Waaseyaa: It is Bright – Alexandera Houchin, Her Life, and Her Chumba Cycles Stella MTB

Waaseyaa: it is bright, is light (as in the day), is radiant; it is sunny

It’s been a hard couple of years. Compounded self-doubt, emotional and physical abuse and income insecurity had me clinging to any bit of life I had within myself. I hadn’t really comprehended how I had gotten in that position in the first place. I remember years ago talking to someone who confided in me that she was in an abusive relationship. I’d been stone-cold in clarity when I told her to leave the fucker. She revealed that it was more complicated than that and, at that moment, I pitied her. Years later, I found myself in the same predicament; I was ashamed both for the lack of strength I had to leave my boyfriend and for my inability to listen to her. I’ve spent the last two years feeling like a swollen shell of myself.

Ultimately, I was feeling unseen and undervalued, not only by my former partner but by most of the people who surrounded me. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling invisible—that was until I won the Women’s 2018 Tour Divide. It took me 23 days and was not any sort of effort towards winning. Being the first woman to reach the Mexico border that year was the singular moment that changed my life. It gave me some hope that maybe, just maybe, I could actually be seen for being myself.

Years ago, I made my career, albeit modest “career”, out of delivering things on my bicycle. I felt seen doing that work. I spent most of my day moving, being outside, and working alone. I went on to find love with bike touring and then later bike racing. I’d always perceived cycling as my hobby, but as time progressed, I’d come to realize that cycling was the only constant in my life; cycling is my one and only true love. Further, I realized that racing in ultra-endurance races has exercised my brain more than any other part of my body. In all the weakness that has been weighing me down, my mental strength prevails.

Over these past two years, I’d grown more and more detached from my body. I’d spent so much time thinking I knew who I was and that I truly valued myself, and to my disappointment, I wasn’t the person I thought I was. I’d told him I’d give up racing if he would stay; I’d told him I would give up the only thing I loved in the world and still, it wasn’t enough. I knew he didn’t love me, but I was convinced that he just didn’t see me yet.

I gained some 30 pounds and spiraled back into the tango I’ve been dancing with my eating disorder. She’s been my longest companion. I’d stayed in Cloquet after I graduated college and started to work from home. Hours of the day melted away as I sat through Zoom meetings and tried to get a non-profit started. I poured myself into that work to distract me from the self-hate that haunted my dreams.

I sprained my ankle 5 days before I was to pedal to the start of the Arizona Trail Race 800 (AZTR). I probably shouldn’t have set out for the 800-mile traverse, but I was worried about the outcome of my life if I didn’t. We never talk about the shape our darkness takes, but sometimes it looks like a long sleep to me. I can’t recall a time when I felt so blue, so low, so completely consumed by despair. The AZTR was the only light I had been looking toward since finishing the Colorado Trail (CTR), and looking back, the CTR this year was punishment for completely losing myself. I’d barely slept and was horribly out of shape as I pushed my body further than I ever had for the sake of pulling a women’s win.

If I lost the women’s CTR race, would I even be myself anymore? I know ultra racing as being more than just the race, but as a display of all the training we put in when no one else is watching. If you could see through my dot, you’d have seen a desperate shell of a woman crawling through countless miles of trail. So, as I hauled my bike out of the Grand Canyon in this year’s AZTR, I filed through those memories in my head. I traveled through the plethora of places of discomfort I’d lived in prior to my traverse across the state of Arizona. I realized that there is no physical discomfort greater than the discomfort of living with a self whom I hate.

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” B. Sills

It was at some point in my mid-twenties when I realized I wanted something more and I couldn’t envision a way for bikes to take me there. After some years of wrenching in a bike shop for $10 an hour, I decided to go to school for welding. I thought I wanted to be a frame builder. I built a precision jig and fixture table as my final project. I spent hours practicing my welds, copes, notches, butts, brazes, and solders. While staying after to practice, one of the tooling teachers had invited me to apply for the Machine Tooling program suggesting that I had the “it” that makes a machinist thrive and that my background in welding would make me a candidate for any metalworking job I wanted. I accepted his invitation and spent another year learning to use a mill, lathe, Bridgeport drill press, and various CNC machines. I enjoyed it, but still, that wasn’t the “it” I was searching for.

Schooling in the trades proved to be easy for me. Insecurity around my inadequacies stunted my social interactions, however. I felt like a lesser human because I was “uneducated”. That discomfort compelled me to go to a 4-year college and get what, at the time, I called a “real” degree. I thought I was supposed to use my privilege to make “something” of myself. I aspired to be a dentist. Why? I’m not exactly sure. I’d had an eating disorder for as long as I can remember; my dentist was the first person to confront me about it. I thought maybe I could help other people with eating disorders. I’d read that there were some 200 Native dentists practicing in the United States. I never knew a Native dentist before; I thought I should make that number 201. I wanted financial security; I’d been so tired of living in poverty. I graduated with my undergrad in the spring of 2020 and had planned to take my dental school admissions test and apply to dental school. The pandemic put it all on hold and I decided I would spend a gap year working on my reservation and then get back to my dental school plan.

In the interim, I got involved with our tribal farm; Gitigaaning. Growing food changed my life. In the seed starting time of the year, I decided that I would be sober. I’d come to believe that everything in my body, in my spirit, went into the food that I was nurturing. I’d come to question if that’s why my relatives were sick— who is putting what energy into our food? I’d come to reflect on my undergrad research about the oral health disparities across Indian Country— oral health outcomes shifted greatly with the introduction of commodity food and the decimation of Indigenous food ways and systems. It all consumed me. I began question my commitment to professional school in dentistry. Could I spend my career, trapped working inside a box, treating the symptoms of a massacred food system?

“It is not what you achieve, it’s what you overcome.” C. Fisk

I’ve had a whirlwind relationship with food my entire life. I had never really seen myself obese despite the fact I’ve always struggled with my weight. I could run, jump, swim, bike and climb even though I weighed more than 200 pounds. It was the way other people who saw me as obese that compounded my insecurities and shame. I’ve always measured my self worth by the number on the scale—it’s embarrassing and brings me shame to admit, but it’s my truth. I know myself well enough to know that when that number climbs, I am in a bad place.

I’ve known food as medicine for a while now, but like many other pharmaceutical medicines, I find a subconscious gratification from the numbness, the punishment, the discomfort, that over-indulging brings. I suppose that’s the addict who thrives as a parasite within me, I don’t believe I will ever shake her. I’ve kicked my affinity for opiates, I’ve come far in my relationship with alcohol, but almost everyday remains to be an all out war with food.

“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” L. Brown

I shifted my focus to working for my tribal government. After having applied for a few jobs in my community and never being hired, I thought I would find outside funding so that I could work in my community. I was selected as a Fellow for the organization Lead for Minnesota after I proposed my own project scope. I knew the AmeriCorps funding I would receive would not be enough to live off of, so I applied for a part time job at a bike shop and at the University of Minnesota in Duluth to supplement my AmeriCorps stipend. I got elected to serve on our Tribe’s Economic Development Committee. I started to serve on the board for Maada’ooking— a grassroots grant program for Native people led by Native people. I went on to serve on the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships board to support local sustainability projects in the Northland. Before I knew it, I’d been working 60 to 80 hours a week bringing home barely enough money to pay my bills in addition to juggling media requests. I hadn’t time to ride, play, or train.

I didn’t think it would be a long-term thing— I thought that I would spend a year or two “proving myself” and would eventually be offered a position that compensated me fairly. I carried a silent, heavy resentment for the reality I created. My insecurities were making me increasingly bitter and angry— I was becoming a person I no longer knew. I doubted almost everything I did and kept taking on more work to prove myself to earn some external validation because I’d had no self-validation left.

If am being completely honest, I think that I was trying to find reasons to live. I was trying to repair my family’s broken ties to our tribe. My family is fractured and I was clawing at any sort of structure that resembled rebuilding our family. I wanted us to be seen as Native people, as Fond du Lac community members. I wanted to be accepted and embraced by my estranged tribal community for who I was, not for what I had accomplished. I was seeking unconditional love. I thought maybe my brother would finally see why my mother was the way she was, and ultimately, why I was the way that I was…

I wanted people to see just how hard I worked to find my way all the way back home despite the multitude of ways that the Machine tried to assimilate my family. Did anyone see what it took to leave everything I knew and loved? I was living in southern Wisconsin and I felt empty inside. I wanted so show the world how strong my mother was. I wanted everyone who ever doubted her to see how humble strength manifests in future generations. She survived so much and leaned into her trauma to provide security and identity for my siblings, my cousins and myself.

I wanted the world to see what kind of person my mother, a stolen Indian, an estranged Indian, a teenage mother built— a strong, determined, enduring, proud, intelligent, ambitious, loving woman, a woman who seeks to revitalize Anishinaabe lifeways on her journey towards mino-bimaadiziwin, the good life.

I just wanted someone to see everything that I had given up to be here, now.

Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated” P. Davis

Finally, a job opened up that I thought I was qualified for. There were two positions, one with a big salary and one as an assistant, with a much lesser salary. I’d reached out to a mentor and he suggested I apply for both. The idea of accepting a job I didn’t want seemed asinine. I didn’t want to take another job that kept me living in poverty. I told him I wasn’t interested in the assistant position and he told me—“If you don’t get selected for the first position, at least you could put your hat in for the other and work your way up”. What he didn’t know was that I felt that I had been working my way my whole life. I got the degrees, I put in the volunteer time… when would I ever be seen? Didn’t anyone see everything I would have given up to take that job? I dreamt and it became clear to me that if I stayed working for institutions I would never be seen for who I am. Further, who would I be if I gave up bikes and ultra-racing? Bikes have been the only constant ray of light in my life.

Throughout my time at home I really began to understand that you can’t force someone to see you any-which-way. People perceive you however they choose— and that’s beautiful. My feelings of invisibility rested on my sacrifice of giving up what I loved to do for what I thought other people needed me to do. Who am I to decide what other people need from me? Further, that if I spend my life compromising my happiness, wellbeing, beliefs and morals, I will always resent the people I deem “more successful” than myself. Instead, if I choose to follow my heart, do things that I truly am passionate about and find balance in my spirit, I will find peace.

It’s been through bikes that I’ve learned to embrace the journey and not grow attached to the outcome. So things didn’t turn out the way that I had hoped— I believe that they turned out the way that they were supposed to. And as I mourn my forfeiture of a tribal government career, as I retire my dental school aspirations, I pedal toward a dream I have denied myself.

Going “Pro”

I have been doing the work to decolonize my perception of Indigineity for the past decade—I still trip from time to time but I trend forward. I grew up culturally white– I use the word white here to mean devoid of culture and intergenerational responsibility. You may use the word white differently and it may mean something different to you. Getting enrolled in my nation at 19 years old shook my understanding of my identity. Even though I grew up knowing my mother was Native, I never felt as though I deserved to own that identity for myself. I went from being white to being an Indian and I felt misunderstood by either community. I moved home to learn what had been denied to me for nearly a quarter century.

As every generation before me sacrificed such that I could lead a selfish and relatively carefree life, I thought that I had a responsibility to honor their sacrifice and do something mainstream society deemed successful— to don that white collar. The more I told people about my white collar pursuits the more I was met with affirmations and suffocated by microagressions— how’d you turn out so good? I was met with society’s allusions that my fellow Indians didn’t share the same drive I had. These polluted perceptions held by even the most well intentioned minds that surrounded me, infuriated me. I have surrounded myself with successful, inspiring, determined Natives who are changing the world– how could the rest of society not know about their work?

I didn’t know the best way to be a good relative. I thought that it was too privileged to pursue a career as an athlete. I thought that a career as an athlete was something afforded to non-Natives with tighter bodies. It wasn’t until I saw myself on the cover of a magazine that I realized that being the 201st Native American dentist wasn’t going to be a part of my journey. Rather, I was going to actually chase my dream of becoming a stronger athlete, of healing my body, of healing myself, of doing something that I loved fully. I am headed toward my fear of failure; I have no excuses for my athletic prowess if my sole job is to become a stronger self. What happens when you go all-in on your dreams? How do you create a path when you’ve never seen what you envision done before?

I’m scared, terrified even. I quit all of my jobs, moved out of my apartment and now live out of my car. I had set out to save Indian Country but Indian Country doesn’t need saving. Indian Country needs Native individuals to use their unique talents to show the breadth of strengths we hold; we need to hold space as contemporary badasses who are also cultural as fuck.

I have a fear of watching my bank balance dwindle, a fear of not getting faster or stronger, of getting injured again. I wonder, what if I am not actually that strong of a bike racer? What will my excuse be when I can’t fall back on the “I didn’t have time because of work. I’m not acclimated.” The fear of pursuing your dreams can be terrifying, but I learned, letting those dreams die is entirely paralyzing.

Of all the fears that pace through my mind, I no longer have the fear of my spirit dying. I have all the faith in the world that I’m finally clearing my own path. I choose happiness, I choose love, and, finally, I choose my bike. Bikes have always chosen me and I think it’s about time that I do something with that love.

Note: John Watson photographed Alexandera and her Chumba Stella last fall in New Mexico on her way to Arizona to begin the AZTR 800