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An original essay: 'Homesick for Red Lake'

Byron Graves blue.jpg
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When this pandemic began to get bad, I would wake up in the mornings with a desperate hope that it had all just been a strange nightmare.

But eventually, the mornings changed to afternoons as I couldn’t fall asleep at night, staying up until sunrise, awake but comatose.

Now I rarely sleep.


Now I’m stuck, awake and tense, staring into the frenzied madness, unable to close my eyes.

My name is Byron Graves, I’m from the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

I left my reservation long ago, in search of better or different work opportunities. But the comfort of the familiar sights and sounds of the woods of Northern Minnesota will always be home to me. The beat of a powwow drum in the distance, the land my people fought for, the open arms of my childhood friends and my family are my roots, my connections, my everything.

Indigenous people have faced the stark realities of viruses before.

We have survived our worlds being turned upside, in the most horrific of ways.

Genocide rests in our DNA, like a virus that may not show visible symptoms but is forever there.

My family has tried to use these thoughts as a lighthouse throughout this storm.

We are reflective, we are resilient, we are brave, but we are also afraid.


We fear that COVID-19 will inevitably slither its way past our border patrol and breach our reservation lines.

We fear we won’t have the medical resources or means to fight back.

We fear for our elders, the holders of memories and our fading language.

Our eyes to our past, could very well disappear, forever.

Red Lake, like most Native communities, we feel more like one big, interconnected family. We aren’t just neighbors or familiar faces of strangers.

We all know each other, in one way or another.

We cheer each other on, and mourn each other's losses with the same empathy and compassion one would normally hold for immediate family.

I live in Denver now.


Away from my community, my people, my safety net.

I’m the most homesick I’ve ever been.

It's been almost a year since I saw my mother’s face, or laughed with a sibling in person. I canceled a trip home in April due to fear of spreading coronavirus to my people. I have absolutely no idea when I’ll be able to return home.

Phone calls and text messages are all I have left now.

When I speak to my family, we start with small talk, sometimes we share fond memories or plans for a someday that is no longer promised.

No matter how our conversations begin, they always end the same, with COVID-19.

We can’t help but fear for the impending, seemingly inevitable future, when this virus rips away loved ones.

We know that nightmare could be any day now.

But for now we wait, afraid and brave, as we always have.

About the author

Byron Graves is an Ojibwe author from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.

Byron’s writing is a fictionalized reinterpretation of his lived experiences growing up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

In 2017, an excerpt from Byron’s novel, “The Distance,” was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Oblaye Award. In April 2020, Byron signed a book deal with Inkyard Press to write a story for “All Signs Point to Yes,” a young adult anthology.

Indigenous Voices

This video is part of the "Voices" portion of the "Indiginous Impacts" project. "Voices" features Native American community members as they discuss and write about personal and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Byron Graves

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