One thing you should know about Jeffrey Martinez is that he understands and has cultivated and applies fortitude to his life. It’s one of seven Lakota values his mother, Martha, instilled in him from a young age. The others are humility, respect, compassion, prayer, generosity, and wisdom, which Jeffrey can list off easily, because he really knows them.
Fortitude is one of those words I knew was important when I first learned it, but that took time to understand, to practice, to be made a quality. The word is defined as “courage in pain or adversity.” This is one of the most beautiful definitions of a word not beautiful.im电竞官网- I believe adversity can breed brilliance beyond what those with safe and comfortable lives are capable of. I’m not convinced that Jeffrey—Sicangu and Oglala Lakota from South Dakota, born and raised in Oakland, California—would be the excellent human being he is did he not know what happened to the men in his family. This is a truth he’s had to live with: that all the men died.
I’ve known Jeffrey’s family for more than a decade. I met Martha at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, where we both worked at the time. I first learned of Jeffrey’s existence in a digital-storytelling workshop Martha and I took together. She made a short film about having adopted Jeffrey straight from the hospital. Jeffrey is her brother’s son by birth. She adopted him because her brother died and his birth mother wasn’t able to take care of him. His Lakota name is Hokšila ókiyapi, which translates to Helped Him Boy. The film I made was also about becoming a parent, and what it means to pass the weight of our stories, our histories, on to the next generation. Our families are close now. His mom is the godmother of my son.
Until recently, I wasn’t particularly close to Jeffrey. I knew him as a quiet genius of Lego-and-cardboard art. He’d spend days, sometimes weeks, constructing Hogwarts Castle or a steam train or spaceships from Star Wars.im电竞官网- A few years ago, he gave one of these massive and intricate homemade replicas to my son for his birthday. It still hangs in his room. This July, I spent a few days getting to know Jeffrey better. We first met up at his home, just off Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland, where he lives with Martha and her mother, Geri, who’s eighty-six. Their house is bright yellow, with an always-plentiful fig tree growing in the front yard. A couple blocks away, at St. Leo’s Church, my mom’s parents were married in 1943, and they are buried down the street, at Mountain View Cemetery. This part of Oakland used to make me think of my grandparents, of an Oakland they were a part of, which doesn’t exist anymore, gone with the many memories we lost when their house burned down in the ’91 Oakland fire. Now the area makes me think of Jeffrey, Martha, and Geri.
The day was sunny but not hot, and we spoke in the backyard, surrounded by sour grass and wildflowers. Laid out on the table between us, purring, was Luna, the family cat. “She likes it when people hang outside with her,” Jeffrey said. Luna is thirteen and a big part of the family’s life. When our families get together, we’re sure to hear about Luna’s latest hijinks, like the times—plural—she called Martha from their landline. One time, Luna rang as Jeffrey, Martha, and Geri were heading two and a half hours east to visit my family, in Angels Camp, California. Another time—and this is Jeffrey’s favorite story about Luna’s phone antics—she called Martha and left a voice-mail message. She meowed into the phone for seven minutes.
When I first knew Jeffrey, he was young and small and shy, but he’s tall now, and seventeen. His face has a brilliant, unabashed sweetness when he’s smiling, and an almost worried pensiveness when he’s not. One of my first questions was about whether he’s faced challenges growing up Native in Oakland. I instantly regretted my question, because I didn’t like being asked the same thing. It felt like I was somehow being asked to authenticate my Native experience, and I feared Jeffrey would feel the same way. He didn’t seem worried at all. “I feel like it’s been easy for me,” he said. “I feel like my mom has created an environment that allows me to freely express myself.” This is both a true statement and Jeffrey being humble. I’ve known his family long enough to know there have certainly been struggles, but Martha really has done everything to make their lives true and considered and rooted in Lakota ways. When my wife and I have questions about parenting, Martha is the first (and only) person we call. She is the epitome of a model parent. When Jeffrey was little, he wanted long hair, and Martha allowed him to wear dish towels on his head, first around the house and then to school. “I had all these dress-up phases,” he told me. “I’d go to preschool dressed like crazy.” Jeffrey now has long black hair that I can’t imagine he’ll stop wearing long. It’s not a stereotype to wear your hair long as a Native man; it’s a cultural value, and he’ll no more cut his value system than he will his hair. Martha brushes it for him all the time.
I don’t always like to use the words wise and wisdom,im电竞官网- because they’ve been overused to describe Native people. But Martha is wise, and this is not the same as being smart, which Martha is, too. Wisdom is as hard-earned as it is deceptively simple. It cuts to the heart of matters. Martha and Geri have that way about them, so Jeffrey was raised in a home rich with wisdom.
If wisdom is an overused and underrespected quality employed to describe Native people, I feel that there are other qualities we’re not allowed to ascribe to ourselves, to our tribes, to our cultures. Words like fortitude, and generosity. We’ve been given stoic and brave, drunk and dumb, wise and sage, and anything referring to us being mystically connected to the earth. We find ourselves caught between the polar opposites of subhuman and superhuman. I’ve often been asked by non-Natives what makes me Native American, and how will I teach my son to be a Native American? I don’t feel I can tell them how much generosity is a part of Cheyenne culture. A value I was taught as a Cheyenne value. It’s not enough. They want something familiar, a popular depiction of Native Americans, not that a spirit of generosity is one of the things that make me Cheyenne. I knew from early on that if someone said something nice about something you owned, you gave it to them. Last year, while visiting my dad, I saw a very nice (and very expensive) Pendleton jacket in his closet. I told him I liked it, forgetting that this would result in him immediately giving it to me, which he did. I ended up taking my author photo in that jacket. I don’t like that I can’t avoid seeing that photograph a lot these days, but then I like it because it makes me remember my dad.
Jeffrey was wearing a faded black hoodie with an incomprehensible (to me) mathematical equation and the phrase escape velocity. I asked what it means. “The speed at which you have to shoot something directly up, or at least perpendicular to the surface, in order to get it to escape the gravitational field of an object,” he said. Like an orbit? “No, because orbit is described as you’re falling towards an object, but you’re going so fast that you always miss it.” He helps me understand. “Say I was talking about you. If I shot you up at escape velocity, you’d escape Earth’s gravitational field, which means you wouldn’t fall back down.” While he explained, I inadvertently looked up to the sky and imagined moving beyond the blue and into the black, getting very cold very fast and then dead.
There’s more to the hoodie than a space joke. He wants to be an astrophysicist, but it’s not just that, either. “My mom always talks about her father, and how he sort of spiraled down after they came from South Dakota to Oakland,” he said. “It’s happened to all the men in the family. My dad and all his brothers have passed away. There’s this theme of the men falling out, mainly because of the historical trauma that has trickled down. Being able to overcome that mentally is very important. My mom always talks about breaking the chain, breaking that cycle, that downward trend.” He understands the gravity of his situation, and he’s still figuring out the speed he’ll need to escape the field. He knows that to succeed will be the exception.
Another thing you should know about Jeffrey is that he is fierce. He is kind and gentle and sweet, right down to the way his voice sounds, but to see him in the dojo is to fear him. When he moves, his face is intense. There’s no anger, just a ferocity and a precision of movement that you can tell comes from countless hours of practice.
The day after we talked in his backyard, I met up with Jeffrey at West Wind, the martial-arts school where he was training for the test to earn his third-degree black belt. He’d started taking lessons after an incident at space camp the summer before fifth grade, when another camper hit him. Martha decided she wanted her son to learn how to defend himself and enrolled him at West Wind. He took to it right away. With Jeffrey, that’s no small thing. “When I dive into something, I usually go pretty deep,” he told me. “I’ve always been naturally focused. My mom calls them ‘phases.’ I won’t stop until I’ve learned as much as I possibly can about it. I’ve been through a lot of phases, these intense periods of focus.” I was joined by a film crew from Germany that was shooting a segment about the release of the German translation of my novel, There There. I felt uncomfortable about how my new, strange life as an author was bleeding into my time with Jeffrey. The Germans wanted to film us together, and I would have said no, but Jeffrey loved the idea. He has no problem being in the spotlight. In it, he shines. The dojo has helped with that. “I’m a pretty shy person,” he told me. “Like, when I’m introduced into a new environment, I can be quiet at first. My confidence levels were low in terms of public speaking and stuff like that. But karate has helped me a lot.”
im电竞官网-The crew set up outside the dojo; the director placed me, Jeffrey, and his teacher on the other side of the street. We joked about what we were supposed to be doing, about how to act naturally. The director signaled for us to cross, so we did, and we acted as if we were not acting, so acted natural and walked across the street to the dojo, where Jeffrey was to practice with weapons too big for the space in the dojo. We kept acting as if he were taking his lesson while he actually took his lesson. At one point, the director asked Jeffrey to slowly move toward the camera while spinning a three-section staff, a kind of giant nunchuck. The whole thing felt bizarre. Even mentioning it here, in this story, feels both unavoidable and something that absolutely should be avoided. It’s just that I don’t know what to do with what’s happened to my life, and to include it feels as wrong as not to include it, so I’m aiming for somewhere in the middle, bringing it up and dismissing it at once by bringing up why I think it’s dismissible. I’m not sure of the exact moment I felt I’d sufficiently made it out of the gravity my life had felt mired in for so long, at what point I attained the speed to stay afloat, even while continually falling, but it was somewhat recently. And it doesn’t feel complete. I don’t think it ever will. But I know I won’t ever end up where I once was—doomed—where I maybe had to go to get where I am.
At one point, the director asked Jeffrey who I was to him. In his answer, he referenced hunka,im电竞官网- a Lakota word that translates to “adopted family.” He said I was a kind of uncle to him, or father figure. I hadn’t known he felt that way.
After the film crew left, Jeffrey and I walked down the street to get ice cream at Fentons Creamery. I grew up going to Fentons, and so did my grandparents—that’s how long the place has been a part of Oakland. When my mom was pregnant with me, she stopped eating sugar, and when I was born, my dad went to Fentons and got her favorite—a Black and Tan—and took it to the hospital. My sister used to be a waitress here, and I’d come all the time because she’d give me free meals. It’s almost always crowded and loud. I don’t have a favorite thing to get there, so when Jeffrey ordered a slice of apple pie and cookie-dough ice cream, I got the same.
We talked about school. Jeffrey is a senior at Lick-Wilmerding, one of the most prestigious high schools in San Francisco. Most families pay $49,000 each year to send their child, but Jeffrey qualified for its Flexible Tuition program. Getting in was an intense process, he said, “because I’m naturally very bad at standardized tests. The way they phrase things and the way that they expect you to answer it in one specific way, I call it ‘conforming to the test,’ and I’m really bad at conforming.” His closest friends are Melinda, Caroline, and Ariana, and his group includes Julia, Brandon, Felix, Colette, and Jackie. He’s the only Native American in the school. I asked if he’s ever bothered by questions about Native culture. “When someone says, ‘I have a Native American question for you,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, God, what are they going to say?’ ” One time, his friend told him about a joke her mother made about how, at the school’s annual social-justice workshop, the white affinity group could relocate the Native affinity group (which consisted of just Jeffrey). “I was like, ‘That’s not okay to say. My grandmother . . .’ And I told her my grandma’s story, how she moved to Oakland on relocation, and what she had to go through to get to where we are now. She came here with a ninth-grade education, and she raised eight kids, and she got a master’s degree in social work while doing it. Getting to that level, becoming so good at what you do, is very inspiring. That’s why I’m always bragging, like, ‘My grandma did this!’ ” A few days later, Jeffrey said, the friend sincerely apologized on behalf of herself and her mother. Still, “I feel this weight to sort of advocate for all Native Americans. I think other people sometimes stress that on me,” he said. But “being aware of my grandma’s story helps me get through hard situations.”
im电竞官网-We moved on to the universe. Jeffrey mentioned that Lakota people believe they come from the stars, and that scientists discovered that within their life span, stars create all the elements in the periodic table. “It’s cool to start seeing all these parallels,” he said. Talk turned to black holes. “Black holes have this thing called the event horizon. As light falls in, if it passes the event horizon, even light moving at the speed of light will not be able to be fast enough to escape the black hole. It swallows up the light.” I can’t say that I understood what he was talking about, or rather I was hearing something else, from some layer beneath Jeffrey’s understanding of the cosmos, a metaphor about escape and light and darkness; about gravity and the speed we must reach to not fall in, just to stay afloat.
im电竞官网-I asked Jeffrey what he thought about the idea of the American dream. Maybe it was the apple pie. “I think it’s very much a dream,” he said. “It’s definitely not equal for everybody, for how much they have to work to get it. It’s complicated.” Nothing about being Native American is simple. Nor is there a Native American dream. Just dream catchers that hang from people’s rearview mirrors, as if acknowledging there’s something we need to see behind us. Jeffrey’s understanding of his own life, its context, is astonishing to me. Sometimes there isn’t much more to say than: It’s complicated. When I was his age, I existed somewhere between obliviousness and oblivion. I don’t remember having a single conversation with anyone about going to college. I wasn’t even thinking then of what it might take to better myself, to achieve anything like a dream. Jeffrey and I have lived very different lives, but our shared sense of experience felt closer to me that afternoon in Fentons. Cookie-dough ice cream and apple pie are surprisingly good together, but neither of us finished.
The next day, Jeffrey and I headed to the train tracks near Jack London Square. Jeffrey loves trains. He has since he was very young. One of his favorite movies is The Polar Express, starring Oakland’s very own Tom Hanks. He, Martha, and Geri watch it every Christmas. He likes the gears, and studying the moving parts. That’s how he broke his toy Polar Express train when he was a boy, and how he fixed it. “It had the remote control that I’d turn all the way up, and I’d control the speed with my hand, which overheated the engine and it broke. I think the final straw was when my mom came home and the whole room was filled with smoke. She was like, ‘You’re gonna suffocate Grandma!’ ’cause she was sitting in the living room, too. She was like, ‘Turn it off.’ And I was like, ‘Fine.’ It never turned back on. Recently, I took the bottom part off and removed a gear that locked it, then put it back together, so now it moves. And I was like, ‘If only I knew how to do this when I was five!’ ”
im电竞官网-The trains, and their blaring horns, lost their charm on me pretty fast, but Jeffrey kept saying things like “I like the vibrating” and “I could go to sleep to these sounds.” So we talked for a while alongside the tracks, pausing to plug our ears each time a train passed. We discussed college. Jeffrey wants to go to Caltech. This year, he’s taking both honors calculus and honors statistics, because he researched which classes would be good to pursue astrophysics. Still, he’s nervous to leave. “I have severe homesickness. And this recent full moon has, like, been bringing out my emotions,” he told me. “And I’ve been like thinking about college, and having to go away from my friends and the people who have supported me throughout all these sort of hard transitions. And beginning that college-application process, and I think of having to move away and split paths. We’ll still keep in touch, obviously, but there’s still that physical-distance barrier. That sometimes scares me.” At some point, the topic of his college-application essay came up. I wondered about his approach—how much he planned to write about overcoming hardship regarding his adoption, and to write about being Native American, what it means to him—knowing it could help him get in where he wants. He’s aware of the commonly held belief that minorities get special consideration on college applications, and that the minority of minorities are Native people. His friends know it, too, and have joked about it with him. “Ever since freshman year, my friends have been saying, ‘You’re Native American, you can get into any school you want.’ And I say, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Esquire.
I asked him how to write about your experience and not feel you’re exploiting yourself. He wasn’t concerned about this fear. He would write about being Native with pride, and if it helped, good. Which is how it should be. There really is a lot to overcome being a Native person, which often reads to non-Native people as a kind of pity party you’re throwing for yourself. It can seem impossible to acknowledge that some people have it harder than others, face more challenges, without prompting right-wing rhetoric about quotas and the wrongs of affirmative action; even if no such right-wingers are around to say it, it’s in the American air we breathe—it’s been said enough. And yet Jeffrey has a spirit of gratitude for all that he has; you can sense it at all times, such positivity as to seem naive, but it’s not, it’s a strength, something I never knew, especially not at his age. I would have envied him for it if I weren’t so damn proud.
This is something I’m working to teach my son. Belief in oneself is both earned and learned. It’s not that my parents weren’t supportive. It’s that they didn’t know what they were passing on to me. As critical as I am of parents in my generation for our helicoptering, if nothing else we’re aware of the risks of neglect, and how traits and flaws are unintentionally passed down. Martha taught me the right way by teaching her son, and Jeffrey taught me to believe it by being just exactly who he is.
In August, I returned to Oakland to see Jeffrey take the test for his third-degree black belt. I stood at the back of West Wind, watching him in the wall mirrors. The teacher yelled out moves and maneuvers that Jeffrey and the other students had memorized, and they performed each one in unison. There were sounds of gis flapping and feet slapping on the mats and yells to mark finished moves. Jeffrey was clearly one of the best out there. I didn’t worry about whether he’d pass. I wondered about what leaving home will do to him, and for him. I worry about his homesickness. I’m afraid for him, for his private struggles in the real world, and the condition of the world he’s inheriting. This mess we’ve made. But then, knowing he’ll be a part of it gives me hope.
Earlier in the summer, Jeffrey shared a story about visiting South Dakota. “I always love going back there,” he said. “Because even though I wasn’t raised there, I feel this strong connection to that land.” He spoke lovingly of a time he and Martha and Geri had gone back for Sun Dance. “We were driving through this terrible storm. The rain was so thick that you couldn’t see the centerline in front of you. And it was funny, because my grandma’s a drama queen, and I think I inherited just a bit of that—I was carrying on in the backseat. My mom said, ‘Just go to sleep. When you wake up, the storm will have passed.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, well, whatever happens, I just don’t want to wake up in the spirit world.’ And my mom started laughing. That just reminds me of going back home.” Jeffrey knows home and what he loves about it, how grounded he is, with such strong women in his life. I thought of this story as I watched him make all the right moves that earned him his third-degree black belt. For many teenagers, leaving home for college is an escape. For Jeffrey, it seems like a solemn duty. A way to break free from the gravity that held down the men who came before him, and a way to honor a mother and grandmother who always made sure he was taken care of, but not only that, made sure he stayed focused, that he worked hard, that he succeeded. Somehow the seven Lakota values applied to Jeffrey Martinez are an equation that equals escape, not from home but from a system made and not made for people like Jeffrey. The standard, the American mold, is definitively white, or at least it has been—see the majority of actors on TV and in movies, and politicians, and CEOs—and so to succeed, to fit the mold to the point of breaking it, this is what is necessary to become a leader now, to challenge the mold by doing more than what is expected of you. Jeffrey has his sights set high for good reason, because it’s what he deserves, and wherever he ends up in this world, he will be a blessing.