Rising Up – Reclaiming My Power
I was in my second year of college when an old friend reached out to me. Not having seen him since middle school, I had no idea who he had become, what his interests were, or what he did for fun. Immediately, I said “yes” when he asked for a date. Who knew? Maybe we’d hit it off; maybe nothing would come of it at all.
I can still remember my slight panic when I heard his knock at the door, a giddy sense of self I hadn’t felt in a long time. Once we said our hello’s and began walking to his car, I felt an odd feeling, unbalanced almost. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him checking out my backside. Half embarrassed and admittedly half flattered, I laughed it off and gave him a playful nudge. I always thought he was cute.
Within days we were inseparable, spending every moment together, despite my taking on a full course load that semester. Constant calls and texts kept us close when I headed home at night and were there when I woke up in the morning. He seemed perfect; everything I imagined he would be. By our third date, I was flattered when he said he loved me, a rush I’d never experienced before. I said it back to keep pace, but I wasn’t sure how I really felt inside.
After “I love you,” I found it hard to concentrate on anything else. I can look back now and say our co-dependent relationship meant he latched onto my insecurities and constantly reminded me how much he needed me. I built him back up whenever he tore himself down, which seemed like all the time. I remember one-by-one my friends sending texts telling me that they missed me and asking if I was okay.
“Where have you been?”
“I never see you anymore.”
“You two are together ALL the time.”
Consumed by our love, I started flaking out on class projects and skipping assignments left and right, far from my normal overachieving, straight-A behavior. My classmates weren’t shy in letting me know.
“You’re never here.”
“We moved on without you.”
“Are you going to do your part or not?”
I could hear myself making excuses to everyone, but the truth was I was deep in love…or so I thought. Whatever this feeling was, I didn’t want to let it go.
About a month in, I decided to tell my parents I was dating someone special, potentially “‘the one.” My mom wasn’t sure what to make of it, saying, “Well, if that’s what you want.” My dad said simply, “Just be good to one another.” In fact, it was the first time I had ever really talked to my parents about dating or relationships in general. Even then, I think my inner voice was telling me, “Something is going on.”
In magazines and on TV, we are inundated with messages of women’s empowerment, female strength and self-love – that you deserve respect and that you should expect it from the guys you’re dating, too. But when you’re in the thick of love’s fog and your new boyfriend pinches your breasts or butt, you don’t always react how you think you would.
Each time it happened, a part of me would die inside. Each time it happened, I’d push his hand away and let out a meek, “Stop.” It didn’t. Each time it happened, I let it slide.
There were other moments when my boyfriend made comments about the color of my skin. “I always wanted a brown girl,” he’d tell me. I remember one night, cuddling with him in the backseat of my car, when he leaned over and whispered, “You make me feel like John Smith.” I let out a laugh – “You can’t be serious!” He smiled a wry smile.
I wriggled out from under his hold and sat up straight as an arrow. As a woman, I didn’t like that smile. As an indigenous woman, something inside felt very wrong.
Ask almost any Native person, and they’ll tell you that John Smith is a traumatic symbol of the colonization our indigenous people have undergone. Most people know his story because of Pocahontas, whose story has been manipulated into a lover’s fairytale, romanticized as a cover for her rape and abduction. But while Pocahontas’ story is memorialized, the legacy of violence and terror against Native women continues today. In this way, Pocahontas’ experience is the lived experience of many Native women across the country.
Nationally, the rates of physical and sexual violence against Native American women are alarmingly grotesque, where more than four in five women have experienced violence in their lifetime. At least half have experienced sexual violence, and nearly 80 percent of all violence perpetrated against Native women is committed by men who are non-Indian.
Pocahontas is more than a Disney princess – she is our ancestor, our relative. As a teenager, Pocahontas was ripped away from her community and culture, so it’s not hard to imagine why my boyfriend’s reference to John Smith didn’t exactly feel romantic at all.
After a three-month whirlwind, I began to realize that the past three months of life, like the blink of an eye, were now gone. My boyfriend had consumed every moment of my time. One night, I tried telling him that something was wrong, that everything was moving too fast and it was too much, too soon. The pressure was on.
By now, he was rethinking a decision to go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a two-year experience that I couldn’t bear to see him miss out on. He began rationalizing that now that he had found me, “What was the point?” To him, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Mormon because we would be married soon.
He wouldn’t let go.
I knew I had to end it, another realization that couldn’t have happened soon enough. My spirit and the Creator were telling me I couldn’t handle the intensity any longer.
Today, my father’s words – “just be good to one another” – are a constant echo in my life, a saying that is as traditional as it gets. It took some time for me to realize my relationship was an unhealthy one. I was suffocating and overwhelmed, manipulated into thinking I was responsible for saving him. The truth is that he was depressed and insecure.
I struggle to think what if I hadn’t stepped away from him: where would I be now? I didn’t see the red flags then, but they were there all along: making me feel guilty for spending time with anyone else, touching me in sexual ways I did not want, the non-stop texting and calling…
It’s impossible to know what could have been. What I do know is that I’ve found my healing. My healing comes from telling stories, including my own. I have found healing in being happy. I chose to free myself for all the good that is to come.
I am a believer in the power and strength of our stories. By sharing our pain, our grief, our trauma, I believe we can honor the past as well as live and thrive. Through our stories, we reclaim that power that was taken from us for our future and for those who come after us.
I don’t try to compare my experience to anyone else’s, but every good and bad experience has led me to where I am now. Some might question why I choose not to name my perpetrator. I don’t think I need to: He knows what he did.
Not everyone is comfortable with speaking out, but I hope my story at least lets someone know they are not alone. You don’t owe anyone your story. When you are ready, I hope you know that it’s okay to reach out.
Mallory Black is Diné (Navajo) and the Communications Manager for the StrongHearts Native Helpline, the first national crisis line for Native Americans experiencing domestic violence and dating violence. She is of the Bitter Water Clan, born for the Near to the Water Clan. She is getting married in May 2018.
If you are being hurt in your relationship, call the StrongHearts Native Helpline (1-844-7NATIVE), available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CST, seven days a week. It’s free, safe and confidential. Callers reaching out after hours may connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline by selecting option 1.