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What Their Spirits Know

Elaina Erola's "What Their Spirits Know" is the winner of the Maria Spiridonova Remembered Writing Contest. She is a watercolorist, attorney, and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. She is currently a candidate for the L.L.M. program at Lewis & Clark, for Environmental Law. Her work has been shortlisted in the Fox Paw literary writing contest, as well as qualified as a finalist for the 2020 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and the 2021 San Francisco Writers Conference Contest. Her law review article “Legal Obstacles in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Crisis,” was published in issue two of the Texas Tech Law Review in April 2022 and she received the 2023 Redwood Award in Creative Non Fiction from Toyon Literary Magazine at Cal Poly Humboldt.

When settlers first made contact with the Blackfeet, it was the beginning of the misinterpretation of our women. It was the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806 that made the first written records of our people and our ways. It was Christianity that first came to tell us we were wrong. But generations later, they cannot beat it out of us. We know the truth. We know who we are.

The thought that women are just sexual things, that does not belong to us. That is Western. That is from the white man. The idea that our bodies are used to house their seed, their children, has never belonged to us. Western society continues to try to impress this concept on us. They create words like “squaw” to simultaneously remind us that we are worthless, that our sex belongs to them, that we are property.

Like women in many Native American tribes, the Blackfeet women are sacred. We are the keepers of lives and all knowledge. We were teachers first, tasked with ensuring the old ways made it to the next generation. We owned our homes and knew nothing of subordination. We were the center of our homes and our way of being. We were highly respected spiritual leaders. But more than that, we had the power of choice, and agency to control our own destinies. We could choose. We could choose to stay home and be homemakers, or we could be warriors.

If a woman chose to go to war with the men, her core value was still education, just a new kind of education. We would learn to hunt the buffalo. We learned the aggression of warriors that sent the first Lewis and Clark scout back to his party, scalped and tied to his horse. We would learn to eat hearts from the chests of our enemies.

In my own life, I wander between these paradigms. What I hear are the voices that tell me I do not fit in. They are angry and confused when I do not bend. You should want to be a mother, they say. They want me to be wifely. Stop it with the other men. Stop it with the other women. This should be enough for you. You go in this box. The box feels like my ancestor’s boarding school. Sit at this desk. Speak English. Don’t speak your native language. Cut your hair.

What I feel are my ancestors in my bones that keep them rigid. Even when I want to, they will not let me bend to get in the box. The ghosts of my family will not let me. They remind me that we are not built for a life of service to men but for our people. I learn that my spirit is a horse that cannot be broken. The spirits call me strong-willed and free.

Something will always cede eventually. I break them or myself instead. The box they put me in breaks too. It is always when the box breaks that is the most frightening. This is when I wake up in the emergency room. This is when I end up in strange cities. This is when I am arrested. It is clear that I will stop at nothing to run away from boarding school.

There are those who will argue this is not my story to tell. That the stories of the others in my ether doesn’t mean I can let them to the surface, that I shouldn’t let the world know what happened to me or them. But anyone else who would tell this story is dead.


Marsha was always around. She was a few years older than me, heavier, and meaner. If I tried to follow her around, she would sit on me. She is a permanent ghost in my memory. If my mother and I went to visit my Auntie, Marsha was usually around. The loops of her thumbprints live in the city’s bones.

Even though I lived in the woods, in the rural, dirty parts of Washington made of logging dander and mud, my cousins were all very much “Urban Indians.” These Indians were different from the kind of Indians I would eventually go to work for, who were indigenous people that had connections to their land and their ancestral territory.

No. We are Indians who smudge sweetgrass in our apartments and worry about setting off the fire alarms. We are Indians who don’t ride our horses bareback, but city buses to the county Human Services office. We are not close to our ceremonial grounds, we heal in an overcrowded waiting room in an Indian Health Services office. We are no longer standing in moccasins, but standing on concrete and asphalt.

In 1956, the United States implemented the Indian Relocation Act, intending to encourage Native Americans to leave their reservations, acquire vocational skills, and assimilate. It feels like every move the government makes is to assimilate us. Erase our Indian ways. Tame us. Break us.

I can’t say the government successfully tricked us since this would remove the power of choice from all my relatives. If they chose to leave Chemawa Indian Boarding (Originally the Forest Grove Indian Industrial and Training School in Oregon) and move into the city to explore employment, that was the right choice. But it is the goal of the United States government as well. Either way, that’s where we ended up. My Grandfather is in the San Francisco Bay Area. My Great aunt in Seattle. If the government’s goal was to successfully assimilate us into this new world, the methods failed my oldest great-aunt, Leora, and she died too young.

Marsha was Auntie’s granddaughter, my great aunt, Leoda, who we visited in Seattle. I loved that Auntie lived in an apartment building. She lived in many different apartment buildings, bringing her feathers, pottery, and blankets on each move that I never saw. I had no idea what it was to move homes and I thought it was magic the way she was able to materialize in new housing every few years. My favorite apartment building was the one with the pool.

In the summers, the weather was always warmer in Seattle than out on the coast. As my mother and I would drive closer and closer, the heat of the day would move in through the car windows and hold me. I remember Auntie’s apartment building was across the street from a Jack in the Box. I remember this because I had never seen one before. I remember this because this particular Jack in the Box was one of 73 restaurants that had sickened and killed children in an E. coli breakout a few years before in 1992.

I remember Auntie’s apartment had cartoons I could watch while Mom and Auntie visited. I remember leaning against the balcony’s wrought iron railing of her second-story apartment. I remember the sight of her pool from that balcony laid out before me like a magic carpet. When it was hot, kids jumped in and out of that cool water in neon-colored bathing suits, as was the style in the nineties. I was allowed to play if Marsha agreed to go with me and watch me. Marsha never wanted to go down to the pool, and if she did she tried to lose me as quickly as possible.

Then one summer when we arrived, Auntie told us to be quiet. The blinds were drawn across her sliding glass door, blocking the afternoon light but not the heat. Under the escaping beams that stretched across the floor, nestled two lumps. One was Marsha. The other was her new sister Melissa. I had a lot of questions, which were hard to get answered in the required whispers.

I had never seen anyone’s grown sister just appear before. Melissa was three years older than me, and a few years younger than Marsha. We were all around 9, 12 and 14 at that time. And maybe because of that, Melissa and I were a little closer. I was told that up until then, Melissa had been with her dad, and I didn’t know what that meant. But it didn’t matter. I was so happy to have an ally.

The next few years, Melissa and I would try to see each other as often as possible when I visited. She was full of useful information. She taught me how to shave my legs when I was 10. I was so proud to be educated in the kind of adult ways that my friends were not, even coveting my own special pink razor. There were even a couple of summers when Melissa would come stay with me in the country for a week. The first year was successful. We took her to the beach. We wandered around the ranch. We played in the woods.

The second year she came to stay with me was different. There was a palpable divide between us by then. She was 14 and missed the city the entire week. She asked me if there was a club we could go to, or boys we could call. At 12, I didn’t have much to offer her, just a frolic in the same Washington forest that had been there the year before. I couldn’t understand what had changed so monumentally, and why this same forest that had provided us so much joy the year before was no longer adequate. Melissa was full of misinformation that year as well, explaining to me that she had heard you’ll know when you get your period for the first time because you’ll taste blood in your mouth. Explaining that I would never get a boyfriend until I at least grew breasts, and I couldn’t grow them without a period.

When Mom and I would go visit Auntie alone or we went to visit other relatives in Seattle, I would hear them talking about Marsha and jail. She was always back in jail, like that was the place she was destined to be and her time outside of it was the mistake. As far as I knew, you had to do something really bad to go to jail and I struggled to imagine what kind of decisions I would need to make to end up there.

I heard a couple of things. I heard Marsha got arrested for stealing. I heard she got arrested for drugs. I heard she was in a gang, and the family couldn’t get her away from them. I think Marsha’s father was Mexican and I think her gang was Mexican. But no one ever talked directly to me about it.

Melissa was a little sweeter. She didn’t have the hardness in her that Marsha did. But I don’t think that kept her out of jail, or out of trouble. I think it just made it harder for her to run the streets with her sister. Anyone who met Marsha understood that she could handle herself. She was tough, she knew how to fight, and she wasn’t afraid of anyone. Melissa didn’t give that impression. I was like Melissa in that way, and, as I would find out in my own time, that meant someone would have taken her under their wing fast.

The girls were put on birth control young. Both of them were receiving the Depo-Provera shot. It seemed unspoken that because they were having sex at such an immature age, they weren’t responsible enough to take a pill every day and therefore they had to be brought into the clinic and injected like livestock. I remember feeling offended on their behalf, but also like my opinion didn’t count because I was not a victim of my own uncontrollable sexual desires. Yet.

By the time the girls were in high school, they weren’t really around much. They may or may not have dropped out. I was still in touch with them though. It wasn’t summer, but I recall visiting Auntie over the weekend anyway. Maybe we drove up on a Friday after school because it was just barely evening by the time we got to the apartment and the girls were there. They were in Auntie’s bedroom, watching MTV. The bedroom reeked of cigarettes but I thought it was because Auntie smoked in her apartment. I remember Melissa’s hair was long and stick-straight by then. She was always skinny but she fit her part now. She had a real 90s gang vibe to her, with a clean white T-shirt that was too big for her. Marsha’s hair was always short and curly, but now the curls were slicked and pasted to the sides of her face against her dark brown skin. Neither of them seemed annoyed by me anymore and invited me into the bedroom to come talk to them.

They sat me on the bed as they got up and moved to the window. They slid it wide open, a loud scraping noise escaping as it ran along the


“You got a boyfriend yet?” Marsha asked me. She threw her weight into the question a little bit, but Marsha had a gentle way of speaking. Even when she was fighting with her mother or her grandmother or her sister. She always seemed to know she was safe with her family. And she always seemed to speak over the tip of her nose so that her eyes were relaxed when she looked at you. Like maybe she was stoned. Which she may have been, more times than my young mind picked up on.

I froze at her question. “No,” I said. “Do you?”

Marsha walked over to Auntie’s dresser and pulled a pack of menthols out of her purse. She pulled one out and stuck it in her mouth, nodding slowly. All of Marsha’s movements were gentle and made at her own pace. No one could make her do something she didn’t want to do.

“I have a boyfriend,” she said. I looked over at Melissa. “She wants one,” said Marsha, answering my unasked question.

Melissa looked at me coyly. She was always slightly smiling, but never really had anything to say. I think she was happy to let Marsha do the talking for her most of the time. Marsha had tossed the pack of cigarettes onto the bed and Melissa reached for them now. She pulled out a long white cylinder and went to the window.

“He’s Mexican,” Marsha continued. A wide smile spread over her face and she made a noise like deliciousness. “I love Mexicans,” she said.

“Really?” I asked, with elevated concern. I was too young to consider being attracted to a person for their ethnicity. Too young to consider that I might be lusted after for mine. I also didn’t know that Mexican was already in the girl’s bloodline. I had never met their fathers, or if I did, it was probably at one of the family parties.

There were a lot of parties when we were younger, at the cousins or the cousins of cousins. There was always food and beer and the adults talking until the sun came up again. There were lots of people and times when we got to go to the video store, a short walk from the backyard. The young ones in a group with dollar bills in hand, Marsha the oldest, in charge of us. Other times during these parties, the kids fell asleep on top of each other. I remember my mother was extraordinarily happy, home with her cousins and her family. I can’t remember another time in my life so complete where I had everything I could possibly need or want and I was safe. Marsha’s father had to have been at one of those parties. But I can’t recall.

The girls continued to suck on their menthols and watch me. I noticed for the first time that there were cigarette burns on the bedspread. They were perfect circles, brown and black at the edges where they had melted the plastic of the polyester. “Do you want a boyfriend?” Melissa asked me. I nodded. I did.


The next time I saw Marsha and Melissa I was thirteen. The girls didn’t spend their time with Auntie anymore. They were teenagers, sovereigns. They chose their friends. They chose their meals. They got into cars with persons of their choosing. And I was still a child.

My mother wanted to visit Marsha and Melissa’s mother, Kayle. Kayle had a new apartment in downtown Seattle. This is the only time I can remember seeing Kayle in her own home. My time with her was always spent in other spaces, other homes. She was at her sister Georgia’s house or her sister Leora's. She was never in a permanent space when I knew her, she belonged to the circumstances that would have her always, except this one time when I saw her belong to herself.

I remember Kayle was so happy that evening. She was happy to see my mother and she was happy to see me. She had a broad gregarious spirit that could take over a room if she let it. I had seen her mean. I knew she would fight with any one of her sisters, cousins, or her brother. She was capable of attacking any member of the family; although,

I never knew why there was so much conflict. As an only child, I didn’t understand the liberty she took with those closest to her.

There was none of that on this night: only joy, and the warm light and warm beer. Marsha and Melissa were home with their mother in what was feeling like a rarity. My mother settled in across from Kayle at a Formica dining table. Marsha and Melissa pulled me into the back of the apartment to their quarters.

Melissa was so impossibly tall by then. She was maybe 5’9 or 5’11 and still so skinny. She was dressed in all white this time. A white bandana with black accents was tied across her forehead, and I remember thinking that her face had the edges to make it suit her. When I became a teenager, I tried this look but it didn’t make me look tough or dangerous. It made me look like a maid.

The girls shared a bedroom and I sat on Melissa’s twin bed with her, while Marsha paced around the room. Her bed was covered in clothes like she hadn’t been there in weeks. She was dressing for something and sucking on the long white menthols. I noticed a life-sized cut out of Snoop Dogg, tall and skinny like Melissa, in the corner of the tiny room. He wore white as well and sat behind the table where Marsha dabbed on some makeup. The girls were on their way out for the evening. Melissa had a boyfriend by then and she told me about him and the birth control implant in her arm. I told her I still wasn’t seeing anyone.

Marsha jumped right into the conversation when we started talking about boys. She was seeing a different guy now but the girls were on their way to see them. They told me about the other boys in their gang: the funny ones, the cute ones, the dangerous ones. But I remember they were both so happy, glowing even. I remember the bright lighting in that room and how I couldn’t wait to have an apartment to myself one day. I remember a box of maxi pads on the floor by the bed. I remember Melissa on her bed with me, confiding all the things about her new life with a boyfriend. I remember thinking it was the happiest I’d ever seen her. I even remember when we had to leave and how disappointed I was. What I do not remember, were the last words she said to me. I hope they were I love you.


On August 04, 2001, Melissa was killed, just before midnight. It was my mother’s birthday. She was just seventeen years old. She could have never known how precious her life was, what it would do to us to lose her, or the way the grief that wrapped itself around my family would change us forever.

There’s a haze surrounding the many details that were given to me, what I forgot, what I was told to forget, and the answers to all of my questions. She was in a car, she was not the driver. There were three other people in the car. Maybe all of them were minors. Maybe two of them were. If there was anything in the paper they would have omitted her name, but it is highly likely there wasn’t. Another carful of disappeared teenagers wouldn’t have made the news in Seattle.

It's likely they were high. Or drunk. Or high and drunk. It’s possible they had all previously been arrested or served time in jail. I know nothing of the others. I’ll never know their names. I’ll never know where they were headed. I don’t know if they crashed into another car or if their driver took the passenger’s lives out all by himself. What I know is that she wasn’t there anymore.

The family had opted for a wake, the funeral to follow that Saturday. I knew nothing of wakes. We weren’t Catholic or Jewish, but I think what my family meant when they said they wanted a wake, was that everything was halted in the blackness. That time stood still in those ninety-degree summer days, while our spirits froze to our hearts. We couldn’t have done anything else if we wanted to. So we grieved.

A Blackfeet funeral is a strange wind. There’s less propriety than a Christian funeral. There’s less worry about upsetting tradition or feelings. Generally, it’s a joyous event, because our laughter always lives deep inside our bellies and cannot be killed. My family’s funerals were celebrations of life before celebrations of life were a thing. Decades ago, we buried our dead above ground so they could be closer to the spirit world. In Seattle, we would rent big halls, buy lots of black velvet, and tell stories until the tears were a permanent part of us.

Melissa’s funeral couldn’t hold that. Her young life was not full, so most of her stories had not been born. Without the stories to tell, it was difficult to laugh. We still managed a little, but this is when the grief began to kill us.

My mother and I arrived at the funeral home on Saturday, leaving our luggage in the car. Melissa’s service was really the first one I can remember on my mother’s side. My mother’s father and aunt had suffered at the hands of a Catholic indoctrination at the boarding school, but we felt far from religious. Melissa's service was held at a funeral hall, which I was unfamiliar with because I was used to churches on my father’s side.

The home had two halves, so two funerals could occur simultaneously. The other family there that day was Korean. I can remember the way we stood across the parking lot from each other and stared. Their lighter skin against a sea of red clothing. Our darker skin in a sea of black. Neither language was understood well enough by the other to reach across the hottest day of the year. Maybe someone saw the other and wondered why we were clinging to our costumes, our ceremony at a time like this. Yet, there was mutual respect as we nodded at each other entering the hall. The one thing that did translate was the song of death we both heard.

I was fourteen that summer, and I did have a boyfriend. After the service, we returned to my cousin’s house. She had since moved out of the large white house that had once held the family gatherings of my childhood, but her newer home served the same purpose. That day, it was essential for the mourners. Some of our family members came back from the reservation in Montana. Some of them came back from Spokane, Washington. My grandfather came all the way up from California. It was the last time that would feel like those large gatherings of my childhood that were so essential to my family.

The family’s children hadn’t attended Melissa's service but had been left in the backyard to run in bathing suits or just naked. My age put me halfway between my youngest cousin of the next generation, and my next youngest cousin of my generation. To put it another way, I was the youngest family member who knew to be sad. It was difficult to find my place.

The Aunties gathered their beer and Marlboro Lights at a table under an awning, avoiding the afternoon sun. Our babies chased each other in and out of the pool, screaming as loud as their lungs would let them. They didn’t need me to watch them but I remembered my own summer swims with my older cousins, and I got in the pool with them anyway.

I spent the last daylight hours with them until the porch light came on, and then I too started drinking beer. I drank beer until everyone was satiated enough not to realize I was drinking screwdrivers, and then I spent most of the night listening. I listened to the cousins and the Aunties tell stories all night. I learned about where they had been living, what their expectations for their life had been, and what had broken their hearts. Some of their stories inspired laughter. But it was not Melissa’s laughter, it was not about her. It was just the offerings we could bring her to fill what she did not have time to.

That night I learned that Marsha was pregnant with her first baby and that it was a girl to be called Melissa. This is an old salve in our family. When Auntie’s sister Leora had passed so young, Leoda had named her youngest daughter after her sister. It felt like our family was working to challenge death. To keep the names of our loved ones on the new faces of our babes, faster than they could be taken from us. But the Grandfather time kept moving forward, and he will ultimately decide if we won the battle or not.

A few years later, Kayle’s sadness overtook her and she passed without ceremony. By the time her life ended, it was impossible to say if it was an accident or not. When a soul is so heavy with grief that the life is lived next to death, no one can really speak as to whether or not she wanted to stay. All I can tell you is that she was just gone.

After that, Marsha went to join her mother and her sister.

The last time I saw her, the family was visiting Spokane. Not the whole family of course, not like Melissa’s funeral. But my mother, and her cousins. Young Melissa was just a baby, barely a year old. But I remember it was August again, and the home we stayed at offered sweeping views of the Columbia River rushing by in the valley below us. And there was a pool. I had never seen Marsha happier than the time she brought her baby into the water with her, their glee matching.


I think about the girls a lot, especially Melissa. I didn’t have the same struggles as they did. I went to high school and graduated with scholarships, but they never got to see it. I played sports. I got a driver's license, and my parents gave me a vehicle. And I had boyfriends. I always had boyfriends, but I never had anything more than that.

I wonder if Marsha and Melissa knew that they had an inherent choice, that they could choose to be warriors. I wonder if they did choose to be warriors and if the gangs and bloodshed were just part of their war. If they died with honor. Or if like me, they found their value under the hands of men, told this was where they belonged now. I wonder if their battle between what they were told they had to be, and what their genetics told them they were, is what killed them.

The place for Native American women is treacherous. We no longer live on the battlefield fighting our enemies, but it is also impossible to tell ourselves we are not the keepers of knowledge, the bringers of life, the sacred roots. This rebellion of ours, we continue to lose it in Western society. Our bodies continue to disappear, sometimes at the hands of man and sometimes by our own when the grief of this siege becomes too much to bear.

The conflict has already thinned my family, and time continues to take our elders. I wonder how long I can survive it, where I fit in these generations—until I hear the ghosts.



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