By: Randi Rourke Barreiro
About a month ago, a client of Sky Woman Media pointed at me during a meeting and said, “I like the way she thinks.” I overheard someone gush to a client that experiencing her presentation was life-changing.
These words are seared into my memory because I’m learning that staying focused on the positive is essential to successful self-employment. When I get discouraged, I remember that someone somewhere values and appreciates my hard work. As a mother of three, I find myself repeating this out loud to no one in particular, especially during– and immediately after– toddler diaper mishaps.
The admin process is . . . meh. Too much paperwork, not enough time. Too many questions, not enough competent customer service. Too many bills, not enough cash. Way too much self-doubt, not nearly enough Cherry Garcia.
The next thing I know, there’s a Tribal dba certificate on my office wall, Articles of Incorporation in the file, clients are making referrals, and the company’s bank account has actual funds in it. I’m having a moment, feeling like Tom Hanks in Castaway: “I! Have! Made! Fire!” Then I look at the vast ocean before me, and refocus on my long-term goals.
Because a large part of strategic communication requires constant positive reinforcement, I’m blessed to be able to show friends and clients how valuable their efforts are: that their words are profound and deserve a wider audience, that their work could benefit all of Indian Country, that they can contribute to their community and world beyond our reservation borders, and that their knowledge has broad applications and great significance.
Back when I was an all-knowing teenager, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the career (or any) prospects my reservation had to offer. Our main drag was rife with gas stations and smokeshops. We fought to the death over casino gaming. Some of my middle school classmates were already going to rehab. Even our guidance counselors seemed satisfied with shooting for the middle.
I thought my ambition and dreams couldn’t fit in this stifling box. I decided to study Public Relations and Journalism in college, disciplines I thought would carry me far away rez life and the despair we were conditioned to believe existed because we were Indians and that’s the way Indians are. It just wears on you, and you wear it. I wanted to be light and carefree, to not carry the burden of others’ hopes and dreams on my shoulders.
Instead, I fell in love with a handsome, intelligent Mohawk man, practically the day after college graduation. He wanted to raise a family the Onkwehonweh way– surrounded by family and friends, around our language and ceremonies, on our own territory. Despite my stubborn will, I didn’t put up much of a fight. He had me at “Hey.”
So instead of heading further south to D.C., we headed back up north to Akwesasne. I have not regretted it a single day. Sure, sometimes I would see a campaign that any one of my colleagues could be leading and I wonder, would that have been my work in an alternate life? What would I be doing if I didn’t prioritize living an Onkwehonweh life? After all, this choice has been questioned and openly doubted by every educator, advisor, boss and bureaucrat I’ve encountered along the way.
It’s an irony that stays with me. I sought a path that I expected would lead me far away. Instead, I wound up back home with a different perspective. Our kids are healthy and happy, we’re at lacrosse six nights a week, and I’m within two miles from most of my family. Plus– what the what? I’m working in my chosen field.
I remember being electrified by a video of the indomitable spirit Ingrid Washinawatuk El-Issa, the late Menominee activist, wife and mother. A visual review of her tremendous work on behalf of indigenous peoples concluded with a snapshot of her smiling face. Then, her voice: “How did I get here? I’m just a girl from the rez.”
Indeed. Onkwehonwehneha– all that makes us Onkwehonweh– is a deep source of power and strength. We’re made to believe that it’s not, that’s it’s just a small basket of insignificant stuff that won’t help us if we keep carrying it. Like nearly everything else they tell us about us, the opposite is true. The burden is really a blessing.
I once questioned whether it was unusual to be so passionate about work that influences cultural continuity, restores the sacredness of women and girls, and raises awareness of our inherent rights. Now I feel there is no other way to be. I have made fire! The best thing to do is keep it going.