Game Changer

As we sat on the bus that morning, no one knew that the words spoken at that moment in time would ring throughout the rest of my life.

"I'm never going to be like him.."

"Me neither..."

"We can be better.."

"We don't need them, we got each other.."

This conversation was followed by an agreement and promise of a brighter future that faltered with a child's hope.

No one knew that I would be alone, their voices stirring up a fire inside me that comes and goes as a memory like the ebbing of the tide. No one knew that one of my friends would die of a drug overdose, my best friend would become a stranger, addicted to chasing a high, two more in and out of treatment, and my other friend dropping out of school to look after his younger brothers while his parents partied and drank away his education.

No one knew that our agreement and promise would be our demise as gangs would use that to their advantage as a label to take us in as a unit to "stand strong together" against a racist society just beyond the reservation "border" and introduce us to the harsh reality of the justice system and some of the corrupt cops that came with it.

Looking back on it now, I realize its weight once again and how long it's been hanging on my spirit. Without knowing it, the very patterns we were fighting had become our own.

Our fathers, the men in our society-men of a broken society who had given up hope long ago; men who were not there and if they were, took that loss of hope out on their family. Finding their strength in their own selfishness, these were the ones we spoke about that morning. To be a man according to them was to not care, to be "strong" and not cry when things are hard, because "That's the way things are...."

If questioned you were more likely to receive a beating than receive a reason.

As I sit here looking at the palm trees in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, I realize that my situation was not quarantined in my little corner of the woods in the North. This epidemic has no bounds when it comes to distance and I could see its effects here in Mexico as well. This "machismo" lifestyle reflected some of the same behavior thousands of miles away. An epidemic of the MANequins contaminating everything.

Who are we as men? What are we as men and WHEN will we be a "MAN" in society's eye?

Even now I can feel the weight of those questions and if I was to take to the magnifying glass, I could very easily criticize myself of where I don't meet the par of this man and who or what he is. What he says goes, he doesn't cry, everybody loves him and if you don't you better get out of his way. He seeks his personal success and preaches personal success to those he considers under him. His family is his accomplishment and his wife is a trophy that belongs to him and his house. He keeps to himself because he doesn't need anyone else and "knows" his way through life even when he's lost, never asking questions and NEVER asking for help!

Nah... that ain't me. It wasn't the way things started for my brothers either.

I know as children you have a different mindset. You want the best for each other, the best life, you care about everybody and if you were anything like me, curiosity led to asking questions all the time about every little thing.

But what is it that has made me different? Was it luck? I disagree because that would be dooming my friends who didn't get the upper toss of the coin. Was it resolve? Maybe. But I was just like my brothers on the Rez. We thought alike, dreamed alike, and our mannerisms were the same as we walked out life. Was it just that there were people there for me? There were the same people on the Rez for them that were there for me. I believe that in the end, as it is in all things, that it was just a simple CHOICE.

Choice is the one thing that I believe we all have that can be a game changer. Choice puts us on an equal playing field. It's the one thing that God gives us to allow us some minimal control over what happens in our life. It makes sense that He gave it to us.

NOBODY wants to have someone love him or her because they were MADE to. They want to be loved because someone CHOSE to. In that same way, I chose to be different, do different. I chose not to give in to my father's image and where I fell to my own transgressions, I chose to learn from them. I'm not the only one.

My best friend today, the one I had mentioned earlier who dropped out of school to care for his brothers? Today he is a father. He chose to be a stay-at-home dad and watch his young daughter grow, work when he can to help his family get ahead, and support his future wife, giving her time and the opportunity to complete her education.

I'm smiling because as the tree line is reflected in the water, I see Indigenous men here reflect the waters of those in the North. I've watched Josue play with his children, work hard every day, and keep a smile on his face.

Walking in the streets I've seen young fathers walking with their children. I've talked to artists, men in art and photography who find beauty in the ordinary. In all of this I find blessings and hope.

Men, Man, these terms are changing into what I believe they should have been in the first place. Brother, teacher, husband, father, son and uncle.

It's around the same time now as it was that morning...the sun peering into the bus window, children laughing, and me and my friends, hugging and making a promise that would change my life forever. I remember them, and I will stay true to that promise to break the chain. I thank them every day for adding fuel behind that fire.

Sean Stands Good Soukkala is a registered member of the Mille Lacs Reservation in northern Minnesota. Currently a student at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Sean spent two summers in Spain working at L'Arcada, a camp for Spaniard children and teens, teaching and representing his people to these youth. He also spent a college semester in Mexico.

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