Camouflage

My thoughts are like a thousand startled bats looking for a way out of a cave. Their wings are frantically flapping as they move in a thousand different directions all at once. I saw this on one of those nature shows on TV, the shows you only watch when there is nothing else on.

The woman sitting across from me is staring. I have been quiet for too long; the silence is awkward for her. She has pushed up her glasses twice and is gripping her pen so tightly her knuckles are white. Her awkwardness is making me uncomfortable. She clears her throat and looks down at the single piece of paper on her clipboard. It’s blank and I can’t help but wonder what she sees.

Last week I stood staring at my reflection in the mirror for over half an hour, just like she is staring at the paper on her clipboard, studying intently what I saw: the hue of my skin, the shape of my eyes, and the outline of my jaw, wishing the way I looked aligned with the way I felt about myself. All this because of that stupid pamphlet I came across stuffed in a magazine as a bookmark. “Identity Counselling for Aboriginal People” was what it was advertising.

“So how do you feel right now? How would you describe your emotional state?” She fires both questions at me in a single breath. She tries to make eye contact but I can’t focus on her, I am trying to catch one of those bats in my head just to give her something so she will stop staring at me.

She is asking me, in not so many words, what I am doing sitting across from her. Can she see that I am second guessing my decision to call the number on the back of that pamphlet?

Yesterday I saw an old man sitting on an overturned wooden crate, his back against the grubby brick wall of a store front. He was playing an old guitar, the case opened in front of him with a few coins scattered haphazardly in the folds of the threadbare faux velvet lining. He was playing a simple, haunting melody, carefully plucking the strings; his head bent low, his shoulders stooped. I walked by him at first but then I stopped a few feet past him as his melody pulled at my heart, turning me around. I rummaged in my pocket for a coin to throw in amongst the paltry few he had already accumulated.  He rewarded me with a wide smile, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was smiling on the inside, too.

“I feel sad,” I blurt out, my thoughts still on that old man in dirty clothes playing a beautiful song. I am not really lying because I am sad, but I think that is just part of it. She looks at me, eyes wide, and even though she keeps her facial features neutral I can see a smile in her eyes, as if she really accomplished something by getting me to speak.

She would not be smiling if she could see the unexpected emotional eruption her two questions are causing me. I don’t exactly know why I am here today. I slip my hand into the pocket of my sweater, gently running my fingertips along the worn edges of the photograph I brought with me today. It is a picture of me when I was a little girl, with two blonde braids and such soulful brown eyes. It makes me sad because now I know who that little girl will become. She will be like that old man, smiling on the outside.

I remember this kid in elementary school. Every time we would have show-and-tell, he would wear these grubby camouflage pants and talk about his and his dad’s hunting exploits. One time he even brought a hide from a bear his dad had killed, but I just couldn’t get past his pants. I guess hunters have to wear camouflage so they will blend in with their surroundings because they don’t want to be seen.

Maybe that’s what I do: wear camouflage when I don’t want to be seen. Long ago my people were skilled hunters, and camouflage was essential to their survival. We hunted, silently stalking our prey on the bald prairie, blending into the landscape that we were part of.

The woman leans towards me in her high-backed chair. I take a good long look at her. I am not surprised by what I see: dark pantsuit with a white blouse buttoned up to her throat, conservative black pumps, and dark rimmed glasses. I swear these people must have a dress code, because they all look the same. Her hair is dark brown and pulled back into a pony tail. I can’t tell if she is pretty or how old she is. Is she wearing camouflage too?

Sometimes I wonder if all of my people are wearing one form of camouflage or another. I think about my younger brothers and sisters. It seems the young people are growing up so defiant and belligerent these days. Around my neighborhood I see them strutting down the street with their baggy pants, straight-rimmed ball caps with their shaggy black hair sticking out on three sides, and their hoodies hanging on their skinny frames. I watch them shake hands with their bros when they meet up and share a smoke as they laugh about something that they should probably cry about instead.

I look around the small windowless room I am in, mostly to distract myself from the onslaught of unwanted thoughts in my head. Filling most of the room is a black loveseat and a beige high-backed chair with a cheap looking particle board coffee table separating them. There is one picture on the stark wall across from me. It is a print of a country landscape. It looks cheap, but I find myself staring at it; well, staring past it anyway.

What does this woman sitting across from me see when she looks at me? I can deceive others so easily because I have the best camouflage: I look white. A few years ago I walked into an off-sale store with my friend. Inside, this Native guy, maybe 45, was buying an 18 pack with his buddy. He was wearing acid-washed jeans, an acid-washed jean jacket, cowboy boots and a beat-up Native Pride cap. He looked me up and down when I walked in and smiled at me, showing off his toothless smile.

“Are you German?” he asked me with an appreciative smile. Before I could respond to the lame pick-up line, my friend was in the guy’s face, fists balled at her sides, yelling at him like he was deaf.

“She’s just as much Indian as you are, jerk!” I grabbed her arm and pulled her away. But as I turned to the beer coolers at the back of the store I saw my distorted reflection in the glass, and I wondered if she was right.

I wish there was some music playing. The woman in front of me is deep in thought. The silence is stifling. It is full of people’s secrets, confessions, and heartaches. Nobody comes to this office because they don’t know how to deal with their happiness.
I could use a smoke. I can’t help but smile, because I can hear my best friend lecturing me on quitting. Ever since she kicked the habit she thinks I should, too. Man, I miss those lazy summer days when we used to drive down to the river in her beat-up old Mercury that we dubbed The Rez Bomb. We would roll down the windows, smoke, and listen to music. We used to talk and dream about better things as the sun set. For a while I wouldn’t feel like I was alone. What was that one song we would play over and over? Something about “scars being souvenirs you never lose.” 

“What makes you sad?” she says, interrupting my thoughts. Is this really the question she is asking me? I feel disdain creeping in, and I am certain there must be a script for the first visit. I look at the clock, ticking like a time bomb, but only 20 minutes have passed. Maybe it would help if I lay down like they do in the movies.

“Life,” I mutter, and I can tell she recognizes the hint of sarcasm in my voice. I see something flash in her eyes and her back stiffens. I feel my own temperature rising, the match getting closer to the fuse on the powder keg inside of me. I fight my reaction because anger has been camouflage for my pain too often.

Life does make me sad, in a lot of different ways. I was at my kokum’s wake on the reserve a few years ago. On the second morning, I was sitting by the fire watching my two eight-year-old cousins chucking a basketball at each other. I called them over. I had to call a few times before they reluctantly came. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. They stared at me blankly and shrugged.

“What do you like to do in school?” They shrugged nonchalantly. “What about sports?” I pressed them further. I really wanted to know.

“Nah, we ain’t good enough,” is how they finally responded. I watched them take off, their answer leaving a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. What is happening to my people that our kids think they are not good enough by the age of eight? I close the door on this memory. 

This woman thinks she knows me. Suddenly the room is stifling hot. I feel a sheen of perspiration on my forehead. I shift my body on the sticky vinyl couch I am melting into. I blink quickly, but my eyelids feel like sandpaper. My throat is parched. I am teetering on the precipice of control. Images are flashing through my mind like a strobe light. I do not want this stranger asking me any more questions. I want to make her understand.

“Do you know how you can help me?” I am surprised by how strong my voice sounds. She looks at me warily, but I am not saying this for her benefit. I am saying it for mine. “When I walked in here today, you were so sure you knew what I needed. That’s history in a nutshell. Residential schools, the Indian Act, and treaties came about because somebody thought they knew what somebody else needed.” I am getting more animated. She looks confused. “I came here thinking I needed you to help me. But I was wrong.” I stop there. My heart is racing.

I think about my ancestors, those that walked this earth before me, and I wonder what they would tell me if I asked them why? Why do I have to walk through life wearing camouflage and carrying the sorrows of the past on my shoulders?

They would not answer me right away, giving time for my question to sink in until it became a part of them. Like putting on a new pair of moccasins and wearing them for awhile until the leather softened and took the unique shape of your foot. When they spoke their voices would be quiet so I would have to bend in close to hear them, the earthy scent that clung to their clothing soothing me. They would start by telling me about their own experiences, because my people teach what they know, and what they know is what they have lived. They would tell me that the past is not something to fear or be ashamed of. It just is.

These thoughts calm my racing heart and bring me back to the roots I tried to sever many times. Somehow, even though I hid them from the sunshine and refused to water them, they remained alive. I breathe in deeply and look at the woman across from me.

“I don’t need your help,” I tell her softly, as I step out of the layers of camouflage I have wrapped myself in over the years. “I just need you to see me.”

Amanda Wapass-Griffin is a 29-year-old woman of the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan. This essay was one of the 2010 winners of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge.

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