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Open House

Decolonizing the family, one tiny home at a time

Jonel Beauvais went out to dinner with two of her friends, Renee and Precious, on the evening of February 9, 2010, near the small town of Bombay, in far upstate New York. Later, they went to a house party. At some point, Beauvais fell asleep in her friend Precious’s car. In the morning when she woke up, the car was parked in a driveway, and Precious was in the back seat. Renee had driven them to her father’s former girlfriend’s house. Precious climbed into the driver’s seat to drive away. But as they were leaving, Beauvais noticed Renee talking with a woman in the doorway of the house, and she suspected there might be trouble. They went to intervene. Things escalated. Words became physical, the woman’s glasses were broken, and her flat-screen TV was cracked.

All three women who entered the home that night were charged with crimes, but Beauvais’s sentence was particularly serious—at the time of the incident, she was still on probation for possessing marijuana in 2007, a felony conviction.

Beauvais was born in Syracuse and raised on Akwesasne, a Mohawk Nation reservation on the northern edge of Franklin County, New York that includes land across the border in Canada. She had three children, ages five, four, and eighteen months, when, in June of 2011, she was sentenced to twelve-and-a-half years in prison for burglary in the first degree and assault and criminal mischief in the third. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the maximum-security women’s prison where Beauvais was incarcerated, is a six-hour drive from Akwesasne and her children. During her incarceration, her son would cry when his school bus stopped and he’d see other mothers waving, knowing his was gone. Her daughter would point to a picture of Beauvais on the wall when friends asked where her mom was. Confined to a six-by-eight-foot cell, Beauvais survived her incarceration by imagining reunification with her children. “My children kept me alive in there. I needed to get out for them, they were without representation or support. It was them who went to prison with me most,” she tells me.

Shortly into her incarceration, Beauvais found a lawyer to appeal her conviction. In 2013, the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and her sentence was ultimately reduced to two years. The appeals court rejected the felony burglary charge for what should have been the misdemeanors of criminal trespassing and mischief.

I met Beauvais while working on a documentary about women, specifically mothers, in prison. I was struck not so much by the pain she felt while separated from her children—that seemed natural—but rather by the inhumanity of the system she encountered, even after she left it. What kind of jury and judge found it reasonable to separate a mother from her three young children for more than ten years because she had once possessed marijuana and then was involved in an altercation? If the first-degree burglary charge had been wrongly applied, as the appeals court concluded, how much did Beauvais’s Indigenous identity factor into her conviction? The court, knowing better, expressed no opinion on that question.

Home Free

Though the Akwesasne reservation exists on both sides of the U.S-Canadian border, the Mohawks view the political border as an inflicted and fabricated divide that does not exist between their community’s land and people. And yet, that border has real consequences, with federal checkpoints, surveillance, and differing laws on either side that restrict their movements——including Beauvais’s, whose early release did not bring about immediate reunification with her family as she hoped it might.

Most formerly incarcerated people find few programs or sources of support available when they are released, particularly on the U.S. side of the reservation.

Beauvais returned to Akwesasne without the money needed to rent a home for her family, a criminal record that made it difficult for her to get a well-paid job, and parole stipulations that prohibited her from driving for six months, as well as from crossing state and international borders. Beauvais’s children had been living with her father and stepmother on the Kanesatake reservation in Quebec during her incarceration and continued to until she was able to provide a home for them. In the interim eighteen months, Beauvais stayed in her eight-year-old cousin’s bedroom, a period she describes as continued displacement.

“I didn’t feel like much of anything when I got out. They want you to fail,” Beauvais says, referring to the state-sanctioned authorities that continued to dictate her life. “There is no support, just a numbness after experiencing so much violence. I only started feeling like a human when people started treating me like one.” She found work as a sales representative for Discount Cigarettes and as a cashier at the Akwesasne mini-mart. She started to save up money. And in the fall of 2014, Beauvais was able to rent a home on Cornwall Island and regain custody of her three children.

While incarcerated at Bedford Hills, Beauvais had worked with survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse, and she continued doing so with survivors on Akwesasne. This time, however, she had the chance to work with men as well. “I noticed the men coming home from prison—our husbands, brothers, and fathers, the ones who are supposed to be our protectors, our family—were the ones causing the most pain,” she says. “And I saw a pattern. They were coming from violent homes and looking for belonging but getting it from other places, like gangs,” she added.

Beauvais knows how hard it was to come back from prison and reestablish a family home. And by 2018, she had witnessed enough family breakdowns due to incarceration and heard enough recently released men express feeling a lack of belonging that she began to think of ideas. “Family was the medicine they needed. I also wanted to decolonize our people and land, and thought how do we go the opposite direction of the past?” The answer she came up with is now known as the “Welcome Home Circle”—so-called tiny homes built expressly for Mohawk Nation members returning from prison or rehabilitation.

The project began small. In the spring of 2020, Beauvais’s son Dev began selling homemade cheesecakes. Beauvais started a GoFundMe page and donated $2,000 of her own money to get the Welcome Home Circle off the ground. Other Akwesasne residents made and sold “Indian Tacos.” They held a coin drive. As word spread, so did interest. Beauvais received a $64,000 in-kind donation from Strong Roots, a local foundation that supports Indigenous people. In August 2021, Strong Roots hosted its annual golf tournament and raised more than they had any year prior, $107,400, which they gave to the project. Mohawk member and Akwesasne resident Pray Lazore donated land on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border on which the homes were to be built. The local Universalist Church got wind of the project and donated $1,200. The neighboring Amish community offered to provide the wood and construction at a reduced rate. Earth Movers, a cement pouring company in town, offered their services for free. And perhaps most poignantly, men from the reservation who were incarcerated at Cayuga County Correctional Facility prison donated $200 collectively.

By spring of this year, Beauvais had raised enough money to buy four $5,000 tiny homes. The pandemic, as well as difficulties around septic design and finding a land surveyor, have slowed down the process, but Beauvais reports that the homes’ concrete foundations will soon be poured. They should be livable by early 2023. “We’ll see,” she tells me, reluctant to jinx it. In the meantime, Beauvais was contacted by a scientist-engineer and hemp distributor who have offered to donate multiple tiny homes constructed from hemp to the Welcome Home Circle. Laughing, Beauvais tells me she is going to have to find more land first.

Overall, Beauvais has received support from her community, but she mentions there have been people resistant to offering free space and acceptance to Mohawk members who have committed crimes as serious as murder or rape. “It’s hard because while most people trust me, not everyone seems to understand [the project]. . . . There’s this teaching that we have, and it goes: home is where the sun rises and where it sets. Your sky is the ceiling. The earth is your floor,” Beauvais says.

Kith and Kin

Centuries of mistreatment have produced distrust between Indigenous people and white-dominated systems of control and power. During colonization, violence and disease killed approximately fifty-five million Indigenous people in the Americas, 90 percent of the population at the time. In 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act, which appropriated tens of thousands of dollars to fund missions and boarding schools to “civilize” Indigenous people and assimilate their children. Both programs championed material wealth, private property, and a patriarchal conception of the family; they prohibited students from speaking their language or practicing native traditions. These efforts resulted in the death of thousands and the erasure of Indigenous culture.

The word for family in Mohawk language is Ahkwatsire, which also translates to “my fire.”

Leo Kevin Killsback, a scholar in the Native American studies department at Montana State University, traces the ways that assimilation-based policies from the 1880s through the 1970s “destroyed traditional kinship systems and family units” in Indigenous life. Looking primarily at the experience of the Cheyenne in the West, he found that “this destruction contributed to the cycle of dysfunction that continues to plague families and homes in Indian country.” Whether through the Indian Removal Act or assumptions about the necessity of assimilation, the U.S. government has found myriad ways to disrupt Indigenous families, using the dysfunction that follows as justification for continued intervention and erasure.

Now understood as inhumane, the remnants of these policies linger, manifesting in different and more clandestine forms, such as the incarceration of Indigenous people and the exploitation of their land through obscure policies. Hard data on Indigenous incarceration rates is scarce—they are often lumped into a combined category with other ethnic groups. So the Prison Policy Initiative’s calculus that Indigenous people are imprisoned at twice the rate as white Americans is likely an undercount. For all these reasons, to receive the community’s support and buy-in from the potential residents of the homes, the Welcome Home Circle could not be affiliated—financially or otherwise—with the government. “If the government was involved, they would try to restrict and control us as they always do,” Beauvais says. Instead, the process of fundraising, constructing, and filling the tiny homes has mimicked Indigenous culture, which is predicated on trust and reciprocity. Participatory and nonhierarchical, the project invites community members, including children, to partake in the selection of residents for the homes. Rent is on a sliding scale. “I wanted to bring forward a transformational justice consciousness to show we do have the ability to change ourselves and not rely on others,” Beauvais tells me.

Beauvais says the work requires patience and acceptance: “A lot of our work is understood and organized around nature’s cycles. We are not in a hurry. We don’t want to force people to do desperate things. Take your time, work on yourself, so when you are ready to leave [the tiny home], you are set.” Most formerly incarcerated people find few programs or sources of support available when they are released, particularly on the U.S. side of the reservation, Beauvais reports. Prisons, she says, are supported by law-and-order rhetoric, as well as people who claim to be “pro-family,” and yet there’s almost no attention given to the way the carceral state breaks up families and traumatizes children.

All of this exists in a wider context: “The history of the family is one of perpetual crisis,” Melinda Cooper explains in her recent book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. In Cooper’s analysis, the nuclear family is a unit that helps commodify and materialize life, through things like home ownership, private education, and health care. The rise in neoliberalism and its social conservative counterpart has led to a “kindred link between social inequality and family pathology,” according to James Chappel, writing for Dissent, a link which creates and reanimates “certain forms of solidarity and love while pathologizing others.” Cooper demonstrates through the history of American poor laws that cuts to public health, education, and welfare programs were intended to “reestablish the private family as the primary source of economic security and a comprehensive alternative to the welfare state.”

The roots of this critique can be found in Marx and Engels, who saw the nuclear family as a place where habits of hierarchy, consumption, and attachment to private property were formed within a system that perpetuates wealth inequality. As neoliberal capitalism in the United States evolved, we’ve seen a discriminatory distinction emerge between welfare programs designed for “deviant” families and social insurance designed for “healthy” ones. The alleged differences between deviant and healthy are too often drawn along class and racial lines, as made evident on Indigenous reservations and surrounding towns.

In Killsback’s study of kinship structures among the Cheyenne, he suggests looking to tradition to forge stronger family bonds less tainted by capitalistic notions of the ideal family unit. He writes:

If, however, American Indians and Indigenous peoples began to re-examine their teachings, roles, and responsibilities, as dictated by custom and traditional laws, then perhaps they can begin to heal and reinstate fundamental concepts of living in peace and harmony. For the Cheyenne, kinship relationships, roles, and responsibilities extended beyond the nuclear family; they were the foundation for their Indigenous identity. Collectively, the kinship relationships, roles, and responsibilities were the foundation for community and nation-building.

When I talked about family structures with Beauvais, I heard something similar. Describing her efforts on Akwesasne, she says, “This is about family. We are creating a system of family, not an institutional program. We are giving people roles and responsibilities as family members of a community.” While families come in many forms, she is steadfast in her belief that family and kinship are essential to a community’s self-sustenance and sovereignty. It’s what gives her hope when standing up to a history of exploitation.

Ultimately, Beauvais wants to work toward what matters most to Indigenous people: their relationship to land and community. “We spent so long learning their ways that we forgot our own. We have no living memory of our ways. I’m trying to resurrect that memory for all of us.” She noted that many of her fellow Mohawk tribe members feel lost and without purpose. Oppressive and destructive policies have left native people with little to relate to. She hopes a small experiment in creating a few tiny homes will at least demonstrate an alternate path to the “go at it alone” individualism celebrated by capitalist culture. Feelings of listlessness and isolation, Beauvais says, “do not align with our main truth that we are all family and therefore we have a role and responsibility to each other.”

There’s a reason, it occurred to me later, that Beauvais was practically smoldering as she spoke of the work she took on. The word for family in Mohawk language is Ahkwatsire, which also translates to “my fire.”

Back to the Fire

The Akwesasne reservation, not unlike other Indigenous reservations in the United States, is a forgotten space, occupied by forgotten people. It’s surrounded by what Indigenous writer and organizer Nick Estes and collaborators call “bordertowns”—the “white-dominated settlements that ring Indian reservations . . . a cruel invention that imposes on Native people a million daily indignities.” The Mohawks here have fished in the St. Lawrence River, which runs through Akwesasne, since before the arrival of European colonists and the demarcation of a U.S.-Canadian border. For the last seventy years, however, this river and the people who rely on it have been poisoned by corporations such as General Motors and Reynolds Metals, who have been depositing PCBs, chemicals known to cause cancer, into it.

Capitalism works against the laws of nature—polluting the land and rivers, and insisting on human relations in which the few exploit the many.

Most Indigenous reservations are exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pollution regulations, which rather than augmenting Indigenous sovereignty, makes their land particularly susceptible to predatory companies looking to subvert federal environmental laws. The levels of PCBs found in the river’s marine life have been so high that the people of Akwesasne were told they could die if they ate fish from it. The St. Lawrence River is not only a source of sustenance for the Mohawks, it is also crucial to their creation story, which begins with an earth made entirely of water.

When Beauvais speaks of the criminal justice system, social structures, and her own activism, it seems impossible for her to avoid using metaphors drawn from the natural world. “When you work from the law of nature, there is always a solution that comes through the intelligence that the natural world carries,” she tells me. Capitalism, as almost anyone would notice, works against the laws of nature—polluting the land and rivers, and insisting on human relations in which the few exploit the many. Beauvais articulates an understanding that family support networks go deeper in human experience than our more recent systems of exploitation. For her, family and kinship are constantly generating new possibilities for healing. “Everyone has a knowing of family in them; it is not something that can be taught. People are more wealthy when they have more family. Relationships have the most value and currency; they bring forward everything we are trying to progress to,” she says. “Our goal is to un-institutionalize them, to guide them back to the fire—to family.”