PretIndians and cultural authenticity

This is a post that I have been trying to put together for months. It’s good that a little time has passed.

Over the summer, I observed many “conversations” on social media about cultural authenticity. That’s the nice way of putting it. What actually was transpiring was a lot of people who were tired of being minimized and caricatured lashed out at people who had benefited on many levels by claiming to have identity which was deemed to be dubious, at best. And rightfully so in many cases. But each time I observed the words “pretIndian” or “wannabe” being used in reference to someone’s identity, a little piece of my humanity died. Observing these interactions led me to turn inside myself and deal with the values and beliefs I have surrounding my identity.

For the record, these questions and conversations about identity are important and I believe that we should continue to interact with each other in this vein. However, what has me troubled is our varying propensities for poorly defining the parameters of inclusion and how we practice exclusion. Practicing exclusion. This is especially troubling to me as it concerns Tribal identity and the slow genocide known as blood quantum.

This article is intended to encourage people to engage in deep, thoughtful conversation about identity. To use words like “pretIndian”, to my mind, is unhelpful in these conversations. Instead, let’s talk about authenticity and the broken lineages and how to create inclusive community. I’m not claiming to have answers or authority, even, but surely we can do better than just throwing people to the wolves and dismissing them outright. Let’s do better and ask better questions and get to the heart of these matters in compassionate, strong and powerful ways. I also hope, through this article, to help identify some of the difficulties I have encountered with claiming my cultural identity and how I have sought to be authentic and respectful, not only of my ancestors, but of those who are fully identified in those cultures..

This is what I know about my ancestry: I am Ojibwe and Scottish on my father’s side. I am Choctaw on my mother’s side. I recently discovered that my maternal grand-father was born in a rural part of Washington state, so I’m going to be researching that line very soon. The only sure link I have is to my Scottish heritage. Only because that has been well documented.

This is from a note I wrote after a meditation recently:

|| Don’t call me a mutt || Or refer to my ancestry as if it were a steak sauce

|| My ancestry is rich, complex and made up of || stories and breath || souls and sinew || eyeballs and ether

|| Red hair, brown eyes and deep blue hearts || I ken my kindred || their heartaches, sacrifices and joys pulse in my veins || even if I don’t know their names

When I speak their language, I know it is my language ||

Here are some of the values and beliefs I have about my identity: I don’t claim anything that doesn’t ring true in my spirit. My claiming what I know will not detract from others who have a similar ancestry. I’m not about the per cap. I’m just trying to heal some ancient wounds. I’m just gonna be right here, trying to learn my languages and my cultural traditions. If at some point in the future, my knowledge can be of service to sovereign nation building, you know where to find me.

Beginning with the assumption that my oral history is accurate and true:

In “Make A Beautiful Way: The Wisdom of Native American Women” there is a chapter written by Barbara Alice Mann, titled “Slow Runners“. Ms. Mann details the difficulties eastern Tribes have had in gaining recognition, not just outside Indian Country, but also from within Indian Country. This chapter highlighted pieces of information that helped me more fully comprehend how my familial history as an Ojibwe is a really complicated symphony. The oral history I have been given is that my paternal great-grandmother, Velma, was Chippewa, but she had been adopted by a white family and had essentially acculturated as a white person. Given the political and social components of the time she lived in and what her choices might have been, it’s not hard to see how this transpired. What Ms. Mann’s article provided for me was a more in-depth contextualization, especially as it pertains to Native peoples who lived in the Ohio Valley, which is where my people are from.

Mann points out that in 1888 a special law was enacted to hasten the removal of Native people’s from the Ohio Valley. “Because minimizing the number of Indians eligible to receive land was a primary goal, a special law, 25 Stat. L, 392, was passed in 1888, declaring that Indian women who married Euro-American men were no longer Native, and neither were their children”. (p.90) Nookomis Velma was born in 1896 and that same year the Curtis Act was passed. The Curtis act required that Natives were to be expunged from the Tribal rolls forever, once they accepted the deed to their land allotment. In 1898, the Dawes Commission was formed and the possibility of an Indian woman living a life free from genocide, harassment or oppression practically disappeared. This happened consistently across the continent.

For a person with a conscience, it’s rough terrain to travel: knowing that the link to my culture is tenuous because it is, so far, based solely on an oral history. Add in the effects of colonization, and the chances of providing anything that comes close to proof are practically nil. The closest I can get to my Ojibwe heritage, so far (having not traveled yet to Ohio) is to say that I found Velma on the register of an orphanage at the age of 13. I also found her on a census at the age of 2, the granddaughter of a man who is not listed as her father on her birth certificate. But the father listed on her birth certificate died ten years before she was born. The family she is associated with at the age of 2 lived in Franklin township, Warren county, Ohio. At age 19 she gave birth to my grandfather and named him Franklin Warren.

Our family history, orally, is tenuous in the sense that we have scattered and my little branch of our family was kind of the black sheep branch of the family. I have extended family and yet do not know them. I have bits and pieces of stories that were spoken to me and an inability to reach out and find the connectors. That’s a story for another day.

In “Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism” by Devon Abbott Mihesuah, one specific chapter provides me great insight about the process of claiming identity. Chapter 8, titled ” Modern American Indigenous Female Identity” highlights the process by which Indigenous women come to terms with who they are with respect to their cultural history. This has been very helpful to me in identifying both the stages and the pitfalls that accompany claiming identity and resolving the internal conflicts associated with those processes. Once I started reading, it helped me to understand, more clearly how this process might unfold for someone who has the stereotypical look of a Native person and how that experience is different from mine because I don’t “look Native”. More specifically, it helps me to identify the pitfalls as I strive to not be that person who claims an “articulated identity” when it’s convenient and who uses it to acquire some sort of privilege in the world.

Ending with the assumption that my oral history is untrue: 

These questions then come up for me: who am I? what do I do with the knowledge I have gained? What are the consequences of me moving forward on the assumption that my oral history is true until it can be proven to be untrue? What if I never find out for sure? How do I claim my ancestry, respectfully, without causing harm to others who live and breathe all the aspects of their identity? Who can’t escape the stereotypes and whose families paid the price for being who they are?

My first premise is ‘do no harm’. I will not act in a manner that deprives another person who has lived an authentic Native experience of their truth, their right to speak, to be an authority. I will choose carefully how I share my wisdom and knowledge since I have no authority under which I can speak.

I do this mostly in silence. On my own. With a humble heart. My knowledge and wisdom are shared sparingly, wisely, lest I fall into the trap of speaking on behalf of a culture for which I have no formal teachings or authority. I do not link my knowledge and wisdom formally to my ancestral heritage, even though there are teachings I believe have come to me from my ancestors.

Mostly I often speak to my ancestors and ask for their guidance on this journey. I don’t want to dredge up a painful past of pain and suffering if I am incapable of doing anything to make it right.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be accused of being a PretIndian or a wannabe. Don’t call me a mutt or refer to my ancestry as if it is nothing more than a steak sauce. Not when my heart and soul are afire with questions and the desire to be authentically human; not when I am a complicated and powerful woman, strong with many weaknesses, wise and foolish but passionately driven to always do good work with good people.

Miigwech and Moran Taing. May we come together in peace and know each other for the authentically beautiful souls we are.

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Twylia (the 'i' is silent)

~ I am Anishinaabe-kwe with Scottish heritage and Sami DNA. I speak on the behalf of no one but myself. My ancestors inform and guide me. My voice is but one of many who are calling for change. We have much work to do to create a good space for the real human beings who are waiting to be born.

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