I have this reoccurring dream where I make it to the gates of Heaven and the Gatekeeper stops and asks me, “Who are you, my brother?” I could answer this quickly by telling him my name, but my roots beg me to tell a story.
So I tell him that when I was a little boy, my father gave me a toy horse from his childhood. He came into my room and said, “Son, pet the horse’s mane.” I asked him, “Why?”
“My trees need it to rain.”
My father is a farmer. Each season he watches and prays over his pecan trees so they may be lifted high enough to receive the sunlight, yet humbled enough to accept the rainfall. He has always had this strange belief that if you trick a child into believing they have control over something, they will eventually believe it enough to actually control it. “The power of the human mind,” he says. Each time the ground became dry, I ran to my bedroom and picked up that horse. Call me farmer; for the first eight years of my life, I believed I controlled the skies.
At nine years old, I sat inside an old church house alongside my relatives. It was a recovering meth addict, he who said “It is the power of God that took me from the depths of hell.” I knew that if I lifted these hands I could feel it; no testimony to my name, but the Spirit will move if you let it; call me preacher; I sat long enough in the pew to finally make it to the pulpit.
If you excavate my foundation deep enough, you will find this makeup has not always been planned. My ancestors improvised so these heartbeats could have meaning. You see, Gatekeeper, it is the carpenters who lay the cornerstones of a house. It was my grandfather who built me up like the houses he framed in the span of a day. He could see a man walking down the road with a book in hand, he said this man would save the church. Call me carpenter, cause these hands will callous and wrinkle in the time it takes to rebuild broken pews and pulpits; these shoulders will slump when carrying the weight of this congregation.
The Gatekeeper stares into my eyes and asks “What tribe sent you?”
Chahta hattak sia hoke. I am a Choctaw man.
In the mornings I am held together by the fabric of a snakeskin, my diamonds link together along my limbs and stretch around my back — Call me rattlesnake, cause I slither through the gardens of my ancestors, hunting the generations of enemies that preyed on my family; take this venom to kill off the poverty, murder, and depression that keeps me aching.
The gatekeeper looks at me, “What is it you are looking for?” It was the third night of a week-long stay in a mental hospital when I cried out, “I am looking for the master key! The one that opens the pathway to happiness, the one that is sung about; it relieves the soul of all burdens; it unlocks all doors to the Kingdom; it is the answer to all my questions. The master key is what I seek.” The last thing the gatekeeper asks me is the simplest question there is, “What do they call you?” My name is Preston Bradley Wells.
The doctors told me I have mania that will take me to the heavens, but luckily my head was not in the clouds when my grandmother spoke in hallelujahs instead of English; I am blessed that my ears were listening when my aunts talked to their God in tongues that some say hiss like snakes; I am a carpenter and preacher because I sat in the pew until my grandfather was done with his sermon.
Weak enough to step down from the pulpit, so my aunt could lay her hands on me and tell me to remember:
Remember that I, Preston Wells have enough crazy, poverty, country, white, Indian, Goodwin, Tonubbee, Wood, and Lawson in my blood that when I speak, it is not in economics or poetry, but it is my ancestors and I sitting outside in a rocking chair watching the sun set and thanking the Creator of it all for giving our crops the rain, for giving us food to eat, and for families to put up with us.
My name is Preston Bradley Wells.
This is my story,
and there are many like it,
but this one is mine.
Halito, chim achukma? Sv hochifo yvt Preston Wells. Hugo, Oklahoma a minti li micha Chahta hattak sia hoke.
Hello, how are you? My name is Preston Wells. I come from Hugo, Oklahoma and I am a Choctaw man.
I didn’t grow up speaking the Choctaw language, but once I learned how to introduce myself in it, I decided whenever I got the chance to do so, I would choose to speak in the language of my ancestors.
For the past 522 years, somebody has been trying to kill off my ways, trying to take the very language from my lips. For the past 522 years, someone has been coming into my home and telling me I’m living the wrong way and my stories aren’t true. For the past 522 years, I have been defending my existence. They’ve been trying to get me to conform, cut out my tongue, whitewash my heritage and call me a “white boy.” But The Potato Hills of Tvshka Homma tell a different story. They stand under the Choctaw sun just as they rise inside of me. The old waters that flow in the Mississippi also run through the Muddy Boggy. In them, the secrets have been hiding for generations, just waiting for someone to pick them up.
My father is a white man, my mother is Native. While my skin color favors my father, I used to be the first person that’d tell you I’m not white.
I can remember being ridiculed by other Choctaws growing up for the color of my skin: I was never dark enough to be Choctaw, I was only white enough to be a nv hollo, white person, or ghost. It was like I didn’t even exist to my own people. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I were darker; I’d see fellow Choctaws and wish that I had their bodies.
My Native identity was like a disappearing act. A thing that was so ashamed of itself that it only showed its face in family gatherings, and in conversations with my mother.
I never knew I could be Native until I got to Dartmouth, where I met other light-skinned Natives who fully identified with their roots. I then chose to run away from my whiteness, from reality. I began to demonize whiteness. For me, it was never a privilege to be white, it was a curse.
I stopped identifying as white, altogether. It complicated my relationship with my father and it confused people when I said I wasn’t white and it made me wonder if what I was doing was the right thing. Moreover, I wouldn’t be honest with myself about my sexuality. Oklahoma isn’t the best place to be anything other than straight. So what did I do?
I ran. I thought that if I didn’t talk about my sexuality or think about it, then surely I’d just be straight. In my experience away from Dartmouth, I learned that you can only run so long from your identity until it catches up with you.
I had an off-term junior winter on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma. I was working for an Osage man who was whiter than me, but knew more about his culture than I could ever imagine. I begin thinking more about what it means to be white because it obviously wasn’t stopping him from being Native. If I had never met this man, I don’t think I would ever acknowledge my whiteness.
Two months into the internship I began feeling more and more depressed. I was isolated: I was so far away from all my friends at Dartmouth, I was a four hour drive away from my home and family, and I knew no one from the town I was living in.
I went to California to get away for a while, and it was then that I had a crisis. I couldn’t make myself go back to the internship. I couldn’t be alone again. I stayed with my sister, and slept on her couch. I didn’t get any rest. All I could think about is how I didn’t know what to do with my life. So much of being at Dartmouth is about planning things out, landing a big job, getting a big house, and living the high life.
But I come from simplicity. I come from humility. When Choctaw people dance, we keep our feet close to the ground as to not bring any attention to ourselves. I come from farmers, preachers, and carpenters; from nurses, teachers, and service peoples. I don’t come from an upper middle-class family; I’ll never be a consultant or own more than one house; and I’ll probably never live in a big city.
It was the night that the Freedom Budget dropped that my life changed forever. I read through the document, and was so intellectually inspired and engaged that I couldn’t sleep. I began writing to all my friends at Dartmouth about ideas and solutions I had. And I began writing to professors, and to administrators about the direction in which we should move.
I was having an intense manic episode. I stayed awake for four straight days. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or think about anything other than the Freedom Budget. But, the Freedom Budget happened, it’s in the past now, so what does it matter? Without it, and without the manic episode, I would have never come to terms with the fact that I’m white and bisexual.
After coming out to my family, and my girlfriend (who then broke up with me), I was checked into a mental hospital for seven days. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder –1, meaning I tend to have more manic episodes than I have depression.
Getting through those seven days, and the following six months was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. I had seen so many of my friends go on medical leave, but I never thought I’d have to go on it myself. I took two terms off from Dartmouth for recovery.
I can remember walking with my mother one night in the summer and saying, “If I survive this, I can do anything.”
My spiritual side says that this was God finally catching up with me and telling me to remember where I come from, remember my roots, and remember how my family raised me. It was a lesson in overcoming the battles in life, and being resilient. Rising to tell the story.
So as I finish, I want to leave you with this: Don’t be afraid of who you are; your story is the most important thing that you own, cherish it. When you face obstacles in your life, when you feel bad medicine is staring you in the face, stand up, be bold, and have pride in who you are. You are important, beautiful, and strong. Don’t ever forget this.
Blood be changed, but cannot
Enters into a family, and escape not
Chahta micha Texan sia.
I am Choctaw and Texan,
Tied to a land sold and uprooted.
My tongue is strained, a stranger to language foreign, but I still call these syllables home
Chahta anumpa pvt sv chukka.
This Choctaw language is my home.
History flows, when creeks and rivers run dry like my bloodlines—
Issish yvt oka.
Blood is water.
Drought defeats purpose, call me farmer, still,
Because I am, farmer, still..
Father’s father’s father picked pecans, and so do I.
Stories are the sun, rising each morning
To cast shadows of promise on every word written
Have you ever wondered why we have voice?
Why we make sounds, how we transport love and anger through screams and whispers?
Left this stage long ago to search for the answer
I keep coming back to these stories:
The cattle cars between Mississippi and Indian Territory
With just enough space to breathe,
Where language slowly became foreign,
And the federal government was blood-thinner.
The country church on that side of Muddy Boggy River
Where the Spirit is spoken to in tongues,
And voices are raised not in tone, but in hallelujahs.
Where hands become medicine
And prayers become conversations with the Holy Ghost.
The riverbanks of the Colorado,
Where the Republic still floats on the water,
The beer cans and fishing lines that tie me down
And the mesquite smoke that carries the night
The most beautiful woman I have ever met,
Who spoke in English, but laughed in Choctaw
She wishes to learn the ancient, but handed down prayers instead
And made a woman just like her, my mother.
The freckles that dot her brown face,
That shine on our history like membership cards
The hands that clap to the old hymns
And the return to the old ways.
If only you and I could hear my Mafo tell about the cattle cars
Or feel the spirit moving in an old country church.
If only you could touch the water in San Saba, Texas;
Or laugh with an old Choctaw woman.
If only you could see my mother’s beautiful face.
But you do.
Hear and feel.
You do touch.
You laugh and see—
Because my voice is a story,
That spreads like fire in the valleys.