My three-year-old daughter picks up a feather on the playground. She holds it up to the back of her head so it juts toward the sky. “Can we play Indian, Mommy?” she asks me with a smile.
I miss a beat, jaw slack, and she asks me again. I finally reply: “What do you mean, Sarah? How do we play Indian?” She holds the feather in place with one hand and makes a chopping motion with her other hand. I know she has never learned this from me.
School. She must have learned this at school.
I wonder what I can do. I can’t leave this as her impression of what Indians are. But how do I explain to my daughter what an Indian is when I don’t even know? Do I even bother to explain to her that her great-grandmother was an Indian? Do I even raise the issue of whether she is one or not? How can I discuss issues of ethnic identity with her when I haven’t resolved them for myself?
Cherokee author and activist Marilou Awiatka tells us to close our eyes. We comply as she starts beating the drum she holds in her hand. We move our feet to the sound, and I imagine we aren’t at an academic conference but outside, in the dark night, under the stars. I drift into the beat. Suddenly the drum stops, and I open my eyes. I am way across the room from where I started. Awkward and confused, I go back to my starting place. As a graduate student, I am uncomfortable anyway at one of my early professional conferences; now I feel even stranger.
Later, I go to ask Awiatka to sign a copy of her book of poetry. She signs the book, then looks at me closely. “Do you have any Indian family?” she asks me. “No. I don’t think so.” I reply. She smiles, and says, “Go look.”
A few months later, I sit and look in the mirror. My fingers trace my cheekbones, the line of my face. I think about my low tolerance for alcohol and lactose in cow’s milk — European products Indian bodies are still learning to process. I feel my skin and think of my envious college friends when I got that nice, dark tan in the summers at the beach. I run my finger around the slightly almond shape of my eyes.
Is that where Awiatka saw the Indian in me? Because she was right. I called my mother to ask. Mom said, “You mean I never told you about your great-grandmother?”
No, she never told me.
But once I thought about it, I realized that it’s really not so odd. Despite living a traditional life in a log cabin two miles from the nearest road, hunting and growing much of her own food, and seasonally working as a nurse for the Native American Health Service, she does not identify as Native. Regardless, she has an affinity for what is Native. She chooses to live life in balance with nature. Her spirituality envisions God within and all around her. She builds toward consensus in her negotiations with others. She works in a nurturing profession that emphasizes community and an ethics of care. Without meaning to be, she is more traditionally Native than many. But to align herself with the Indian in herself would be to go against years of racial conditioning.
The white friends who live around her in Alaska don’t think much of the Natives. And the Native communities in which she works don’t think much of whites who try to act Native. Her log cabin is full of contemporary Alaskan Native art–scrimshaw, carved ivory animals, masks and more. But she doesn’t feel personally connected to it. To recognize that connection would put her in a middle ground between worlds–not quite Native, not really white. In the racially charged circles in which she lives and works, identifying as Native could alienate her from the people around her, both white and Native. But her sense that Native identity could be threatening didn’t start in Alaska.
Despite carrying her Indian grandmother’s name, Nancy, her mother Hope taught her to ignore the Native in her grandmother. Hope was raised on a farm in eastern Virginia after her parents moved from Rutherfordton, N.C., in the southern Appalachian mountains and historic Cherokee land. In the south in which Hope lived, there were two colors: white and other. The “one drop rule” still applied — a 19th century law that defined whiteness by proclaiming that even one drop of “other” blood defined a person as that other. Hope and her family feared being that “other” enough to pretend their blood didn’t contain anything but Scots-Irish.
While northerners have more complex ethnic caste systems, southerners divide the world in two. And Hope wanted to be on the white side of the racially turbulent years during her growing up. Southern women of a certain age wipe out the existence of something they don’t like simply by not speaking of it. So, she did not mention it. She moved away from home, to the north, where she became a successful career woman (a nurse) during a time when many middle-class white women didn’t pursue careers outside the home. She married “well,” joining an old moneyed family that brought her status and privilege. My grandmother did little to consciously pass on her mother’s culture, so I heard nothing about my great-grandmother Nancy from my family except my mother’s memories of visiting the Virginia farm in the summers.
I longed to know more about the farm, more about my great-grandmother Nancy Logan, more about her life. Thus, I used the research skills I have acquired to write biographies of women writers and to study my own genealogy. I learned that Nancy Logan, small, dark, and Indian, married Corin Edgerton, a tall, red-headed descendent of Scott-Irish settlers in Rutherfordton, N.C., in the late 19th century. I found bills of sale that show Corin Edgerton selling land before the family left the mountains for the farm the family still owns in eastern Virginia. And although I was told she was Cherokee, I discovered Nancy Logan’s name in the Choctaw rolls. More than likely, when the Choctaw were relocated from Mississippi, parts of Nancy Logan’s family joined the North Carolina Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears, while some went on to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Therefore, the story that Nancy Logan was Indian, I found, was more than a myth.
Yet, however hard my mother’s family tried to forget the Indian in us, the community Nancy Logan’s namesake serves recognizes the Indian in her. As a healer who helps them birth babies, my mother has gained a special status among the Native women with whom she works. But, I believe, they also value her because she embraces in her spirituality, philosophy and lifestyle much that is Native. When a group of Yupick women invited my mother to a sweat, my mother said to me with pride, “I am honored that they invited me — a white woman.” And I thought to myself, “White woman. Hmmmm.”
But what that means as I look in the mirror at my high cheekbones is unclear.
Nearly ten years after uncovering my Native history, I entered motherhood looking around me for models of powerful and respected mothers, mothers who were leaders: I saw that the traditional work of mothering wasn’t valued, by either men or (feminist) women, as much as traditionally “male” work outside the home. So, I began to look other places than the mainstream white culture to find value in my new work as a mother.
I found other mothers, ones whose nurturing work was respected and valued, in my research on Native American women. While I started doing the research for intellectual reasons, it soon became very personal. Theda Perdue’s book, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Sally Roesch Wagner’s Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influences on Early American Feminists, Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, her Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Sourcebook and other similar sources of information changed my perspective on the possibilities for motherhood. Many Native women lived in matrilocal, matrilineal, egalitarian societies in which women and men generally adhered to prescribed gender roles, but the work each did was valued equally. And some even moved between roles, like Cherokee Nancy Ward, whose battle skills as well as her nurturing talent won her the most honorable title of “Beloved Woman.” Their religion celebrated a balance between the male and the female as part of a unified whole. While their society was not a perfect gender utopia, what I saw concerning the value of mothers in society ran counter to all that I had learned from my white heritage — from both patriarchal and feminist sources.
As I saw examples of a culture that valued mothers more than my own, I began to see mothers differently in my own life. As I looked back through my family tree, I saw the mothers clearly for the first time. They came out of the shadows of the fathers, and stood before me, strong, powerful, and proud. I looked back through photo albums to trace the lines of their faces. I fingered the possessions they left behind. I researched their lives. I learned about my grandmothers, and celebrated their lives not because they were “ahead of their times” but because they lived in them. Instead of viewing them as unenlightened women I had to react against and move beyond, I began to see the nurturing roles they embraced as powerful and important. As I learned to applaud the mothers of my past, I also learned to applaud the mothers around me. I began to rethink the term “nurturer” so it stood equal in status to the term “warrior.” I began to see mothering as a heroic act.
I took my one-year-old daughter to Alaska, carrying Sarah through the forest on my back. I stood outside my mom’s log cabin late one night, with the ground strong and sure beneath me, with the stars unfiltered by city lights or pollution shining above me, and the trees standing tall around me. And I felt it in my body and not merely in my mind: the power of my mother, of the mothers before her, of the earth itself in its continual acts of creation, growth, and nurturing. As when I gave birth, I knew in the deepest part of my body that this creation was good and holy and right. That I had found the answer to the question of “why am I here.” That I could feel my place in the universe. I carried that moment back with me as I moved back into the cities and highways of my more urban life.
Reclaiming part of my Indian identity made me feel stronger, more powerful as a woman and a mother. Like my own mother, what was traditionally Native sustained me.
But did that make me an Indian? I don’t think so.
I go to the mailbox, and find yet another affirmative action card. I am now teaching at the University of South Carolina as a Visiting Assistant Professor, but I am looking for more permanent work, and each application is followed by one of these cards. I know if I check “Native American,” I become a more attractive candidate. But I don’t because I can’t claim “Native American” as my sole identity, even through I shouldn’t really check “white” as my only identity either. But I check “White” because I know that some Native American people are uncomfortable with — if not hostile to — people who have previously only identified as white claiming Indian heritage. And rightfully so. Native American cultures, religions, and artifacts are too often appropriated by white mainstream culture as part of a celebration of the Indians of a mythic past. The people buying up these artifacts, some taken from burial mounds, don’t want to see the live Indian standing in front of them but rather focus on the Indian frozen in the past — contained, controlled, and colonized. I fear claiming Native American identity because I don’t want to do what others have done. I don’t want to take what is not mine.
We are rarely allowed to pick multiple ethnicities on these cards. I usually add a note about how the U.S. Census now allows people to claim multiple ethnic identities, and perhaps they should consider doing the same. But I am uncomfortable even checking “Native American” as part of a list. The one drop rule no longer applies to Native Americans. If my great-grandmother had been African American, most folks in the south would have no problem saying that I was mixed-blood because one drop makes me so. But, now, Native American descendants need to prove to the U.S. government and to the Indian Nations the exact percentage of blood, and the more the better. No other ethnicity in the US demands such proof. I feel intimidated by having to prove it. And I resent having to prove it. So, I don’t.
Also, the affirmative action benefits that could come with checking “Native American” don’t apply to me. Most people who look at me don’t see the Indian in me. Affirmative action is meant to level the playing field for those who have been disadvantaged. Because of my white identity, I don’t need the playing field leveled; I have not been discriminated against because of race.
I also don’t check Native American because I don’t want to set up an expectation in the hiring committee that they will see an obviously Native woman walk through the door. I could play it up. I could let my hair grow long, put it in a braid, wear appropriate jewelry. I’ve seen me like that, and my Indian features are clearer when I am playing the part. But it is just that: playing a part. I resent that element of academia that makes this ethnic cross-dressing an advantage. We have the best of intentions when we try to promote diversity in hiring. We don’t, however, always follow through with the best actions to reach our goals. We end up rewarding ethnic posing.
So, how do I place myself as I develop an expertise in Native American literatures? Can I, as a white-identified mixed-blood woman, teach Native American literature? We in the academy sometimes expect to hire an African American scholar who will do African American literature, an Asian American scholar who will do Asian American literature, and so on. We expect people of color to do their work in their own self-interest. But what if that African American scholar is a specialist in, say, children’s literature? Well, she can do that, but she’ll still teach the African American literature course regardless of her academic preparation to do so. Academia still has a long way to go before we can see a field of study as a body of knowledge and not a cultural claim.
In contrast, I see Native American Studies as a body of knowledge and not only a cultural claim. I can learn much about and through this body of knowledge. However, I cannot, no matter how much I know intellectually, claim an experience I don’t have. The only time I’ve been in a room full of Native American people is at the meetings of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures at the MLA conventions. I have never been to a reservation or a pow wow. And I am only now learning to speak a Native language through the Cherokee Nation weekly newsletter’s “learn Cherokee” section. I cannot claim what is not mine.
Yet, as I play Indian with my daughter, I will pretend to give a speech in front of Congress, to climb a towering mountain, to rescue a child in need, to heal a sick woman, to rock my baby to sleep. I will teach her she doesn’t own the world but is part of it. I will introduce her to living Indians in blue jeans so the only image she has isn’t of those of the past still wearing buckskin. I will show her that Indians are more than the cultural stereotypes so that someday, she can be proud of all parts of herself, as I, too, am proud.