apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
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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