By Katherine Crocker
The Natural Sciences Building is deserted late at night, which is usually when I process my samples in the lab. Sometimes I nod off next to my whirling centrifuge as I wait for time to pass. I imagine reeling it in, spooling neat loops around my centrifuge rotor until I have wound time, and myself, back six hundred years into the past. Now there is no Natural Sciences Building and no University. I hover atop my lab stool at second-floor level in the forest. But I am not alone—the faces I glimpse are the faces of people I call my relatives, the Anishnaabeg, Wendat, Miami, and Potawatomi people from whom this land will be stolen in the next hundred years or so.
I will not speak for what happened on this land six-hundred years ago: my tribe is from farther south, and the story of this forest is not mine. But in my homelands, just like here, late in the cool evening, crickets sing. They are the six-hundred-year ancestors of the crickets from whose eggs I have extracted hormones, the samples that are now spinning towards dryness at my elbow.
Unwind time a little, slowly. The centrifuge hums and rattles.
Five-hundred-and-twenty-five years ago, confused Europeans “discovered” the “New World”. Heaps of broken brown bodies marked this great achievement as the Europeans congratulated one another. Brave explorers, selfless men of God, and devout Pilgrims soon began pillaging, raping, and slaughtering their way from sea to sea. They rename our homelands “North America.” Their descendants tell us that those men were seeking their fortunes, trying to save souls, hoping to find simple freedom for themselves.
Five-hundred-and-twenty-five years after their great discovery, I share a pub table with a group of women, most of whom are white. Molly, who is studying to become a natural resource use mediator, leans across the table to demand that I acknowledge the injustice of my claim that settlers committed genocide. I will want to ask her to explain by what alchemy she can transmute the millions of lives taken into “a better life for all.” By what algebra does she convert rape, murder, stolen children, and forced sterilization into salvation–and whose? I will want to say all of this, but instead I will be breathless with grief and ask her if she realizes how much pain she is causing me. I will ask her if she can hear her own words. In response, she will slam out of the restaurant, and among the women left at the table, I will almost hear cricket song in the silence. Although they are my friends, they will not invite me to join them again.
If you know anything at all about crickets, you know that they sing. Most people hear more crickets in one summer evening than they will see in a lifetime—theirs, or a cricket’s. Scientists have spent careers studying how crickets and their cousins use song to communicate. Though I love their music, the questions that keep me awake in the lab into the small hours cannot be answered by their song, but by their eggs.
A female cricket finds her mates by sneaking silently through fallen leaves and grass towards a male who sings in a small burrow or from beneath a strong leaf, which he uses to direct and amplify his song. Larger males sing louder, longer, and at a lower pitch; these males are the females’ favorites. After they mate, the female continues her journey, stopping to plant each egg, like a seed, into damp soil.
Each egg represents a single unit of hope for the future and contains everything a mother cricket can spare for that one offspring. To hedge her bets, she may pick several fathers from among the best singers she can find. In this way, she increases her chances of producing babies who will grow up to become loud-singing males and stealthy, discerning females. She provides each egg with fuel: food molecules to drive the embryo forwards to crickethood and hormone molecules to guide it along the best path. Crickets do not provide care to their young nor defend them from predators. All that a cricket mother can do is pack what she has into each egg and choose a safe place for it to rest while it becomes a cricket.
Producing eggs is the most important job a female cricket has. Even though there are not many alternative strategies available, each mother approaches this task differently. Some mothers pack up to seven times more hormones into their eggs than others, but why? Do the extra hormones make the babies grow larger, or hatch sooner? What makes some mothers provide so much more than others? It might be genetic, fated by evolution to happen a certain way. Or perhaps it’s a mother’s response to her environment—the heat or quality of available food may cause her to change her plan.
I want to know.
It is five-hundred-and-twenty-five years ago, just after settlers arrived seeking freedom. They will achieve it by wresting ours from us. Let time go faster now, because this quiet, song-filled night is no longer a peaceful, living place. It is becoming strange with invaders, warped by the horrors they bring. I don’t want to feel in my body the searing hurt of all of our losses. My muscles spasm under the crashing grief that sounds, in my ears, like the sky itself is being ripped to shreds. But I cannot escape now, it is too late. They have already arrived.
Treaties are made and broken until shards cover the land, slicing our flesh to ribbons. We stumble at gunpoint, driven from our homelands to new places not of our choosing. The new lands we are expected to inhabit are not yet wanted by settlers; when they are, we will be uprooted again. Entire families are murdered. Entire tribes given blankets known to be infected with smallpox. Entire cultures limp forward, barely surviving.
In the far future, descendants of our murderers will pretend that we are noble, mysterious, wise, and yet strangely savage. They will make up stories that turn us into beings between animals and gods, as inscrutable as the Sphinx. Though we still exist, they will persist in thinking that we are both imaginary and tragically lost, gone the way of the unicorn. If we had been what they say, our wrath would have been terrible, and our pain would have rent the world.
Five-hundred-and-twenty-five years later I slump at my lab bench, bone-tired, though the centrifuge spins on. To extract the hormones, I crushed the cricket eggs in a mixture of mostly methanol and just a little water. Methanol pulls the hormone molecules out of the tissues they cling to. The water helps keep them stable. Methanol is volatile and evaporates in a flash: spill some on your skin and it feels ice-cold as it boils into the air. My sample-drying centrifuge can suck methanol vapor off the samples in a couple of hours, but the water takes three times as long. I let the rotor spin off time with the methanol, faster than life.
It is now only two-hundred years into the past; we are still courageous. When our generosity yields only treaties that the settlers quickly dishonor, we fight. The Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne are victorious against the U.S. Government. The Kansa stand firm against dismayed missionaries sent to threaten and cajole us into forsaking our culture. In spite of these victories, we are all compelled into prison camps of ever-decreasing size, to sicken and die of heartache, starvation, and new diseases that no one wants us to survive. These camps are called reservations, as though their makers had our protection in mind.
Our histories are woven into the fabric of each day we spend on and with our ancestral lands. For thousands of years we have prayed, eaten, slept, loved and fought alongside generations of history. We have built our spirituality on this connection. Having ripped us from our past and profaned what is holy, the settlers set to work killing our future. They steal our babies, claiming we are unfit to raise them. They beat our children and cut off their hair, trying to shape them into Civilized Humans who cannot remember the languages or cultures they were born to. Our children’s abusers justify themselves by promising that hurting young bodies can save the souls within. Perhaps it can, but only in the way that drying meat into jerky can save the deer.
All across our homelands, it is now a crime to be Indigenous, a mortal sin to be brown, worse still to be either of these while a woman. These transgressions are punished by rape, kidnapping, imprisonment, beatings, and murder. We are courageous. Some of us run away. The son of Tuekakas, like so many others, leads his band in a bid for asylum in what is now called Canada. They are just a few miles from the border when they are captured by the U.S. military and “brought in,” forced into a prison camp of their own.
Two-hundred years later, my aunt will tell us about her grandmother: “She was with Cochise when they brought them in.” That is the entire story. My aunt squinted into her cigarette smoke when she told us, just the once. We knew better than to ask questions. What else was there to say? Captivity is brutal, and there were precious few happy endings in any of the forts.
Leaning on the bench, listening to the centrifuge, it begins to hum at a different pitch: the methanol is gone. It is late enough to be early, and I am alone in the Natural Sciences Building. Split between yesterday and today, I wait for the water to dry. The last few drops are always slowest: greedy hormone molecules cling to the water. Once it is all gone, I will add buffer to the dried hormone extract—a saltwater solution, like tears.
In the future, maps will be sepia-toned portraits of genocide, but now those are in living color. It is one-hundred-and-fifty years ago. Town names commemorate blood-soaked forts: Custer, Yates, Collins, Worth—all built on the necessity of murder, using the justification of self-defense. The Battle of Little Bighorn is a victory, but it does not turn the tide. Time whips by: it is seventy years ago. Uranium mines built today will poison the water of the Diné people indefinitely; living water mutates to cancerous sludge, killing what it touches as surely as any nuclear weapon. Thirty-five years ago. Though it is no longer a federal crime for us to pray, our children are still stolen, given to white families who will be sure to “civilize” them. Federal Indian Health Service doctors forcibly sterilize all the fullblood women of my tribe, and others. Our weeping carries us to ten years ago, when the same federal government makes a glancing acknowledgement that it has committed atrocities against us. This brief admission comes, without any hint of irony, in a single line of the budget of the Department of Defense.
But the atrocities do not cease when we reach the present day. Less than two years ago, an energy company that was loath to endanger the water quality of Bismarck, North Dakota, had no such compunction about the water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Escorted by armed police, they began constructing a pipeline in violation of a federal treaty and Standing Rock Sioux Tribal sovereignty. To protect the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux and the millions of others living downstream, and to publicize these violations, we put aside old enmities and gathered, unarmed. On Standing Rock land, elders, adults, and children of tribes from across what some call Turtle Island joined in prayer. Over the next nine months, elders, adults, and children were assaulted with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, attack dogs, and once winter came, freezing water. The President of the United States indicated that he was content to “let it play out.” The presidential candidates of both major political parties followed his lead.
Sitting in the lab, my breath catches in my throat. A life-flight helicopter rushes over the Natural Sciences Building, bound for the University Hospital, but I hear a different helicopter pounding in my ears. I feel myself backing slowly away from masked police under a volley of pepper spray. My eyes are squeezed shut but my arms are open, woven tightly into the arms of family I had never met until we came here to protect each other.
In the lab, I pull myself together: it is time to process the samples. Now that I have mixed the dried hormones into the protective buffer, I put drops of this solution into dimples on a rectangular plastic dish. There, overnight, the hormones I have extracted will stick to antibodies, which are bound to the plastic. Tomorrow, which is now later today, I will add a dye that turns yellow when it touches the hormones. These molecules, bound to rabbit antibodies, stuck inside small plastic dimples, are far from anything that resembles a cricket or her eggs. But molecules cannot escape their history.
I have not lived for six-hundred years and I was in North Dakota for just a few days. I live my life in clock time, but deep inside, time runs as slow as the last few drops of water in the centrifuge. Some hidden looping, echoing mechanism keeps my heartstrings stretched taut, resonating to unexpected things. I feel an inescapable fury and grief that my grandmother was shamed for her brown skin, that for half a millennium all across the land that is our home, my relatives have been fighting the same malevolence we face in North Dakota.
I grew up both knowing and not knowing the pain of my heritage; I was raised to consider myself white, and learned about Native Americans in school. I remember stumbling across nameless familiarities that I could not explain, resonances that did not touch my classmates. In those moments, I recognized my kinship and my history, though I had been told it was not mine. My training as a biologist assures me that there are no memories hidden in my DNA. And yet I feel them.
Here is what the cricket eggs tell me: the more hormones an egg is given, the faster that cricket hatchling can grow. Growing quickly is important: the smaller you are, the more animals there are who can eat you. On the other hand, to grow quickly, a cricket needs to eat a large amount of high-quality food. Initially, I suspect that mother crickets who experienced no difficulty in finding food would decide to give their eggs more hormones, but that hungrier mothers would opt to produce slower-growing but less-voracious babies.
To my great surprise, I find that a mother cricket does not alter the amount of hormones she gives to her eggs based on her diet, nor her genes, nor anything else about her environment. I check and double-check other variables, thinking that perhaps the father of the eggs may dictate the dose of hormones an egg receives. Still, nothing. I wonder if the experiment has failed. Then I find something that knocks me back in my chair.
The environment of a cricket’s grandmother dictates the concentration of hormones that she provides to her eggs. I am openmouthed: the lived experiences of an egg’s great-grandmother determine how quickly it will grow after it hatches.
Our history is neither written by nor coded into our DNA, but it is nevertheless scrawled and carved into us like graffiti. Some things fade quickly but other events last longer, or are temporarily obscured only to resurface generations later, powerful beyond what we have been taught to expect.
Biologists used to have a comfortable dogma. We believed that everything about an organism could be found somewhere in its DNA. That is not wrong, but neither is it the whole story. Now I am here in the Natural Sciences Building, having discovered a new function of hormones in crickets. What I—an Indigenous woman and a scientist in defiance of every obstacle—have found is not limited to crickets. Researchers studying humans have found that our hormones, too, transcend generations and genes. What I have found may be new to biologists, but not to the peoples of what settlers call the New World. We have known for hundreds of generations that we carry our histories within us. They are part of who we are.
I was not raised to speak my tribe’s language, nor to practice our culture. Only as an adult have I come to understand the depth of beauty, joy, pride, grief, humor, and anger that is my heritage. But whether or not I recognized those things in myself before, they have been here all along, reverberating along my stretched-tight heartstrings. Five-hundred years of anguish and courage ride with me each day, five-hundred years that I will have no choice but to pass to any children I may bear. Whether or not the generations of perpetrators acknowledge it, this half-millennium of genocide is present: it is inscribed within all of us, perpetrators and victims.
Katherine Crocker is a member of the Kaw Nation, and earned her PhD studying transgenerational effects of egg hormones in crickets. She is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. She likes to spend time reading, writing, cooking, beading, and learning her language.