Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

13. Inez Peterson, "Missing You"

Inez Peterson, “Missing You,” in Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America, ed. Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

“There is no confession for I have not sinned.” This sentence begins Inez Petersen’s much taught and anthologized autobiographical account, “Missing You.” Petersen says, “I am from a generation where children were taken away, placed in foster care, and, in many cases, never lived with their mothers again. For me, the very act of removal prompted an intense desire to remember, and later record” (Petersen 1997:104).

Inez Petersen’s story is an echo of other great stories and records of Indian displacement. In D'Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded, the indication that a conscripted child can resist is illustrated by a sign the young Indian boy, Archilde, sees in the sky. At his Indian school, a sun-lit cloud takes on the shape of a burning cross. The children and the teachers are amazed, terrified by the sign, but as they kneel before the apparition, certain that the world is about to end, Archilde raises his head to watch as the cloud begins to evaporate, until “the entire structure became woolly, leaving here and there, bits of mist touched by the red hues of the evening sun. That was all.”

It was not the disappearance of the threatening symbol which freed him from the priest’s dark mood, but something else. At the very instant that the cross seemed to burn most brightly, a bird flew across it. Actually, the bird was much lower, but it appeared almost to touch the cloud. It flew past and returned several times before finally disappearing—and what seized Archilde’s imagination was the bird’s unconcernedness. It recognized no ‘Sign.’ His spirit lightened. He felt himself fly with the bird. When he looked at the priest again he saw only darkness and heaviness of spirit. He would never feel at ease around the prefect after that; and he would never fear him. (McNickle 1978:102-103)

The same certainty that no authority but her tribe and family can rule her history abounds in Petersen’s work. Her Indian mother and grandmothers, who had run away from Indian schools, remembered punishments for speaking in their own tongue, remembered welts earned for running away to home. But Petersen, like so many other Indian children, had much to endure herself. Her account here details the fracturing that eventually results in Petersen’s determination to love all she can, to promise herself that she will never forget. Her writing is a testament to what can remain after fierce assault.

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