apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
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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