“Well,” I began, “I’m sure you can tell that I’m Native, just like I can tell that you’re Black.”
She let a small chuckle. “Yeah, I did kind of pick up on that when we met, weirdly enough.”
I laughed too, thankful that, even unintentionally, she had managed to put me at ease. “So I was born on the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is spitting distance from the ranch. I’ve lived in the area my entire life except for when I went to college. My family is Kootenai, and my mom made sure I could speak our language even before learning English. Like with most Native tribes, our heritage is a huge deal to us and we try to do everything in our power to preserve it.”
I had to clear my throat before I could continue. “My dad was a bit older than my mom and, considering she didn’t have me until she was thirty-five, he was nearly sixty when I was born. I was only a few years old when he had a heart attack and passed.”
“Oh, Seki,” Jada said, her voice soft, “I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “You know, sometimes I feel worse about not really missing him, but I never had the chance to know him either. I grieve more is all the things I missed out on because I didn’t have him in my life. I was lucky, though. I knew a lot of kids growing up on the rez that didn’t have nearly the support system growing up that I did. My mom was a fantastic parent to me and did everything she could to provide me with the best life possible. I had some other great relatives too that had a big impact on my life.”
Glancing over, I saw that Jada seemed to be hanging on my every word, clearly engrossed with my story. I was pleased by that. It made it a lot easier to open up to her that way, encouraged me to share more with her.
“My great-uncle was a huge influence on me. He’s actually the reason I grew up to work with animals in the first place.”
“That’s amazing,” Jada said. “Would you mind telling me about him? He sounds like a great person.”
“He really was,” I said, conjuring an image of Uncle Natánik, his long hair more gun metal than black. He was always fond of these battered flannels and old blue jeans that were covered in patches and holes sewn shut. The new flannels my mom and I tried to give him for his birthday always sat in his dresser drawer until he’d end up donating them, always saying he already had everything he needed. That other people needed them more. It didn’t stop Mom and I from giving him at least a flannel or two every year, knowing Uncle Natánik found joy in being able to help others.
“You lost him too?” Jada asked, her voice sympathetic.
“Yeah, but he lived a long life and helped a lot of people while he was alive. Including me.”
“I’m glad. That’s a life well lived.”
“Yeah, I agree,” I said. “Anyway, Uncle Natánik was one of our elders on the reservation and taught me everything he knew about our traditional medicine. He even helped me figure out how to go to school through government allowances so I could continue my education. I think he was pleased when I told him I was going to study animal husbandry and the veterinary sciences.”
“Of course he was,” Jada replied. “He was happy you were continuing with the family tradition of helping others.”
Staring ahead, I mulled over Jada’s words. I’d never thought of it that way before, but I just knew she was right. “Yeah, I think he was. My mom’s a nurse too. She works at a clinic that helps low-income people get medical care.”
“It sounds like you come from an incredible family.” Jada’s voice was sincere, and it filled me with warmth.
Smiling, I said, “Yeah, I do at that.”
“Thank you for sharing that with me. I know stuff like that can be really hard to talk about sometimes.”
Jada wasn’t wrong, but I was at a loss for what to say to that. So I cleared my throat and redirected the conversation to her.
“What about you? What’s your family like?”
She told me a little about her parents and her younger sister Sadie. It sounded like she came from a nice family, which made me happy to hear.
“Growing up, my family was lower middle class, so Sadie and I never wanted for anything. I’d say the hardest stuff I had to deal with was moving from a small town in Louisiana to Las Vegas as a kid. Talk about culture shock.”
I laughed. “No kidding! I can’t imagine living in a big city like Las Vegas.”
“If you’re ever presented with the opportunity to live in Vegas, don’t do it. You’ll hate it.” Jada’s voice was very earnest as she said it, causing me to grin.