apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
What is a deficits based narrative?
When I talk with groups, I often try to reserve a small portion of time to talk about the importance of using assets-based research and assets-based reporting when we talk about Indigenous communities. This concept is hard for a lot of people to grasp, especially people who have been trained in western approaches to research and grant writing. In academia, we are taught to really drill down to the most compelling story in our writing, and the disparities narrative is usually the easiest compelling story to write.
We have all read these papers, and most of us have written them. I have. The format remains strong- start by introducing the population of interest. Describe who they are, describe the problem, and then describe how extensive the problem is with that population. Use whatever (reliable) statistics available to emphasize how that negatively that population is impacted by the problem. Try to pull statistics from recent publications, but if you can’t find them it’s okay to use older publications- just explain that this population is so overlooked, there just aren’t good statistics on this problem. If it were television, the camera would be guiding you through the dirtiest, ugliest slums, zooming in on children with their bellies plump from kwashiorkor, flies dipping in and out of their eyelashes. Some of us call this poverty porn.
Some defend this model, arguing that it is extremely effective for presenting their case, especially in grant writing. After all, in our environment of limited funding, if you want to convince your reader that your grant is the most important grant in the pile, you better be solving world hunger. The defenders tell me that sugar-coating the problems allows people to pretend these problems do not exist or allow other issues to gain attention over ours. We don’t want to capitulate to some dumb bench research about invisibility-linked ligands, after all.
The reason I fight so vociferously for assets-based research is multifold. First, I have vivid memories of being a teenager and reading statistics about Native Americans- that we had the highest rates of suicide mortality, the highest rates of alcoholism, the highest rates of drunk driving deaths, the highest everything- and feeling as though there was no reason to even try. The odds were clearly stacked against me. Deficits-based reporting does an excellent job of reinforcing stereotypes. If you want to believe that Native Americans are poor, alcoholic, and unemployed, it is incredibly easy to find academic papers that will support those beliefs. Finally, I believe there is an unintended consequence of this type of reporting, the reporting in which all the worse outcomes are cherry-picked from the reports and presented together to paint a worst-case scenario picture. This consequence is a prophecy for readers of what is to come, instead of what we are fighting against.
Thus, I urge all who write about our peoples to focus on the positive. If you want to write about health outcomes, also write about our rich cultural diversity, our incredible tenacity and the centuries-long resistance we have mounted against multiple colonial invaders. Remind readers about the insidious attempts at genocide that have been ongoing for generations that have included a systematically underfunded healthcare system that was treaty-guaranteed and a judicial system that has failed to take responsibility for the staggering rates of missing and murdered women. Place those statistics in context, and when you write up those reports, include the negative findings that show places of strength. Our lives depend on it.
My son’s school had what its seasonally-appropriate musical demonstration today. He goes to a private Montessori school that has about 100 students ranging from 2-12 years old, and he’s been there since he was 2. This is his last year, so everything that he does he observes as his last. Today was his “last Winter Concert.” When you’re 11-years-old and time creeps by, these things are a big deal. He has been looking forward to this for a long time.
His school educates students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, and they always work hard to have a non-denominational winter concert, which isn’t easy. Today’s program had a theme of “Peace,” and the only song that one would really associate with Christmas was Jingle Bell Rock. There were some cute preschool songs, a song by Cat Stevens, and a few folk songs. And then in the middle, the first grade class performed a song that made me say, out loud in the middle of the audience, “Oh, fuck.”
The name of the song was Just Walk Beside Me and it was attributed as being a “Native American Proverb (adapted).” I don’t remember all the lyrics, but it basically went like this:
Hey ho ho hey
Don’t walk in front of me
Don’t walk in back of me
I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
Hey ho ho hey
There was some really stupid choreography, and the music was a very basic chant that made it sound like it was written for a boy scout fire circle. And of course, it was first graders, so it was cute and derivative, so all the parents were beaming and smiling and laughing. They may as well have been patting their mouths and yelling “woo woo woo woo woo” and hopping from foot to foot. I couldn’t even watch. I was so angry.
Some of you dear readers are right there with me, I know. Thank you for your outrage.
For everyone else, I will explain.
If you google search this song, it shows up as the “Camp Kesem Closing Song," it’s also attributed to Albert Camus, Winnie the pooh, and a 12-year-old girl. Among others. I mean, come on!
There I was, in the middle of this performance, seething. My only comfort was that this was the first-grade class, and my son is in the 6th grade, so I had several other classes to sit through before his and thus I had time to regain my composure. By the time he was on the risers I was back in the moment and wasn’t quite so ready to rip off someone’s head.
After the concert, the director of the school gave a pitch asking for donations to support the schools’ art, music, and Spanish programs. I didn’t stay to listen. We’ve been burned by the Spanish program (tipi in the classroom), and now the music program. We really like the art teacher, and we’ve bought enough dang raffle tickets in the years we’ve sent kids to the school to support at least one year of her salary. I just wanted to leave, I was so frustrated and angry and… wondering where my allies were.
I was so angry not just because the school did a bad, but because I knew that unless I made a fuss, it was going to go unnoticed. Just like all the others. Just like the time the teachers started calling my son by the wrong name. We’ll pretend my son is named Sam, but that is a nickname, a shortened version of a longer Apache name. His teacher started calling him Samuel, which is a name from the Bible. We are not Christian, we are not Jewish, and I would not give my child a name from the Bible. I had to make a point of getting in touch with the teacher to tell her that his name is not Samuel, it is (different Apache name), and I had to ask her to not call him Samuel. (This has happened twice, by the way). They assume, instead of looking in the roster. They assume they are correct, and until I say otherwise, they go along with this assumption. This is no different- until I say something, they will smile and talk about what a wonderful concert that was, and weren’t those kids darling, and they will have no idea that they did a racist, lazy-ass, shitty song that reinforced racist stereotypes for the entire school audience.
Do you remember way back in November of 2016, when people started wearing safety pins to demonstrate their status as allies? The whole world had fallen apart, a tyrant had been elected president, and white liberals responded by pinning a safety pin to their shirts. I will confess, I did it too. I marched and wrote stuff and was pretty upset. I was concerned about what this meant for indigenous people’s rights, and as it turns out I was right to worry. I was also upset by how upset everyone else was, because it felt like I had been invisible for all these years, and now these safety-pin-wearing people were crying and moaning and posting on facebook about how they had been betrayed by white women – white women (!) and what were they thinking (!) and now they needed a secret sign just so they could tell the allies from the betrayers. Eventually some people wrote some essays and the whole concept of ally was unpacked and people unpinned their safety pins, and other people did their laundry and just never put the safety pin back on the shirt, and then it was a new year, and then a zillion other unimaginable things happened and we had so many real-life things to worry about that safety pins stopped being the thing to read about on the internet.
When the safety-pin debacle happened, the critique was that it was an empty gesture. It is easy to designate oneself as an ally, but behaving as an ally is complicated. It’s hard. It is challenging. I have occasionally seen safety pins lately, and I saw one today as I was leaving the concert. I didn’t even look at the person who was wearing the pin, I just saw it and nodded- yup. Empty gesture. Behaving as an ally means doing more than saying you are there, it means learning that calling a song a Native American Proverb is racist, and then- and this is the important part- speaking out about it so that the people who are really impacted by this don’t have to. It means paying attention to the names of the children in your class, or in your orchestra, and when you are using their full name you make sure you use the correct name and you do your damnedest to pronounce it correctly. It means learning that you made a mistake, correcting that mistake and then apologizing for being an asshole without making the person you wronged have to do the emotional work of educating you then forgiving you.
I have a friend who I would call an ally. She sends her kids to summer camp every year, and at that summer camp they designated every class by a different tribe. She and I were talking one day and she told me about this, and I kind of lost my shit. Because you don’t call kids’ camp classes by tribe. It’s bullshit- it objectifies these tribes, dehumanizes them. Call them the damn Dolphins and the Racoons or the Oaks and the Aspens but don’t call one camp class the Lakota and another the Potawatomi. My friend contacted the camp director, and over the course of months (yes, months!), they changed the formatting of their camp so they no longer use tribe names for their different classes. My friend had to challenge the camp director, she had to say this was racist and she had to justify her claim because the camp didn’t believe her. But once it was said, they listened and they changed their practice. This is what an ally does. My friend doesn’t wear a safety pin on her shirt. She is an ally because she cares about people, not because it looks good.
I wish I had more friends like this. I am so tired of this. As I texted my ally friend when I was listening and seething today, I am so done with this. So done. I wish I could easily take my kid out of this school, but this happens everywhere. Instead I’m writing about it here, and I’ll tell my therapist, and I’m telling you. And when I’m done being so angry, I’ll tell the school. When I don’t feel like ripping figurative heads from bodies, I’ll tell the school. I will confess though- I did have fantasies of standing up in the middle of the concert and yelling, “What the actual fuck, you guys? What are you thinking? Who is allowing this to happen?” These were just fantasies, though. Just fantasies. I didn’t ruin the concert for anyone, I promise. They ruined it for me, but I made sure everyone had a wonderful time watching their child perpetuate societal racism on for yet another generation. It was adorable.
I have been listening to Maeve Higgins’ memoir Maeve in America on audiobook. In this book she writes about her identity as an Irish woman, a funny person, and the cultural experience of being a funny Irish person in America. I have always appreciated her humor- I find her bracing, sharp, and smart; and as a person who adores puns, I love listening to her when she is just chatting away on podcasts because there is always another layer to her humor that leaves me meowing out in laughter as I drive, shower, cook, and so on. I live in New Mexico and she lives in New York City, but other than the fact that she is clearly a dog person and I am most definitely not a dog person, I wish I could meet her because I feel like we could be friends.
Listening to her book this morning as I showered, I was thinking about my time in Ireland in the mid-1990’s. After college, I spent a year there, working through a student visa work-abroad program. Many people asked me, “Why Ireland?”
I’d shrug. “Well, with a BA in music, I was destined to pour coffee somewhere. I figured it might as well be someplace good.”
They asked, “Why not someplace else?”
“Because they speak English in Ireland.”
That was part of it. In truth, ever since I had fallen in love with The Pogues in high school, I had wanted to go to Ireland. From The Pogues, I learned about The Troubles, and learned that there was another place in the English-speaking world where colonization had created a culture of dispossessed peoples. I was fascinated with Ireland for many reasons- I loved the music, I loved the counter culture, I found the idea of this colonized island where the people had fought back and were still fighting inspiring and invigorating. I didn’t have the maturity or resources to investigate these ideas then- I was pretty wrapped up in my own feelings of marginalization and I had no place to put that, and I was fairly depressed and aimless, and I really had no idea what I was going to do with my BA in music, so Ireland was a great adventure or curiosity.
When I arrived in Ireland, I found out a few really important details that the American Myth of Ireland had failed to provide prior to my trip. First, a lot of Americans make a pilgrimage to Ireland to discover their Irish roots. A lot. Really, more than you can imagine. At the time, it was an island where more people emigrated than remained, and that was a key feature of the culture. Everyone I talked to had a cousin in Boston. Imagine all those people, for generations, coming back as tourist and talking about their grandparents’, great-grandparents’, great-great-grandparents’ immigration story. I get pretty tired of hearing about so-and-so’s Cherokee great-grandmother. I can’t imagine if all those people took regular trips to Tulsa to visit their Great-grandmother’s (relocated) homeland.
When I was in Ireland, many of the people I met would become very guarded when they learned I was American. They would instantly pause, as though they were waiting for me to proudly announce my ancestral hometown. Some people came out and asked me. When I said, “no, I have no connection to Ireland. I’m Native American. Apache. I just came here because I thought it would be cool.” They would visibly relax- it was a mirror of the response I must have when someone starts up about their Cherokee Princess relation. People would show near disbelief at times, as though to ask, “Then why are you here? Why would you come here? We are all leaving, why would you want to be here?”
.The second myth was one that I had created in my head- and that was that people drink coffee in Ireland. They may drink coffee now, but they sure didn’t drink a lot of coffee in 1995. It was all tea then, and nobody wanted to hire me to pour tea. There was just about one coffee shop in Dublin, and they did not want to hire me. It took me months to get a job. Dang, but I was broke. Broke, and depressed. That is how I would characterize most of my time in Dublin. Oh, and drunk. Broke, depressed, and drunk. So basically, I fit right in with everyone else in my building where nobody seemed to work much, but everyone had enough money for hash and cider.
I had a friend of a friend with whom I stayed when I first arrived, Mary. Mary was a great resource- she was a little older than I, she had a house and she even gave me a temporary job when I wasn’t able to find one. Mary and I spoke a little about how we had a shared history of colonization- the Irish and the Native Americans. Mary talked about the burden of occupation, the history of Ireland and the difficulty of untangling the feelings of being part of the country that colonized yours, yet also deeply resenting that country. As I wrote earlier- I was still young and hadn’t really investigated my own feelings about my own colonization. I wish I still knew Mary so I could have this conversation again, it would be so much more nuanced. I wouldn’t be so drunk.
In spite of the difficulties finding work, when I was in Ireland I felt at home. A quality of Irish culture that Higgins writes about in her book is the humor- that her family values laughter, taking the piss, slagging off. Although it was a surprise at first to me, and being a stranger in a strange land is always a little off-putting, I really loved the laughter I found in Ireland. I loved the relaxed feeling of laughing, the set-up and pitch of a really good joke, and the expectation that not only would I be able to take a joke, but it would able be okay for me to give it out every once in awhile. It was so much like Native humor, it was comfortable for me to slide right in and be myself.
Humor in Indian Country is all about laughing at ourselves and each other. To fit in with my family, you are quick-witted, easily amused, and you understand that the worst insults are often the best compliments, because then you are part of the community. In Indian Country, people’s most disfiguring features become their nick-names. In the white world, you don’t mention a person’s size. In Indian Country, that guy’s name is Fatty.
When I came back from Ireland, I went to nursing school then got a job as a hospice nurse. The first week on the job, we were all standing around a patient’s bed, changing her sheets and cleaning up her bed and general area. The patient was close to death, and it had been a prolonged decline. I was still training, so I was working closely with my supervisor, so she was talking me through the job, and we were having a great time that afternoon. We were laughing and chatting, and she stopped herself and said as an aside- “Oh, I’m sorry. I should have said, in hospice we tend to have gallows humor.”
I was surprised by her comment, because I had no idea what gallows humor even was. I didn’t realize we were using gallows humor; we were simply doing our job, respectfully helping our patient get comfortable with clean bedding and nice surroundings, and involving her in our jokes even though she couldn’t respond any more because she was… well… dying. We weren’t making jokes at her expense, we were being respectful, but we were definitely laughing and having a good time. At that moment I realized that my life had been defined by a sense of humor that was maudlin and tinged with an edge of darkness. That is what we have in Indian Country, and that was what I found in Ireland- people who see the darkness, understand that there is death, poverty, and conflict. Instead of looking away or denying its presence, we choose to stand next to it and laugh.
As I read Higgins’ writing about her family’s humor, I wanted to invite her to spend time in Indian Country. I think she would find that she may struggle with the small talk- we would rather sit in absolute silence than talk slowly about tea during a train ride, but we will be happy to laugh long into the night, relaxing and chatting over nothing at all. I might be flexible about the dog thing, because Yorkies are adorable, and even forgivable given they are pedigree dogs and all that. Pugs though? They’re just weird.
I fly a lot. I go to conferences, professional meetings, grant meetings, and occasionally I get to fly for pleasure. Not too long ago I was on an airplane with my family, heading off for a family vacation. I’m sitting next to my beautiful Apache sons; we are so excited to finally have this holiday together. This is the same holiday we had planned for Spring Break 2017, but the trip was ruined by one of the many snowpocalypse disasters that are most certainly not an indicator of global climate change. After having this trip cancelled- no, ruined- once, we are finally on the airplane and heading east together, high on anticipation and maybe a little caffeine.
Unfortunately, airplanes end up being the home of some of the worst racism I personally encounter. As a white-passing Native person, I have the privilege of skating through my days without being othered on a regular basis, particularly when I make the conscious effort to stay in my lane. Airplanes force me out of my lane. Worse, they force me to come in close contact with strangers and their racial biases.
It most often happens with white people. They are almost always older than me. I’m 44 years old and this has been happening to me for as long as I have been flying by myself, I wonder if this will continue until I die. Like, I will be 95 years old and have some 105-year-old crepe-paper transparent skinned guy in the seat next to me, arms covered in bruises and band-aids, sucking on his personal oxygen delivery system, and he will pull back his O2 face mask to start chatting me up about whatever shit and somehow even this guy will find some way to drop a racist shit-bomb on me.
The most frequent insult is one that I can watch coming, one I brace myself against but typically cannot prevent. It comes in the form of the Chatty Seatmate. The chatty seatmate will sit down and begin by asking me where I’m going. I’ll smile politely and respond. Business or pleasure, he’ll ask me. I’ll look back up from my book and say, “business.”
“What is it that you do?”
“I’m an associate professor of nursing.”
“Really?” his curiosity will be piqued. This is where I brace myself. I’ve tried to take a different approach and say that I’m a nurse, but then he asks where I practice and then I have to do this long and complicated explanation about not practicing because and because and… so it’s easier to just say it straight out. Then he will ask what I teach, or where, or if he really knows what faculty do, he’ll ask me about this. If I lie and say I practice somewhere, he’ll ask if I know so-and-so. I’m a terrible liar, and it gets weird, so I’ve learned to be honest because that makes it less weird. Weird, but less weird. The long and the short of it is, the chatty seatmate will eventually get around to asking me about what I really do.
“I do research with Native American communities. I do research on cancer disparities.”
This is where he usually cocks his head like a parakeet. The gears are turning. He could go so many directions here, but he always ends up in the same place. “Well, it’s because of alcoholism, of course.”
Here is where I have no good response. What I want to say is, “well, your answer is based on your racist stereotype of Native Americans. Substance abuse and general behavioral health issues are certainly an issue in our communities, but let’s not forget that white people have the highest rates of opioid abuse, opioid-related accidental death, and other substance-abuse related morbidity and mortality, you ignorant jerk. Of course.” But instead I stammer and get really academic and end up trying to end the conversation with something along the lines of “well, no, that’s not really a direct causal component of the leading causes of cancer death, which are the same as whites- prostate and breast, lung cancer and colorectal cancer.”
At this point, my chatty seatmate will either transition into one of the next categories or they will continue to argue about alcohol abuse in Native communities, whitesplaining this problem to me as though I don’t know the facts better than they do, as though I haven't dedicated my career to these issues. Published in high impact journals on this. Have established expertise. But yeah. Good times.
Frequently the chatty seatmate will transition into the Reservation Neighbor. They will tell me all about how they grew up or once lived in Idaho or Arizona or Oklahoma or whatever state has a reservation in it. Authority established, I get to hear about how there were always passed out bodies lining the sidewalks in front of the Indian bars in their border town back in the early 1960s. I’ll hear about how they were always drunk, or they couldn’t take care of their children, or their kids were overloading the foster care system or welfare or whatever social systems were polluted by these dirty, uneducated, (savage) group of less-than-human creatures. The best ones will talk about how they were the only white family in their school, so they know what it is like to be subject to racism because those Native American kids were really mean to them.
I often hope they will be the Reservation Neighbor. The Reservation Neighbor gives me the opportunity to casually say, “Oh really? That sounds terrible. It isn’t at all like that with my tribe.”
This will stop the conversation instantly. The Reservation Neighbor will pause mid-breath and look at me. They will parakeet cock their head in the opposite direction, visually running an ELISA assay with my blood quantum. Dark eyes, darkish hair, bone structure, yes. Brown hair, olive-tinged skin- maybe? Too slender to be Indian, of course. If they are really clueless, they keep going. At this point, I get out my headphones and pick up my book. I don’t need to put up with this garbage. Even so, many people want to slip in their connection to royalty.
You may have met her, the Cherokee Granddaughter. I have. This country is overrun with Cherokee Granddaughters. I really hope the Cherokee Nation is prepared for the day when all these Cherokee Granddaughters come knocking on their door, hoping to register for tribal member status. I can imagine the emergency plan they have in place, perhaps running occasional drills to confirm their preparedness. This plan has a special phone tree, some arms set up to bring in tribal registrars from other tribes to provide relief from the late nights spent searching down non-existent family records, others specifically designated to bring in tents, tables and chairs, tribal librarians on call at all times. There are tribal counselors with a designated tent, on hand to provide trauma-informed care with these Princesses once their lineage is denied and the family history about grandma is proven wrong.
The Cherokee Granddaughter is the woman who has been told that she has “Indian Blood”. She always attributes it to that grandmother who really looks “Native American” in her sepia-toned black and white wedding photo taken back in 1915. This is the grandmother who, according to family lore, had high cheekbones and “really dark skin” and “long, black hair”. Also related: Cherokee Grandson.
The Cherokee grandmother myth is so common, it has entire dissertations written about it. The genetic ancestry testing website 23andme has a faq for people who are disappointed when their DNA test comes back without any of that hearty Native American blood they were promised in those bedtime stories about grandma. Whenever someone tells me that they have a Cherokee grandmother, I feel embarrassed for them. They are telling me so much about themselves when they say this. They are telling me that they believed their grandmother was essentially stolen away from her tribe, a weak woman who was liberated from her savage captors and shown the wonderful ways of the white world. They are telling me that once this woman married their grandfather, she abandoned her family and all her connections to home.
The Cherokee Granddaughter is demonstrating her belief in white superiority by perpetuating the Cherokee Granddaughter myth, and worse, she is commodifying the very important relationship that those of us who are indigenous have with our tribes, families, and traditional beliefs and ways. She is telling me that this fictitious ancestry is a collectible, like an Elvis plate you’d buy from the Franklin Mint and hang on the wall but is otherwise meaningless.
Finally, I have the Overheard Racism. This brings us to the flight with my kids. I’m in a row with my boys, ages 13 and 10, and sitting right behind us is an unpleasantly perfect example of Overheard Racism. As we are taxiing to take-off, we hear the women behind us. We have behind us, the Chatty Seatmate and the Reservation Neighbor combined in one. She is sitting next to two women who are not from New Mexico, and she is DELIGHTED to tell them all about her life in Farmington, NM. She works in the public education system in this border town, where her student population is a combination of Spanish-speaking new immigrant families and Navajo families.
She begins by telling her neighbors about her students. Everything she says is done in a very authoritative, matter-of-fact way, and she is loud. I am actually surprised that she is speaking so loudly, maybe she’s using her teacher voice. Her students, she says, have a lot of learning issues. All the students are bilingual, some speak more English than others. It’s clear that she believes it’s her job as a public school educator to assimilate her students, and this includes ensuring they can learn in English.
“The Spanish-speaking students are at an advantage”, she says. “At the very least, they can learn in one of their languages. But the Navajo students? They really can’t learn in either language. It’s so sad.” She does not sound very sad as she says this. The other women in her row commiserate, yes. So sad. Luridly sad. She goes on, describing how these poor children are virtually unreachable. No education, and really no way to teach them- they don’t want to learn. Their families have no interest in education, this goes generation after generation. So horrible. Yes, so horrible, her seat-mates agree. And then one of the women in the row begins pressing her for more information.
“And what about the abuse?”
“Oh yes, there is so much abuse in those children.”
“Yes, so sad.” And they all cluck like hens.
I have turned in my seat and given them stink-eye at least twice by this point. I am aghast that this conversation is taking place behind me, that my sons are hearing this conversation. I try to tell the older son to not pay attention. He is reading a book, I am hoping he isn’t even paying attention to me. The 10-year-old is looking out the window. I lean over and tell him, for one of the few times in his life, to put in his earbuds and play with the iPad. He refuses, he is too interested in listening to the train wreck behind us. The plane is starting take-off. I am hoping that the sound of the engine will drown out their horrible hen-pecking.
A seatmate presses her even further. “And sexual abuse?”
“Oh yes, that is terrible in these kids. I can’t even begin to tell you.” There is more clucking.
I turn in my seat and catch the eye of one of the women. I glare at her. She gives me a sad smile, as though we are all agreeing that these poor Navajo children are just living like animals, isn’t it just awful? My heart is racing, I feel my face flush. What the actual fuck?
Then the Overheard Racist continues. “Oh, but we do have one woman in the school, she’s a teacher, and she's Navajo. She is wonderful, and she really knows how to reach them.” We learn, over the next ten minutes, that this one woman is the exception. Unlike all those others, her pet Navajo got out. She actually uses those words, “got out.” She describes how this woman is so smart, and good at what she does. Overheard Racist goes into great detail about this woman’s life history as though she is trying to figure out for herself what it is that sets her pet Navajo apart, what life event happened that made her so “special”. She speaks with such pride about her pet Navajo as she describes a work-related trip they took to Chicago; the pet had never been on an airplane, she was in awe of the big city, and the Overheard Racist made the whole world available to her.
The 10-year-old looks at me with a look in his eyes I haven’t seen before, as though he’s trying to make fun of it but he just can’t. It's as though he's trying to roll his eyes at me in solidarity, but he just can't quite make it work. I am distressed. I can’t make this woman stop. She keeps going and going, passionately describing her experiences working with Navajo people in such a derogatory manner, and she won’t stop. Through the course of her conversation with her new best friends, it is clear that this woman, this educator, believes that Native Americans are uneducable, lost causes, essentially animals. When she meets a Native American who breaks her stereotype, it’s because this one person is somehow an exception to the rule. *
I look to my husband and ask him to send a privileged white guy stink-eye over their way. He looks back at them, then looks at me and shrugs. They keep going. I am overwhelmed, helpless. Our plane is wheels up, I can’t stand up, and if I did I have no idea what I would say. All I can think is that my kids are hearing how the rest of the world thinks about Native Americans, and it really, really sucks. I have done everything humanly possible to shelter them from this, and here we are, and I am powerless. So, I do the only thing I have left. I cry. I sit in my seat and tears fall.
Eventually they transition to talking about Overheard Racist’s impending retirement plans. I hope she retires to someplace nice and warm. I’m thinking someplace where lava flows freely, and fire shoots up from the scorched soil everlasting, like maybe . . . hell?
Airplanes are little indiscriminate sardine cans, randomizing society into little 3-seat clusters. I never know what I’m going to get. A lot of people of color I know will board the plane and immediately put in earbuds so they don’t have to listen to the craziness around them. Without hearing the crappy things people say, there is some insulation from the soul wounds that can slowly wear you away over time. I can only tolerate earbuds for so long, this strategy doesn’t work that well for me.
We talk about travel exposing us to all the world has to offer. As a parent, I want to share new experiences with my kids and take them to great new places. Unfortunately, this means we get to hear, see, and experience those rotten parts of humanity that I would prefer we could avoid. I know that in the grand scheme of things, overhearing words is relatively minor, and it is so much better that they hear this as directed to other people than if they were spoken to or about them.
I know I shouldn't sweat the small stuff, and this is a small thing. Yet powerlessness sucks, no matter when it happens, and no matter the size. Airplanes leave me powerless just by the trapped nature of the capsule in the air effect. It is much easier to tolerate and let things go than to try to educate or persuade, particularly in a short airplane encounter. We know by existing precedent that fussing on an airplane gets people thrown off the airplanes, and it’s usually the person of color who loses that fight.
To pull this all together, no matter which Airplane Racist I have the pleasure of meeting, I get to practice (and practice) tolerance. Perhaps in the end, this is the lesson I teach my kids. Together we learn how to critically example the bullshit people say, and we learn to laugh together later about how stupid they were. It’s the equivalent of decompressing over drinks with colleagues, only I do it with my kids, with hot cocoa. At least we have each other. One thing I’ve learned from all these people is that they are alone in their opinions, and they have been waiting and waiting for someone like me to tell all about their grandmother’s damn cheekbones.
*I wrote this post on the plane. As I was writing it, my 13-year-old interrupted me to add this part. He specifically said this- that the Overheard Racist clearly felt her pet Navajo was an exception to the rule.
My husband was the guy in charge of dropping the kids off at school until early this year, when I took over. It was my turn, really. It turns out it's a lot of fun- more fun than I realized. When I used to do it- when he was out of town or had a morning meeting- it was always something I had to fit into an already busy day, usually crammed into my commute. I hated it. But now that it's just part of my day, I am really enjoying it.
One of the things I like to do is send them off with a little note in their head, a little mom-ism. As they get out of the car, I'll say something, Coach Taylor style. I often contemplate actually saying, "Clear eyes! Full Hearts! Can't Lose!" to them, partly because they would have no idea where it came from and one day they would find out it was from Friday Night Lights and it would be just another one of those weird things that mom did. I don't say it, mostly because I never remember the full saying, and end up with something like "Clear Eyes! Empty Bowels! Can't Pee! uh... Have a great day! I love you!"
Today I told one child that he is going to rock and roll all night (and party every day). The other child was slow to get out of the car, so as he was gathering his things I started small, telling him he was going to "tear it apart." As he opened the door, he was going to "shred it!" (volume increases). By the time he was out of the car and slamming the door, I yelled after him that he would "rip their heads off!!!"
The second child- the shredder- his school has a rolling drop off. It is a preschool through 6th grade, so usually there is a teacher waiting by the door when he gets out of the car. They have discouraged us in the past from telling our children to "have a good day," because this is fairly meaningless. They encourage other positive sayings, like, "work hard!" I generally support this. I am not sure what they think of my supporting his use of violence to achieve this objective. It is a Montessori school, so...
We have been going skiing lately, the boys and I. The price of candy at the ski lodge is nearly equivalent to movie theater prices, so I like to bring our own when I remember. We still have Halloween candy, because my kids really only care about the hunt. Once Halloween is over, we have bags of candy that hang around the house for a few seasons until we shove it into plastic Easter eggs and give to our friends for their annual hunt. We do eat some of in the winter, packing it in the car to enjoy après ski during the car ride down the mountain (ahhh, the joys of living in a ski town. do you like how I so casually talk about going skiing like everyone does this? total #humblebrag, right? We are the NDN middle class and proud of it.). As a result of this whole candy situation, we currently have a gallon-sized ziplock bag of candy sitting on the backseat of my car. This means, when my kid opens the door at drive-through drop-off, the teachers at his Montessori hear his mother yelling some aggressive craziness as he climbs over a huge bag full of party-sized snickers and three musketeers treats, wrappers flying everywhere. I'm sure we leave a great impression.
Speaking of Halloween... Last fall I purchased a unicorn onesie from Target. I don't want to overstate just how wonderful, how magical this unicorn onesie is. White, with a big gold star in the middle and a hood bearing a ridiculously small horn and rainbow mane, and it is fleece so it's warm, double bonus. One day in October I wore it to drop the kids off at school. The older boy, he got into the car, looked at me and smiled. He was all in. The younger kid was completely distracted when he got into the car. His motivation for getting to the car in time for us to get to school is that he gets to play on the iPad, so he didn't even look. This means we were waiting in line for drop off at his school when he looked up and saw my unicorn horn. He got a very funny smile on his face.
"Why are you wearing that?"
I tried to play it cool. "What?" I replied. Like everyone wears a unicorn onesie to drop their kid off to school.
"That?!" He tried to look irritated, but fifth graders don't necessarily pull off the amused-yet-irritated thing well.
"I don't know what you mean?" I responded. "It was cold out, so I thought I would wear something a little warmer. You know, with a hood?"
He scoffed in mock disgust. Then he got out of the car for school. "Clear hearts! Open eyes! Be awesome!" I yelled after him. He pretended he didn't know the crazy woman driving his Lyft.
I went straight home and bought two more onesies. A unicorn is awesome. A unicorn, a dragon, and a raccoon? yesssssss.
I took my kids to see our local orchestra perform. It was a magical performance, the kind where you linger a few minutes after the house lights have gone up because you just don’t want the music to end. After it became clear that the volunteer ushers were tired of us wasting their time and they wanted to go home, sit down, and watch Matlock, we gathered our coats, gloves, programs, books, devices, hats, and the kitchen sink (we don't travel light), and headed toward the exit.
On the way to our car we passed a new bakery. I was still feeling a little high from the music and therefore generous, so I suggested we poke our heads in and see if there was anything we might enjoy- maybe to prolong the good feeling just a little longer, or maybe we could get something yummy for tomorrow’s breakfast. No croissants, but they did have a very appealing selection of macarons. We waited in the very short line, then each boy selected two macarons.
As I began the quick payment transaction, I noticed with only a small bit of irritation that I was standing along-side a woman who had maybe not noticed the line of people waiting for their turn? While we had patiently waited in line then worked with the shopkeeper, this woman had walked into the shop and went directly to the register to make her order. The woman was older than me by more than a few years. She had tastefully colored blond hair, cleanly applied is-it-or-isn't-it make-up, and she was wearing clothes that were comfortable, stylish, and flattering. It takes money to get the holy trinity of fashion- that combo does not come from Target.
The shopkeeper began to tell me what I owed him for the cookies when we heard the unmistakable sound of Native American drumming, some Native American men were drumming and singing- essentially busking- not far from the bakery, We could hear it in the shop, mixing in with the general street sounds of Santa Fe. People do this from time to time here, trying to make a little money from the tourists. The woman next to me whispered loudly to everyone in the bakery with that delighted wonder in her voice that tourists get when they believe like they’re experiencing something special, “There are Indians outside!”
Without pause, I responded, “They’re inside too…”
At this point, I was just trying to pay for my damn macarons. I handed my $20 over to the shop-keeper. The woman looked over to me with a surprised look on her face.
I waited a beat then added, “...we’re everywhere!”
The cashier counted out my change, stone-faced. I took my macarons, and we exited the shop. The kids were very excited, in an "OH SNAP!" kind of way. They were delighted, and smug.
I don't often have opportunities to actively confront racism in public, in front of my kids. This was one of those times where I could not stop myself. Although it is hard for me, I do feel it is my responsibility as a parent to demonstrate for my kids just what it means to be a merciless Indian savage. I only hope I will always step up to the challenge when the opportunities arise.
This week, on This American Life… Ira Glass drilled straight down to my Gen X molten chocolate lava covered core. In Act II of the podcast (always podcast, never live radio show!), Neil Drumming and Breeze Brewin reminisce about the coveted General Lee toy, the ultimate merchandising magic from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show. I won’t say more about the story, you can listen for yourself, but it made me think about all the forbidden toys and other delights from my own childhood. For example, my brother and I weren’t allowed to watch Dukes of Hazzard- I don’t know why, but it probably had something to do with Daisy Duke and her ridiculous costume, and I bet the prominent display of the confederate flag didn’t help.
I also wasn’t allowed to play with Barbie dolls. My mother refused to allow them into our house, the closest I came was the de-sexed Skipper doll. Skipper sucked because my friends’ Barbie clothes didn’t fit her, she couldn’t wear the heels, and she was super boring. While Barbie was off rubbing boobs with all her wild-haired girlfriends and then peeling out in her hot pink Jeep with Ken sitting stiffly beside her, Skipper was trapped in the dream house doing Malibu Barbie’s algebra homework and trying to figure out how the elevator worked. My mom did give me her old dolls from the 1950’s, but of course the clothes didn’t fit, and they had these funky 1950’s hairdos that couldn’t be combed. I wasn’t really a doll kid anyway, but any interest in Barbies died a quick death when that Skipper doll showed up in my stocking. Worst. Little. Sister. Ever.
You’re probably starting to see a theme here. My mom was the modern woman who doesn’t want her daughter to grow up with a distorted body image shaped by society’s impossible images of women, imposed and imprinted from a young age. If I had been born in 2002, I would have only worn primary colors and had a name that expressed my cultural and ethnic identity without revealing my gender identity.
Of course, the big question from all this is, did all this second wave feminist parenting make a difference? Was I able to grow up free from the constraints of the idealized woman? Have I lived free of self-hate, embracing my body for what it is, every inch of whatever bag of skin I ended up with? Put simply, no. I may have had disdain for Chrissy, Janet, and then whoever it was who replaced Chrissy like we didn’t notice. If anything, I had the opposite. I was incredibly modest (which may have been cultural- who knows when you’re urban), but as a teen I wouldn’t even wear a v-neck blouse because it was too revealing.
The forbidden toys of my generation went by the wayside, and now I’m a parent. My boys don’t have much in the way of forbidden toys. We didn’t have a no-guns policy, because I’m Apache, so much of our history includes warfare, and it wasn’t really an issue anyway. The only rule with guns was you couldn’t point them at people, which takes all the fun out of it, so why bother. Save for an occasional Nerf war (pointing allowed), the kids just don’t care about guns and never have. Also, most of their friends had a gun prohibition so it didn’t come up much. We limit their screen time, and they haven’t really shown interest in gory video games so that’s been an easy one. We did have to buy a lock-box at one point because there was a certain amount of sneaking around at night trying to find the ipad, but the lock-box put a stop to that.
Ira Glass didn’t resolve the forbidden toys question for me, and I’m not doing a very good job either. If playing with a specific toy really shaped a kid into their adult selves, I think someone needs to launch a lawsuit against a certain toy company whose name rhymes with battel (and markets two of the toys mentioned prominently in this post).
*My brother says he could watch all these shows. History, memories- who knows. He is 4 years older than me, and male. It’s very likely he could watch them, but I couldn’t.
It was the second week of school. My 10-year-old son cleared his dinner plate, rubbed the cat’s belly, then dropped one of those tiny little bombs, as they do.
“My Spanish teacher has a play tipi in her classroom.”
He’s my second son. I don’t want to say I’ve been to this rodeo before, but, well, I’ve been to this rodeo before. Fifth-grade boys are wonderful creatures. They are still children, wanting very much to believe in magic and the amazing possibilities of the universe, yet they are pragmatic thinkers who are working on the complex puzzles of human interaction and the existential universal truths of personhood. Or maybe that’s just my kids because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Either way, there is a good reason Harry Potter received his letter from Hogwarts on his 11th birthday.
One of the parenting challenges with boys this age is that they can be slightly feral. There are times when they want very much to be the little boys they once were, nesting on your lap and being comforted by your warmth. Yet they are starting to feel this new itch that is telling them to stretch out, broaden their circle, think new thoughts, try new things, court danger. From my side, I feel as though I might spook them if I act too quickly, take too much notice, assert too much mom-ness. I have learned that it is in my best interest to act aloof, even when I am so curious my head and heart are aching to go all Sherlock Holmes.
So when B told me about this new classroom prop, I tried to play it on the DL. I ignored him.
“Did you take a bath last night?”
“Yes. I don’t need a bath.”
“Are you sure? I think you need a bath.”
“I’ll take one tomorrow morning.”
“How big is the tipi?”
“It’s one of those ones that little kids can play in.”
“Are you sure it’s a tipi?”
“I don’t think you did take a bath last night.”
“Yes I did.”
“How do you know it’s a tipi?”
“It has all these stupid things drawn on the outside that don’t make any sense.”
“Do you want to read before bed?”
“What is the tipi for?”
“I think it’s for the little kids to play in.”
“Let’s get your book and we can read in the living room.”
I thought about the tipi all weekend. As I thought, I began composing the email I needed to send to the school’s principal, asking to have the tipi removed. Whenever I am writing an email in my head over and over, I know I need to act. On Monday, I sent an email to the principal explaining the situation.
My son came to me this weekend to talk about something at school that was on his mind. He commented that there is a tipi in the Spanish classroom. He described it as a small but human-sized tipi, with markings on the exterior, small enough for children to fit in, set up as a place for people to sit in. Ben doesn't have the language to name cultural appropriation in all its guises, but it is something that we discuss, particularly around Halloween in the context of costumes. He identified this item as such and we discussed its presence in the classroom. I have not seen this item, so I am only going by what my son has told me. I did ask him if it wasn't just something that looked a bit like a tipi but wasn't a tipi, he said it was definitely a tipi.
Our tribe uses tipis as ceremonial structures, particularly for puberty ceremonies, which are among the most sacred of all the events that we attend and participate. It is not considered an appropriate or acceptable practice within my tribe or in other tribes I know of to construct a child-sized tipi, adorn it with any symbols, or leave it up for playtime. I know that there are mass-marketed tipis made for purchase on the market- a simple google search will provide you with zillions of affordable toy tipis for all the classrooms in town, none of which would be appropriate.
If indeed this item is one of these toy tipis, do you think you could speak with the Spanish teacher about removing the tipi? There are a number of reasons for this that I won't go into in this email, but suffice it to say, if my son felt it was something worth bringing to my attention, I feel it's worth bringing to your attention. I am happy to discuss this with you further if you wish, my cell # is XXX-XXXX- this is the best way to reach me.
To her credit, the principal responded soon after I sent the email. She confirmed the presence of the tipi, stating she would speak with the teacher and ask to have the tipi removed. She also asked me to come in and talk with the 5th and 6th grade students about cultural appropriation, making this a learning experience for everyone.
After a discussion with the Spanish teacher, the principal forwarded me an email from her, in which the teacher explained that the Spanish teacher had the tipi in the classroom as part of her lesson plan on state history for the 5th and 6th grade students. The intention was to educate the students and enrich their cultural awareness. They invited me to “chat” with the Spanish teacher about her plans to use the tipi in the classroom.
In case you, gentle reader, aren’t familiar with these toys, here’s a link to a great example of cultural appropriation in action using one of these charming items as a playhouse in a well-furnished home. My sons know tipis as structures used only during traditional and sacred ceremonies. Our tribe doesn’t and hasn’t used tipis for housing, we used wickiups. Other tribes might have used them in our state, but the use is unusual at best, except for ceremonial use. No Native I know makes child-sized tipis for use inside their homes, and I’ve never, ever, ever seen a tipi with random and meaningless quasi-tribal looking designs on the outside, made to look Native-ish. To do that would be to make a serious statement, perhaps someone might do it as an art piece as a commentary on the state of indigenous culture today. They might also dress up in a fake buckskin mini-dress that showed a lot of cleavage and had painted turkey feathers for decoration.
After reading the emails and thinking on the matter, I decided that I didn’t need to speak with the Spanish teacher. My son was uncomfortable with the tipi, I freaking hate the things, and I can’t imagine how something like this could possibly fit into a 1-2 hour/week class conducted in Spanish taught to English-speaking children. I pay for private school so I can have some say in my kids’ education, and I decided this was a time to exercise that Native American privilege.
I emailed the principal back. I told her that I appreciated her leadership in this matter. I wrote that my son’s experience with the tipi was not from an educational perspective. I gave some historical context to the use of tipis in the state, explaining why I felt the Spanish teacher's explanation was inadequate. I said I was comforted knowing the teacher was sensitive to my request to have the tipi removed from the classroom.
Then I responded to the principal’s invitation to have me speak to the children about cultural appropriation. I wanted to write to her that I believed it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the parents of color to take on the difficult work of educating the student body on race, that this singles out the children of these parents, and it allows the faculty and the other parents to ignore their biases and areas of ignorance. But I didn’t write that. Instead, I wrote the following:
“I am not a trained elementary school educator, I feel this is not my place and I prefer to leave conversations with children about difficult topics of race to the school. I am comfortable talking about race and issues of intersectionality with my own children, but I don't feel I have the sensitivity to meet the needs of all the students were I to come to the classroom and present on this topic.”
This is all true. I can see my words travelling home to the parents of those children who have worn culturally inappropriate costumes at past Halloween events and causing a terrific stir. I am the parent who talks about racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and other important topics with her children. I haven’t ever tried to “protect” my children from these topics because I cannot protect them. They have always needed to tools to understand their world, which is filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. If only I had the luxury of worrying about when to talk about police violence with my sons. This is why my 10-year-old sees a racist item in his classroom and he calls it out. But I can’t speak my truth and protect white fragility at the same time. It’s not fair to my kids- and to be totally honest, it’s not fair to me.
The next week, I waited until a few days after my son's Spanish class had passed, then I tried to casually insert the tipi into a conversation. Of course, he didn't get the hint. He's 10. So I flat out asked him if it was still in the classroom. It was, but it was no longer set up, now it's leaning against the wall. So it's not being used for his class, but I have no way of knowing if the other Native American children in the school have to also deal with this ridiculous and offensive disaster. I asked to have it removed from the classroom, and that hadn't happened last I asked. I ran this issue past a friend who used to be the director of a similar small private school. She was shocked this was even an issue. Of course you wouldn't allow a teacher to erect a play tipi in the classroom, she said. And then she apologized that I even had to bring this to the principal's attention. It's not even her school, and she apologized. Which is what I wish the principal had done in the first place.
It was almost midnight when I finally settled into bed. I experienced the softness of my beloved sheets and the big puffy comforter in a new way as I felt my body finally relax, after a week of sleeping in a college dorm room all the way across the country. I wanted to put my brain to sleep, but I couldn’t turn off the racing thoughts. I picked a book off the top of the pile and read for another twenty minutes until I was distracted enough to turn off the light and close my eyes.
At dawn the next morning I was up again, replaying the week. I was wondering what it was that had been the tipping point. I kept coming back to Wednesday, and the presentation by the scholar who was renown for advocating on the behalf of minority faculty and building diversity into medical and academic centers.
He had a friendly, confident approach to presenting. He was charismatic and quickly won over the attentions of the audience. He made a comment that was assertively anti-institutional, and then laughed and said the white folks in the room might be offended by the things he said. He was looking at me as he said this. The group laughed, but there was a hesitancy to the laugh because we were all thinking the same thing. One of the other attendees spoke up. “I don’t think there are any white people in this room.”
He responded by laughing, focusing on me as he said, “I don’t care what box you are checking. I go by the 50 paces rule- if you’re 50 paces away and I can’t tell the difference, well then... you know what I’m saying.”
I felt my face flush. I knew he was talking about me. His comment hit me at many levels- box checking is a serious issue for American Indians, and it has been a problem that I have personally fought against. Expressed phenotype of race has always been a sensitive topic for me, because I have light skin and my hair gets curly when it's humid. I had been feeling it particularly acutely because every day of the institute I had heard a comment from another attendee or from faculty about my appearance or role. After he made the 50 paces comment my mind spun with responses to this act of aggression. I contemplated getting up from my chair and leaving the session. I debated this carefully- I knew that leaving would make me the center of jokes, which would not help my situation. I contemplated leaving the institute. I had two more days of the institute to complete, and I never considered myself a person to quit things. There were still sessions I wanted to attend, so leaving early would only affect me. I decided I would suck it up, and try to make a pointed statement about the 50 paces during the talk.
The talk continued, and I paid close attention. I was waiting for my in. There were moments where I could insert a carefully worded question, but he ignored my hand. Repeatedly, he would pass over me to call on others in the group. I patiently waited to add in my contribution to the discussion. I waived my arm higher and higher as time went on, and he still passed me over. Finally, as the session was ending, I caught the eye of the director of the program. She pointed out that I was waiting to speak and finally I was given a moment to join in the conversation. But then the enthusiasm was high and other attendees spoke over me, and I wouldn’t interrupt. I waited until the talking was over and then I spoke my piece.
“Fifty paces or not, when you’re working in my community, Native American communities, the following practices apply, and other populations might follow their lead.” And then I continued with my on-topic contribution.
“You liked that fifty paces comment, did you?” he responded. Then he disagreed with my statement with an inaccurate counterargument. Instead of allowing me to respond, he stopped the discussion and asked me, “Are you Native American?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Really? What tribe are you?”
“Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache.”
He nodded and moved on. It was such a confrontational move, I observed him indicating to me that he was in power. When I replayed the scene later, I wondered if he expected me to tell him that I was Cherokee, so I could become the butt of his next joke. When I didn’t deliver, he had to move on.
We had lunch immediately following the session. I felt raw. I waited for someone to say something about the exchange but there was no response. No feedback, no support. I was alone, and I had experienced that moment in the group in isolation. Nobody came to my defense; nobody approached me in the aftermath. Once I finished my lunch I went back to my room and took a nap.
This wasn’t the only event, but it was the worst. There was that quick, fleeting look in the director’s eyes when we met for the first time and she said, “Oh- you’re Emily?” and I could tell that I didn’t look like she expected. There was the exchange on the first full day when the Chicano attendee polled our writing group and asked what race each person thought they looked like. Of course, they were all waiting for me to say that I looked white. I delivered.
There was the moment just minutes later when the director ridiculed a person she had come across for looking white and claiming to be a card-carrying Indian even though he was only 1/32nd Indian. The next day I brought that up with her and I explained that the issues with blood quantum are complicated. I explained the term “blood quantum” to her, and I pointed out that no other race had to prove their racial identity through actual degree of blood. She backed out of the conversation without acquiescing that it was complicated or that I might have had a point. That covers Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The 50 paces moment was Wednesday.
On Wednesday night I decided that the project I had been working on for the final presentation was not worth completing. Instead, I thought the group would benefit from a history lesson on the experiences of the Chiricahua Fort Sill Apaches. We had spent the week talking about police violence in African American communities without any recognition that many more Native Americans are injured or killed by police violence than African Americans.
On Thursday I tuned out the presentations. I was done with the conversation, and needed some shelter from these moments that felt so personal. I was done with being passed over when I raised my hand to make a comment. I instead focused on changing my presentation from the one that I had been working on for the week with my writing group to a new one about my tribe.
Friday came, with my presentation. I wrote it out and presented, and then I could leave. Throughout the morning, the director made comments about how I was leaving early, although she hadn’t made any comments about the people who had left the night before. By the time I left I felt absolutely battered. All attendees were supposed to receive a certificate of completion- a document that I could submit with my tenure package to show evidence of my scholarship- she withheld mine.
When I returned home to an empty house and climbed into an empty bed, I was alone but I was happy. Delighted to be back in the emotional safety of my own home. The irony of the previous week hadn’t been lost on me- that the program had been run by a researcher who had spent years investigating the reasons under-represented minorities leave the academy; the biggest urge I felt the entire week was to quit my job and leave the academy.
The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the meaning of the fifty paces. I wanted to measure out fifty paces and see what it looked like to look at a person from fifty paces. I wanted to line people up at fifty paces and see what they looked like, to see what one could discern from fifty paces. I felt full of doubt- doubt in myself, doubt in my history and legitimacy as the person and experiences I had accumulated throughout my life. I felt as though I had become that middle class, privileged white woman the people at the institute had seen me. I went for a drive and found myself in the neighborhood where I grew up. Instead of taking the new roads that bypass this neighborhood I decided to take the long way, the drive I usually avoided because it was filled with so many memories, some not very good.
When I was in elementary school I took a school bus every day to school. We lived in a very remote part of town, so the bus would pick up everyone in our neighborhood and take all the children to their different schools- high school first, then middle school, then elementary school. I spent hours on that bus, watching my little section of town pass by. I can still remember that exact route, including the driveway where the bus would turn around midway down one street because there was no better place to turn, even with a bus full of children. I remembered the junkyard where the beautiful girl with the sour face lived, and the rumors that circulated about her when she got pregnant in the 6th grade, raped by an uncle (that was where I learned that people believed you can have a miscarriage from riding a horse).
I remembered the big hill of sand outside the trailer park and how jealous I was when we picked up the kids at that stop because they were always dirty and steamy from playing king of the hill while waiting for the bus, even on the coldest mornings. They looked like that were having so much fun. I remembered the little side road where one of my teachers lived, and how he had a hog farm at his house that we visited one year for a field trip. I drove past the old iglesia with the tiny windows and remembered attending uncomfortable services there with my friends as requirement for going to their houses for sleepovers. I saw the high chain link fences, the cinderblock walls, and the narrow roads with no sidewalks. I remembered the little road where my mom’s friend lived with her horse stables, probably gone now. I remembered the arroyo we used to cross in the bus, and how it would wash out every year and the bus would get stuck in the sand. I remembered looking out the window and seeing the boys with the dark red hair riding alongside the bus on their three-wheeled motorcycles, skipping elementary school from time to time, just because they could.
After driving the old bus route, I confirmed that I wasn’t a fraud and I wasn’t a box checker. I wasn’t making up a personal history about poverty and isolation. I had lived that. I hadn’t grown up in the inner city, but I had grown up in a small, poor, Northern New Mexico village called Agua Fria, a suburb of Santa Fe. I had attended a school so bad we never had enough books for all the students, never had enough attention from the teachers, never had enough of anything.
Maybe you can’t see my indigeneity from fifty paces. Maybe you can’t hear the Northern New Mexico accent I had as a child, trying so desperately to fit in. I don’t wear beads and feathers wherever I go to signal that I am in fact NATIVE AMERICAN. I reject this practice, it’s exhausting and it wouldn’t be authentic of me to wear a costume that didn’t reflect my personal aesthetic. I love indigenous art and jewelry, but the good stuff is expensive and I prefer to pay my kids’ tuition. I don’t have anyone in my life showering me with money and gifts, so I make do with what I have, including my appearance. I don’t put on a fake Native American accent, I don’t dye my hair black, I don’t sit in a tanning booth to look darker, I don’t straighten my hair. I am who I am. If some judgmental academic doesn’t see me for who I am, then that person needs to examine their own beliefs and implicit biases.
Phenotype- a) the observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences. b) the expression of a specific trait, such as stature or blood type, based on genetic and environmental influences.
Genotype- The genetic makeup, as distinguished from the physical appearance, or an organism or a group of organisms. (from: thefreedictionary.com)
Scenario: I’m in a conversation with someone new, but someone who I assume knows something about me. They might know me through my kids, through work, or some other connection that would lead me to believe that they have a small amount of familiarity with who I am, or what I do. My last name is recognizable locally- we have a street named after us, my relatives include several prominent artists who have sculptures located throughout town. In my work, my research is focused on a subject that usually signals to those who are paying attention that I have a particular cultural and ethnic background.
At some point during this conversation, I will reference myself or my kids as being Native American. The tone of the conversation changes immediately. My conversational partner’s eyes widen, then squint, then widen again. This person (always a non-Native) will question me, surprise in their voice, “You’re Native American?”. They can modulate their level of surprise depending on their level of sensitivity, but their faces always betray them. They have been reading me as something other than what I am, now they are squinting to see that thing that they missed before, the genetic phenotyping that tells a different story from the one they understood to be true.
Indigenous scholar Adrienne Keene describes herself as a white-coding Indigenous woman. This is where I fit as well. My ethnic and cultural identity is Indigenous, I am an enrolled member of the Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Tribe coming from my father’s side. I am also mixed-race; my mother is white and her ancestry extends back to Europe.
Unlike other racial or ethnic groups in the US, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are a political category whose racial identity is established through enrollment in a recognized tribe or nation. Every tribe or nation has its own criteria for enrollment, some determined by blood quantum and others by descendant status. Based on these policies, a person’s appearance has no relationship to their enrollment, yet most people consider a Native American to be more pure if they have olive-colored skin, round, brown eyes, and straight, thick, black hair.
I don’t look like the noble savage from an Edward Curtis photograph. When I look in the mirror, I see an indigenous woman with light skin. I most often see my mom looking back at me in the mirror. I have her mouth and her nose, I have her chin. I have my dad’s dark intense eyes, I have his round face, and when I smile, I see his warmth. My brother’s skin is much darker than mine, sometimes he looks like my dad, sometimes he looks like my mother’s father. My skin is a pale yellow- not white, but definitely not dark. In the summer, it gets a shade darker, but it will never be close to the light café au lait that I always coveted. My hair is truly bi-racial, it typically starts the day curly and full, sweet and perky, a cheery white lady taking your order at the breakfast restaurant. At the end of the day it hangs straight, dark, and long, showing no reaction and looking right through you as you ask for directions to the bathroom at the interstate rest stop. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see how anyone wouldn’t see me for anything but a mixed-race indigenous woman.
A few years ago I heard my sons teasing each other in the slightly cruel way kids do. One bragged to the other, “My skin is darker than yours.”
“Oh yeah? My hair is darker and straighter than yours.”
How do I respond to that? When my own racial identity is unrecognizable because my phenotyping is expressed as white, how do I help my children understand that indigeneity is so much more than the color of their skin or the texture of their hair? Do I intervene and say, “Kids! You are both tribal members, so nobody cares what parts of you are more Native looking?”
Unfortunately, that is not true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me, “How much Native American are you?” as though I could quantify my identity into percentages, x% Native-feeling, x% white-feeling, x% Hispanic feeling… yet also 100% of each? That is not very satisfactory. How do you help someone who isn’t multiracial understand what it feels like to have a fully realized ethnic identity that exists in multiple worlds simultaneously? The other issue is the isolation that comes with being an outside within one’s own in-group. There are costs to not having the same racial coding as your in-group peers. I have privileges that other members of my tribe do not have; I have had advantages due to circumstances of my life and appearance to which my cousins and other family members haven’t been given access.
Ultimately, I can only respond similar to how my parents did. I help my children to understand the world from a decolonized perspective. I teach them to see that we are all related; every living and non-living being in this universe has a place. I work with them daily to identify racism, racist behavior, othering, and the damage it does. I advocate for them, but I also I teach them to advocate for themselves and for others. Their father and I live our indigenous values, including helping them understand that skin color plays an important role in our society but it doesn’t define us as indigenous people.
I'm a Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Nurse Researcher. I write, speak, and think about health equity and parenting in our complicated world.
Views expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.
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