceptional kid in too many ways. I was a nice kid and I was pretty smart. My shoe size generally matched my age. I was very much unlike most of the boys in my class who thought that every girl liked them. I felt inadequate and ugly but Lydia Bearback made me feel worthy. She teased me. I teased her. She flirted me. I tried to flirt back. To paraphrase Edwin Arlington Robinson, “She was always human when she talked.” Lydia Bearback was sweet to everyone, but I knew that I was the only one she really liked.

In Browning, making it through fifth grade in one piece wasn't guaranteed. Once, I was jumped once by a group of kids and got my tooth knocked through my lip. Another time I nearly lost an eye running into a barbwire fence in the middle of the night. We were also introduced to guns early on the reservation. We used to go coon hunting late at night with thirty-ought-sixes.

Toward the end of the year—informed and inspired by Lydia Bearback's attention and conversation—I began hanging out with other kids more often. My shyness was receding and I enjoyed hanging out and actually having friends. Most of our fun was extremely innocent. Fighting. Ding dong ditch. Stealing. Atari. Nothing out of the ordinary, for Browning, the place about which famed radio DJ Paul Harvey once said, “If you want to get away with murder go to Browning, Montana.”

One night, four of us stayed at my friend Dion’s house. Dion was the oldest and none of us questioned him. None of us had much parental supervision, so it was no chore to slip out that night around at 2 o’ clock in the morning. Dion lived in an area unpretentiously named “Old Low Rent Project” and we made our way to the other side of town. I had the shivers and a knot in my stomach that I usually got when I was doing something that I shouldn’t be doing.

We arrived at an old house that I had never been to before. A streetlight down the road lit it. Dion and the crew went around back and knocked on a window. Nothing. Dion knocked again, lightly. The curtains rustled. The curtains cracked slightly, so that someone could see out but we couldn’t see in. Half a second later, Lydia Bearback looked out from her dark bedroom and she locked eyes with me. She looked shocked, and then she smiled. I smiled too. She opened the window.

“I didn’t know that you were coming,” she told me.

“Yeah," I said and tried to play it cool. "I wanted to!”

We crawled in the window. My eyes tried desperately to adjust to the dark of the room, but I couldn’t see anything.

Lydia Bearback whispered, “You ready?” Instead of a verbal response, I heard the sounds of a zipper opening, a quick nervous laugh and eventual squeaks of the box springs. Along with the squeaking I could barely hear, in the background, the sound of the TV playing the theme from “Three’s Company.”

One by one, Lydia Bearback took turns having sex with each of my friends. There were no screams like I had seen in the movies. No sexy music playing in the background. No condoms. I wanted to throw up. I did not participate and instead I sat crying in the dark.

Fortunately there were enough people in the room and it was dark enough that neither Lydia Bearback nor my friends noticed that I never pulled my little, undeveloped dick out the whole time.

I couldn’t, even though it was disgustingly erotic.

Lydia Bearback wasn’t guarded like I thought a 10 year-old girl should have been. Her parents were in the other room and couldn’t hear anything because their TV was on. Hell, we weren’t guarded like 10 year old boys should have been. Nobody ever asked about that night, or the many other nights we snuck out. Nobody ever noticed.

I don’t think Lydia Bearback and I ever spoke again after that night, even though I saw her plenty of times. She is a beautiful mother, and grandmother now. I sometimes see her and her husband in the grocery store, pushing their shopping cart together. I convince myself that she and I recovered from that night. It took me another 8 years to finally have my first kiss. In the same way that the experience might not have defined Lydia’s future relationships with men, I want to believe it didn't define my interactions or relationships with women.

This story isn’t about morals though; it’s about saying thank you to Lydia. See, my mother had her first child at 14. That child, my older brother, died when I was a little kid. My older sisters were both teenage parents as well.

I worshipped my sisters and mom so I would have never, ever realized the difficulty that they had being kids with kids. Lydia Bearback was different. When I saw her just a few years after that night towing her beautiful little brown baby around, I remembered how free she was that night in the house, and I instantly equated “sex” with “babies” and “responsibility.” I also started to associate easy sex with fatherless children like me and all of my buddies running through the reservation at night.

I didn’t want to be that kind of dad.

In hindsight, I know that many of the reservation issues are structural. Our homelands were designed to struggle. It’s part of the larger American economic plan. As my conspiracy-minded dad would’ve said, “The man wants us to fail!” Yet Lydia Bearback was not an anomaly, and neither were the young boys who had sex with her. Therein lies our culpability. It was not that Lydia’s parents were bad. She got good grades, was well-dressed, was always in school, etc. It’s just that, like most parents on the reservation, they were distracted.

That night taught me that I have a duty to make sure that my kids, nieces, and nephews are well-informed and ready to deal with the consequences of their actions. Reckoning with the experience taught me that our young folks—girls and boys—need demonstrations of healthy love, not scalding judgment and disengagement. Native people, by the benign economic, political and educational neglect that we find within our communities, are taught that any attention is good attention. That’s what Lydia thought. That's what all of us believed. That is also what we have the potential to change.

We have to take care of the things that we can take care of.

Lydia Bearback should have been protected. My friends and I should have been protected. My mother and father should have been protected, too. From that night in that room, I learned that I have to do my small part to make sure our people and our families are protected. Our communal history, and my personal experience, has shown me that no one has, or will, protect and value the lives of our children for us.

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is a father, an activist, an author, and an attorney. He publishes other people's writings at cutbankcreekpress.com, makes videos at www.youtube.com/rockpaperjet, and writes a regular column at www.indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com. His twitter handle is @BigIndianGyasi

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[Photo via AP]