Interview by Megan Vered
When Ursula Pike, a member of the Native American Karuk Tribe, joined the Peace Corps in her twenties, she had high ideals. Upon learning she’d be serving in a small Bolivian village, she anticipated feeling at one with the indigenous people, a notion that was quashed soon after her arrival. Rather than being seen as a fellow Native, she was just another advantaged, English-speaking gringo who needed help washing her clothes, a realization that triggered a mountain of questions about her identity as well as her sense of belonging and privilege.
In her debut memoir, An Indian Among Los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir, Pike brings us into the heart of a young Native American woman as she struggles to find her place in a new culture far from home and to act as a change agent in a small Native village. She recounts her work in the Children’s Center, the relationships she formed with other Peace Corps volunteers, her affair with a local married man, and the long-lasting bonds she created with women in the village. She discloses the profound loneliness she experienced as well as the uplifting connections, while raising relevant and complex questions about privilege and identity.
Written in well-structured and lucid prose, this book is an introspective travel journal that chronicles the author’s personal transformation while studying the complexities involved in trying to improve the lives of those from another culture.
Ursula Pike is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and her writing has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Lit Hub, and Ligeia Magazine. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia from 1994 to 1996. An enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe, she was born in California and grew up in Daly City, California, and Portland, Oregon. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.
I recently sat down with the author to discuss her book and the experience of being a Native American woman serving in the Peace Corps. Among other things, we talked about privilege, identity, friendship, and, yes, laundry.
Megan Vered: As the book opens you are optimistic that you will have a unified identity with the native Bolivians. Describe how this perception changed during your two years in the Peace Corps and how you currently view this.
Ursula Pike: I knew when I landed in Bolivia that indigenous people made up most of the population. I assumed that as soon as they saw me, they would know I wasn’t a white person, and we would have an instant connection, similar to what often happens in the United States. Yet, even when I told my Quechua friends that I was Indigenous, they didn’t connect those words to their experiences as indigenous people. I assumed that because we had one thing in common, we had similar life experiences. I learned that I was the one who needed to take my understanding of being an indigenous person and behave accordingly, not the other way around.
Many people have asked if my Indigenous Bolivian friends think of me as Indigenous. I honestly don’t know. I’ve never asked them. But I think we have such a different concept of indigenous identity in the U.S. that it wouldn’t make sense to ask them. Here in the U.S., Natives and non-Natives have arguments over who can and can’t authentically claim to be Native. My tribe and many others adopted the Blood Quantum system to determine who gets to claim, legally, that they are a member of that tribe. There are forms to fill out, copies of birth certificates that must be attached, and tribal enrollment cards that must be renewed every few years.
In Bolivia, there isn’t a hard and fast rule to determining indigenous identity. It often comes down to who does and doesn’t speak Quechua or Aymara and who passes down the traditions from one generation to the next. There’s also more acceptance of the concept of being mestizo or a mix of European and Indigenous backgrounds in Bolivia. In the U.S., it often feels like we are allowed to select one single ethnic or racial identity to claim and that’s it even though most of us are multiethnic. Seeing the Bolivian concepts of indigenous identity broadened my understanding of my own.
MV: Speaking of identity, can you say more about the concept of privilege and how having it/not having it has shaped your life?
UP: Privilege to me is like a key that unlocks access to certain freedoms, protections, and resources. There are all kinds of privileges from being light-skinned to having a college education. The concept of privilege is something I didn’t learn until recently. I work for a community college and am that annoying person always trying to get you to attend an equity, diversity, and inclusion workshop.
From that work, I came to understand that throughout my life, in different situations, I’ve both had privilege and not had privilege. I see now that this was one reason I struggled in Bolivia. Even though I was underprivileged as a child because our family didn’t have many financial resources, I had other privileges like those that come from speaking English as a first language or access to college.
When I was in Bolivia, I was a representative of the U.S. government and that gave me protections and resources I’ve never had. I was an American and afforded the privileges of that identity. It didn’t matter that I’d grown up underprivileged. I was unaccustomed to having privilege and, honestly, reluctant to admit it. What has been transformative for me is to acknowledge my privileges and to admit that I have benefitted from structures and rules that I had nothing to do with. Taking that knowledge and using it to shape my actions and decisions has been the harder, but more important, next step.
Part of the reason I wrote the book was to show how I came to recognize my privilege. Many people that I know and love have a hard time seeing their own privilege because they also were underprivileged in other ways. We all think of ourselves as the underdog. Most of us are a mix of both. Once we realize that fact, we can look at why those privileges exist and how to unlock the doors for everyone.
MV: This makes me wonder about what you refer to in the book as your “paranoid native imagination.” I’m interested in hearing more about this.
UP: I grew up aware of injustices that had been perpetrated on Native Americans like Indian boarding schools, forced sterilization of Native women, and the incarceration of American Indian Movement activists. But I never saw those realities reflected on TV and certainly never learned about them in school. This cognitive dissonance made me always question my reality. I always questioned my version of events and wondered if I was being paranoid. That’s what I was referring to by my paranoid native imagination. I am always asking myself, “Wait, did she just say what I think she said or am I imagining it?”
MV: You refer to breaking the Native American cycle of poverty, teen pregnancy, and lack of education and at the same time say that education and economic empowerment come at the price of abandoning one’s culture, language, and customs. How do you reconcile this?
UP: There is a version of empowerment and progress that is measured by the distance between the empowered and those who came before them. I think of it as the “You’ve come a long way, baby” idea. The point is to not be like your ancestors. I have seen this within my own family.
My grandmother moved to San Francisco in the 1930s to find work and, while she visited our family in Northern California regularly, her life was different than her sisters and brothers who stayed on the river. They were able to participate in ceremonies and spoke Karuk all the time.
While my grandmother had a good job and was able to eventually buy a home, the opportunities required sacrifices. I understand making that choice. But I also can imagine a world in which we didn’t have to choose. Most importantly, I see cultures that adapt. Most major cities in North America have groups of Natives from different tribes working together to hold powwows or potlucks, teaching kids to drum, dance, and bead. I think things are changing but I also recognize that the pressure to assimilate still exists.
I never really thought of myself as part of a cycle of poverty or teen pregnancy even though our family didn’t have much money and my mother was a young single mom. Those are the stereotypes I had to fight against. There’s a moment in the book when another volunteer tells me to watch what I’m drinking because “my people” have a problem with liquor. I did drink a lot in Bolivia but so did almost everyone. My drinking wasn’t because of my culture or my heritage.
MV: Your long walks in the book seem meditative in nature. You tell us that your mother taught you there was no better way to stop obsessing about a problem than to ascend a hill on a dirt path. I’d love to hear about some memorable walks in your life that have led to insight.
UP: I am glad you brought up this part of the story because those long walks helped me center myself when I was feeling lost. In the book, I mention that hiking has always been an activity my mother, my sister, and I did. Even when I was a teenager and didn’t appreciate the value of a walk outside, my mother managed to get me out of the house and into the woods. After a few miles, I stopped pouting and enjoyed myself. In her will, my mother has already asked that my sister and I spread her ashes on a mountain top, and I think the real purpose is to get us to go for a hike.
But I also learned another value of walking when, at the age of 17, I joined The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament and spent nine months walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., with about a thousand other people. We walked fifteen to thirty miles almost every day. There were beautiful moments like when we crossed over the Mississippi River and people cheered us from the sidewalks but there were also miserable, muddy days when I wanted to go home.
The experience taught me persistence in a way I never forgot. I learned to put moleskin on my blisters and keep moving forward. I don’t often mention “the March” because it was a strange thing for a teenager in 1986 to do. My friends still think of it as a weird, wanna-be hippy adventure like a mobile Burning Man Festival. But I cannot tell you how calming it was to get up every morning and know that all I had to do was walk down a new road and experience the world along the way.
MV: I was struck by the strength of the friendships you made with the Native women who, despite your affair with a married man in the community stood by your side. Now, looking back, how do you view those friendships?
UP: Those women saved me. I cannot imagine what my two years in Bolivia would have been like without them. And I am glad that those relationships came through in the writing. While I was there, I thought that the romance was the most significant relationship I was in. But in the process of writing the book, I realized that my friendships with the Bolivian women were the ones that meant the most to me. They were helpful and supportive of me in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate while I was there. I was lucky those women were working at the Children’s Center while I was there. I was fortunate that they opened up to me. These women invited me into their homes and their lives. The little kitchen of the Children’s Center was their domain and I spent many hours helping them prepare meals or just sitting and talking. They were honest with me about their lives.
I especially appreciated their honesty about my choices and relationships. They supported me without letting me off the hook. But I never felt judged by them.
Thanks to social media, I am still in touch with them. When I return to Bolivia for visits, I go straight to their houses and stay with them most of the time.
MV: You talk about being scared of vulnerable children because you had been one yourself and also that words have always been your armor—that carefully crafted sentences with SAT worthy words protect you. Can you say more about how words empower people?
UP: Earlier I was talking about privilege and my verbal communication skills are one example of a privileged skill I learned to be successful and assimilate. I don’t like talking but I learned how to do it because Western Society values verbal communication. The best way to advance your career especially in higher education is to talk a lot and use big words. That’s how I could demonstrate that I was smart and had value. Once I learned that, I used it to my advantage even when I didn’t feel smart.
But in Bolivia, although I knew some Spanish, I wasn’t dazzling anyone with my language abilities. Everyone spoke Spanish and Quechua or only Quechua. They didn’t care how I spoke. They were patient with me. But I wasn’t accustomed to needing anyone’s patience with my verbal communication skills. How was I supposed to show them that I was capable if I couldn’t even correctly ask for directions to the bathroom or understand what they were saying in meetings? It was humbling.
Right after I returned from Bolivia, I began volunteering with a nonprofit in Portland that served recently arrived immigrants and refugees. I helped them create resumes so they could apply to jobs. I was repeatedly amazed at the people with Ph.Ds. applying to jobs sweeping floors because their English was not strong. I empathized with their frustration when they attempted to express themselves in a way that reflected their knowledge and experience.
MV: You entered the Peace Corp with aspirations of having a transformative experience only to be confronted with loneliness, isolation, and a feeling of being irrelevant. Do you regret having done it? How would you have done it differently?
UP: It is true that I experienced all those feelings, but I also felt joy, love, and an authentic connection with people who live on another continent. For every moment of darkness I experienced, there was also a moment of light, and a moment of connection. My story would have been boring if it had been all good or all bad. The two years I spent in Bolivia were complicated but that’s why it was an interesting story to tell. I was not afraid to dig into that complexity.
I like to think that I don’t live with regret–which isn’t true because I have many regrets; from the type of smoothie I ordered this morning to waiting until my 40s to take my writing seriously. However, when it comes to my time in Bolivia, I grew so much as a person in a way that no other experience would have forced me to grow, that I have no regrets. I take responsibility for choices I made that were self-destructive or disrespectful to Bolivians. As a friend who served with me in the Peace Corps said after reading the book, “This made me deal with my own sh*t.” I am grateful that I had this opportunity to examine my experience and I hope the book inspires others to look at their experience.
The one thing I wish I had done differently would be to release myself from the burden of trying to change anyone’s life and to recognize that I was there to learn. I spent too much time worrying that I wasn’t doing enough to help Bolivians.
MV: Toward the end of your service your Peace Corps colleague Daniel warned you that the people you met in Bolivia would become ghosts to you. Did that prove to be true? If so, are they friendly ghosts?
UP: Ha! There are one or two people from that time of my life who seem like ghosts to me now. I have dreams about them in which they’re still the same but I’m not. When I wake up, I wonder how I would interact with them if I met them for the first time today. But, honestly, I don’t feel haunted by anyone because I know they went back to living their lives after I left.
MV: To what extent did the journal you kept during the Peace Corps inform your memoir? What was your process for organizing the material?
UP: The journals were important in the beginning of the process because I could turn to them almost as if someone else had written them. I was able to create timelines detailing what happened when. But it wasn’t like an encyclopedia. Sometimes the journals contained few details about a specific event. Every once in a while, I’d find a detail that I had forgotten about, such as a question someone asked me, or a trip I took, that didn’t seem important at the time but added to the story I was trying to tell.
Mostly, I had too much material. That’s the challenge all memoir writers deal with because every detail of our lives shouldn’t be included in a book. We must select the details, the people, and the places that will tell the story we are trying to tell. I had to do that, even when it meant I left out people or experiences that were important to me. There was an entire chapter I cut from the book about an amazing trip I took to a festival in Southern Bolivia because the events that took place did not contribute to the narrative. But I didn’t know until the chapter was in the book and clearly out of place.
MV: Did you ever imagine what life would have been like if you hadn’t had the experience of being in the Peace Corps or if you’d gone to a different country with different expectations?
UP: I do think about what it would have been like to be in a different country. Recently, I met a Native woman who served in the Peace Corps in another largely indigenous community in another country. Her experience was different, but she dealt with many of the issues I faced around privilege and confidence. I’ve spoken to many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or other overseas development workers from marginalized communities and many of us struggled with this strange dual identity. I know volunteers of color who served in Eastern Europe who had different but still weird experiences that were not the same as many of the other volunteers they served with. The weirdness of our experience was because we grew up in the United States in marginalized communities.
MV: You say girls are expected to follow a narrow path—that no matter where or how they live they make beds, fold clothes, and chop onions. How did writing this book influence how you see yourself as a woman?
UP: I like the way you put that question because it was the process of writing the book that helped me realize this connection. I wrote the book while working full time, raising children, and switching the laundry from the washer to the dryer. I have a supportive, involved husband and, thankfully, he chops the onions and cooks the dinner most nights.
Yet, whether by habit, socialization, or initiative, I deal with the laundry and most of the other chores associated with keeping four humans functioning in the world. In Bolivia, I noticed that my female friends were always dealing with their version of these same tasks. As I thought about the times my friend had to wash her brothers’ clothes instead of attending a party with me, I saw a connection in a way I hadn’t when I was there.
That’s why laundry is a recurring theme in the book. From the humiliation of not knowing how to wash my clothes in the river, to paying a friend to do it, and even to the memory of a woman who I would later disrespect, bringing my clothes in from the line when it started to rain; I find it both wonderful and depressing that women around the world are spending so much of our energy and time keeping us all in clean socks and underwear.
An Indian Among Los Indígenes, A Native Travel Memoir is out now with Heyday Books. Follow Ursula Pike on Instagram or Twitter.