Once again, this topic is ‘up’ in the world. Once again, I’ve been made to look deep inside myself to more clearly articulate for myself the meaning of who I am. I offer these words as a way for folks to think about how we have this conversation. Divisive politics are en force and we find ourselves, again, in a culture war. This isn’t new. For centuries this has played out in humanity. On all the lands. My words and experience may not make a difference. I have been working on this blog post for several weeks. Sitting on it….trying to decide whether or not to put the words out there. There are a lot of “I”, “my” and “me” words in it….so it feels very self-absorbed….however, the urge to share persists, in the belief that the words might help shift the conversations.
I claim identity as Ojibwe (father), Cherokee (mother) and Scottish (both). My genetic identity spectrum is wide, I’m sure, but I most often hear the voices of those ancestors. One can’t know human history, the migration and oral stories, without also knowing that one’s lineage is probably very diverse.
I want to clarify what I mean when I say I hear the voices of ancestors, because I know it might sound very new-agey.
Let me start by saying – the stories around how my family endured the onslaught of colonial settlers are missing. The passing down of those stories was interrupted, at least in one case, by an ‘adoption’. I can infer, based on a combination of history, geographical location and the few oral histories that I do know. Inference is not proof, however. This fact advises caution about how I claim identity.
It isn’t as if stories were not passed down in my family. I’m finding that some of the teachings and stories I have are very aligned to the teachings of my ancestors. It happens that they were passed down in less conspicuous ways. Some of them were shared as lessons, which people referred to as ‘old wives tales’. The stories were not traditionally or formally handed down.
I’m grateful for those teachings. Teachings such as ‘leave a light footprint’ or ‘leave a place better than you found it’, ‘honor all life’….Detailed stories about origin, knowledge about how to interact with the natural world, traditional and cultural practices were not passed down in a formal way. But they live in me. They are in my DNA, and they are part of who I am. This is what I mean when I say I hear the voices of my ancestors.
When I am fulfilling my passion for the preservation of relationship to the land, when I am acting in a way that affirms the belief that all life is precious, when I speak truth to power or rally to the defense of those who are being oppressed or marginalized, when I put my feet on the soil and sing to the water, when I speak the language and call my relatives by their name, I feel the hand and hear their voices.
As I have stated, I always endeavor to speak cautiously and respectfully about my Indigeneity. I’m keenly aware of how I look. Of my place in this world. What is in my blood doesn’t automatically grant me access or credibility. I have peace with that reality because I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. The work at hand is embodying more of who I am. I do not attempt to take space or speak over/for others. My commitment and credo is rooted in knowing that my voice is my own, sovereignty exists within my body and soul and should never be exercised or expressed to the detriment of someone else’s sovereignty or Indigeneity.
There are so many people who do have those stories, the traditions and the cultures- whose families risked life and limb to preserve the telling, to ensure that the stories were not forgotten. I have deep respect for that.
Why do we have these conversations about identity and belonging? Perhaps the single biggest influence on this conversation begins with people who want to belong to ‘the tribe’ for reasons that are not rooted in wisdom.
Because I know the likelihood is high that my European/settler ancestors participated in genocide, I try to keep myself grounded in the realm of identify. I live every day with the knowledge that, while I am a descendant of a woman who was adopted out to a non-Native family, I am also probably a descendant of someone who perpetrated theft, violence, forced removals and oppression. I’m not going to run from it. I’m going to own it and try to make amends in whatever way I can.
Navigating the identity question requires a willingness to always check my privilege. To know that privilege can come into play on even the most knowledgeable, ‘woke’, free-thinking person walking the planet, sometimes sneakily, and cause harm. It’s not easy, and believe me, it’s really painful to acknowledge when privilege is showing, especially if I didn’t catch on until later.
To those who want to belong to “the tribe” – self-awareness and humility go a long way in claiming identity honorably.
I am here. It’s not by accident. I honor all who paved the way for me to be here. I’m committed to being the best representation of myself that I can be, to helping right any wrongs that have been done by those who precede me, to lay a good foundation for those who will follow so that we may find the truest meaning of being sisters, brothers, cousins.