A Letter to My Seventh-Generation Descendant by Leah Myers
A twenty-seven-year-old member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe on the Olympic Peninsula writes a letter to her imaginary descendant. As Leah Myers explains in her author’s note, “Being told—expected—to plan for seven generations ahead, especially when I can’t even fathom having children, has been a struggle for me as a Native American and a woman. How do you prepare for someone who will live in a different world than you do, who will be seen by the world differently than you are?” The epistolary form was a source of “solace” to her, she says, because it allowed her to speak directly to her great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. Myers looks backward and forward in her letter. Seven generations before her birth, at a time when “no major trading posts had been built on the Olympic Peninsula yet,” her Native ancestor may have “never interacted with a White person in her lifetime,” yet already in “eight short generations a White person is what her descendant will legally be.” And yet she hopes her great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter will know her name, that she too will be a record keeper and storyteller, that she too will be “taught to plan for the future seven generations.” While Myers opens her letter, “You probably don’t exist,” the letter becomes her legacy for the future. —CRAFT
You probably don’t exist. I have never wanted to be a mother, and that will probably never change. Still, every time my tribe reaches out to those of us pursuing higher education, we are asked what we are doing to plan for the future seven generations; at least once a year my thoughts are brought back to you. In my mind each year when I conjure you, you look like what I imagine my daughter would look like. You have a healthy collection of freckles dusted across your high cheekbones, black hair that hangs in curls, bright blue eyes, and skin just a shade lighter than my own. You are beautiful. Then I have to remember that you would not be my daughter but someone much more removed. A generation is measured as an average of twenty-five years, so seven generations create a gap of 175 years. At that thought my image of you pales; your face loses the angles I know come from my Native blood, and your hair fades into a golden brown. You are still so beautiful, but you look nothing like me.
Many Native American tribes practice this seven-generation philosophy. For as long as our history has been told, we have planned to better the world decades down the line. In the past, this has dictated fishing and hunting regulations, relations with neighboring tribes, and keeping the fire of culture alive. Now the question is asked of those of us pursuing higher education. It is geared towards facilities and infrastructures, towards progress in every field. It is still a matter of sustainability. Instead of leaving enough fish we need to have enough resources—medical, welfare, and otherwise. Instead of keeping peace with neighboring tribes we throw our voices into larger politics, aiming for a global scale. My role in this is that of record keeper and storyteller. I am here to keep the fire of culture from burning out. It is an overwhelming task when I realize you might know nothing of it.
Seven generations from the year I was born, it will be 2168. Writing that out it doesn’t make it feel that far away, but I know it is. The world has changed so much in my lifetime, and that’s just twenty-seven years so far. I have no idea what the world you would be living in looks like, let alone how you would choose to make your place in it. My tribe has taught me to plan so far in advance, but all I can think about is dilution. By the time you are born, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe could be as much a myth as the sea-wolf or the thunderbird is to us now. I like to imagine you are one of the flames dancing to keep us relevant. Even then, when I imagine you making a drum or learning a song to welcome canoes home, it feels like a lie.
My cultural world is governed by percentages and numbers and blood, and I realize now that you may not understand. There are blood quantum laws in place; an archaic, controversial system that tells us whether or not we are Native American. These laws were originally designed and enforced by the federal government as a way of choking out tribal citizenship. It may be difficult for you to believe, but they are now upheld by tribes themselves because some tribal members fear that without them, the culture will die. With them, the race will die, but that is the unspoken truth of many Native communities. We have been told for so long that we are history, some of us have decided we would rather become it than let our culture thin out. Both argue for survival, simply in different ways.
I am one-eighth Jamestown S’Klallam, 12.5 percent. According to these blood quantum laws, this means that I will be the last member of my tribe in my line unless I choose to have children with another tribal member. However, I have never built toward a family-centered future, and there are only a handful of families within the tribe, one being my own. So if I ever did have a child, the chance that she would have enough Native blood is narrow. This means that, if you exist, you will likely have less than 0.1 percent S’Klallam blood in your veins.
When I think of my imaginary daughter, only one generation over this invisible line, I hate the idea of blood quantum. I could teach her every aspect of my Native American heritage, bring her to every event, teach her every story. She would still be legally White. It may give her and her family, and eventually you, more privilege, but it creates a break. The stories that mean so much to me are just stories to future generations, hers and yours. The drumbeat in my chest softens into a normal heartbeat in those who would come after me.
And so, though I hate to admit it, when I think of you, I understand the laws. I do not know how anyone with so little connection to my culture could claim to be a part of it. I disgust myself by drawing my own line and putting you on the other side of it, but it is my truth. Numbers should not matter to heritage, but I have been told for so long that they do; I can see no other way. Every day I carry my tribal member card with me. It is a federally recognized little square of plastic, a badge of being an Indian, for better or for worse. While that piece of plastic may not determine the contents of the soul, it has shaped the lens through which I see mine.
Seven generations before I was born, the year was 1818. There were some interactions between S’Klallam people and settlers, but no major trading posts had been built on the Olympic Peninsula yet. The treaty that would eventually be signed had not even been drafted. There is a good chance my ancestor seven generations ago never interacted with a White person in her lifetime, and in eight short generations a White person is what her descendant will legally be. I do not know anything about my ancestor, but I know she must have been taught to plan for me the way I am taught to plan for you. I often wonder if she ever considered that her tribal lineage would end in seven generations, but I know she probably could not bring herself to that conclusion. When she thought of me, she likely thought of someone as dark as her. She probably pictured a family teaching the traditional ways to fish, or a young woman learning beadwork and lore. I wish I knew her name. I hope that, if you are there, you will know mine.
That is my plan for the future seven generations. I will write our stories and records. Despite the daily pressures I face as a woman to create a family, it is not a role I am meant for. I may not be willing to give my body to the future in the form of offspring, but I can give my mind and my research. My paginated creations are likely the closest I will get to children, to legacy. Yet every time I write about my life, my tribe, or the history of Native Americans in general, I think about you.
I like to imagine you as the family record keeper, like me. I picture you viewing Facebook photos of my life the same way I organize printed photos of the lives of those who came before me. I picture you with a network of family, asking older relatives who each person is in a photo or video, and keeping all of the notes collected somewhere safe, maybe alongside the things I will write. I wonder if you see yourself in me as you rifle through the thousands of photos in the cloud, or if I am just another face in a collection to mention in passing. I hope that you are still taught to plan for the future seven generations, and that you try to keep the stories of our people from burning out, even if you do not hold the flame yourself. If you ever do exist, I wonder if you will read this and know I did my best to plan for you.
Some nights I think I want to take a step towards creating a future that has room for you. I talk to myself in excited tones about what my children would possibly be like and how I would raise them. When I have a partner, we sometimes talk about the perfect combination of our two selves and construct pretty scenarios around these little dreams. Our children would be smart and beautiful, and we would raise them to be kind and happy. However, the conversation, whether alone or with another, always ends up at the same place. I reiterate how I will probably never have children; we talk about how much time and energy and patience that requires. I love the image of you and all of my theoretical descendants in my mind, but I don’t know if I am the person who can give so much of themselves to another in reality. I want to travel, to be free to move and work as I please. I want to be able to devote myself to my art or to a cause without the worry that I am neglecting the person I am pressured by the world to love the most. Some call these selfish excuses to opt out of motherhood, but I do not need to explain myself to them. I just wanted you to know that I do think of you even knowing that, because of my decisions, you are probably not there.
LEAH MYERS is an Urban Native American writer with roots in Georgia, Arizona, and Washington. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. Her work has previously appeared in High Shelf Press, Newfound, GASHER, and elsewhere. Leah is a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and can be found on both Instagram and Twitter under @n8v_wordsmith, or at her website: leahmyers.com.
Featured image by Jachan Devol courtesy of Unsplash