When I go to an Indian Country event, this is the kind of dialogue I encounter:
“So are you native?”
“That’s cool, I’m Dine.”
When I discuss my passions for improving the health of native communities with “outsiders”, this is the kind of dialogue I encounter:
“–and I’m really passionate about it, partly because of my grandfather and my Potawatomi heritage. I’m especially concerned with–”
“…um, yes. But it’s really irrel–”
“Feather, not dot, right? But you have light eyes. You can’t be full blood, can you?”
Until two years ago, I never networked with other tribal students. I never experienced positive conversations like the first. I only knew conversations like the second. And to be honest, it made me extremely insecure. I almost didn’t want to be a part of the community because I thought anyone who wasn’t a part of my family would ostracize me like that. Because I didn’t fit some stereotype. Because I wasn’t full-blood and I didn’t grow up on a reservation. I began to understand why my brother feels uncomfortable acknowledging his heritage. I might have light eyes, but I have my grandfather’s features and a darker complexion. My brother, on the other hand, inherited blond hair from some mysterious, hidden gene pool in our family history. We don’t look anything alike. He doesn’t even look like our parents.
Well, I’m really glad I got over my looks because, quite frankly, I probably inherited a proportionately unbalanced amount of traits from my grandfather’s side. I’m not full-blood Indian; of course I’m going to look like all of the many things that I am. And that’s just fine, because it’s what I am. I don’t need to live up to someone else’s stereotype, especially if that’s going to keep me from doing what I want to do.
My experiences with AISES really opened my eyes to that. That first conversation was actually part of a real conversation from a trip in Alaska in 2012. No one cared what my blood quantum is. When heard the word Potawatomi, they didn’t interrogate me about its validity; they asked me to explain my culture. They explained to me theirs. I learned that many of my friends were also from very, very, very diverse backgrounds. Some were 100%, sure, but some were 10% with a heavy dose of Latino, or Chinese, or German. Many friends had French last names for the same reason I have one. (My one friend even jokes that anyone from our region’s “got some kind of French in there somewhere”.) Probably the best part from the first conversation is when my to-be friend took in the word Potawatomi and said, “Wow…I can see green in your eyes. They’re so beautiful! You don’t see too many of those here. So are you in the research competition?”
This was so not a conversation #2.
That’s one of the reasons I really love the diversity of my AISES community. We’re all so different, and yet so similar. We all have crazy histories, and some of us are still living crazy, oppressed lives. But we come together and we share and there’s no comparing or edging one another out. Maybe that’s why there’s so much oppression on the outside; others look at groups of people and make it all black-and-white, talk them down, crush them if they pose a threat.
I actually really hate the blood quantum rules. I mean, each tribe is different. Some are certainly more lenient than others, but not all tribes are even federally recognized and even less have reservations. While I think it’s necessary to protect minority communities from undeserving people who might raid any benefits, the rules also make it difficult to have an identity that is separate from a label.
I’ve had people ask me: “You’re like, what? 50? 20? 10% native? Why do you even care? You don’t live on a reservation. It’s not like you need anything.”
Right, because I’m perfectly fine living an ordinary life while other people who share many of my histories are suffering so that you can have your freedoms.
How can I not care??
I’ve worked twice now in Cameroon on an Engineers Without Borders trip. I flew a bunch of construction boots over to donate this last trip. No one asked me to, I just saw a need and filled it with the means. I’m not Cameroonian.
I’m traveling to Haiti in December on a social justice trip that will help impoverished communities with their farming techniques. I don’t get paid for the trip, I will just gain experience. I’m not Haitian.
Why do I need to be FROM something or AFFECTED directly by something to justify caring about it??
That is why I have decided on a new motto, a new mantra that I will think about every time I am discourage in my fight for social justice among rural, native, whatever communities:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 100%, 50%, or 0% by blood. You just have to be 110% human.”
Because being 100% human apparently doesn’t mean being humane, compassionate, or caring anymore. You have to be that little bit more, and you have to act on it. And that’s what I’ve decided I am. I am 110% and x, y, z% a million other components, but I will still continue to work on my projects and I will still dedicate my time to US Indian Reservations and native communities. I don’t care what percentage anyone is. It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter to care. In fact, (ridiculous example, but) the US Census Bureau could call me today and say “There’s been an error, you’re actually 100% Blackfoot.” They could call me and say “You’re actually 100% Polish and all of those other census records were forged.”
I DON’T CARE! Either way, I would continue my work. I don’t care. And NO one should care. NO one should have to justify being 110% human, and that’s the identity I choose to live with.