Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Open Letter from a “Cherokee Princess”

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October 19, 2015

When I was in elementary school, I met a lot of people who claimed to be Cherokee. Every white person I knew, it seemed, had a Cherokee great-grandmother or distant ancestor they heard of who was in a tribe.

It was odd, then, that when I first started Indian Education classes it was with only a handful of other students. We had some white kids, others black, but very few people who “looked Indian.” Half of the “full-blooded” natives that ran the program had straight hair and blue eyes- a testament to the interracial history of that particular nation. And though we had a Mohawk student and a Creek girl, our class seemed to focus heavily on Cherokee Immersion, since they had the most infrastructure in that region to do outreach.

My father, though, moved around a lot, the product of a military family. He knew little of Native Americans beyond the fact that he was listed as one on his birth certificate. My mother says her grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee, but I’m not sure this is entirely accurate, and even if it were, my mother could not claim heritage legally because Alabama law dictates that one cannot claim any legal standing from biological parents if put up for adoption. Either way, it would not have changed my experience with the Madison County Indian Ed Program. Measuring blood quantum is a deliberate attempt at breaking up tribal families and disenfranchising people. One could live on a reservation their whole life and not be a legally-recognized tribal in some places (my nation has no such requirement).

Others, like Cherokee Princesses of Suburbia, claim ancestry where they had none, so the government still claims it necessary. Of course, Cherokee Princesses are a fictional title. No Indian nation has a concept of royalty like that (though some have reclaimed the term), so it’s a common joke on reservations. This is one of the many reasons citizenship and ancestry requirements for federal tribes are so stringent — because there are so many fake tribes out there looking to capitalize on being Indian.

To work I went, learning the history and culture of the Cherokee people. Our teacher, Linda, was a wonderful woman, and she tried to teach us the language of our people too. We learned our syllabary, how to count to ten, how to say good morning and goodbye. And during that whole time, we were treated like members of a tribal family. I skipped honors courses to keep going to Indian Ed. At some point or another, we got a new teacher who was…less favorable to us. She seemed to think we couldn’t understand what we were being taught, and figured it would be easier to tell us all Indian lived in teepees before today, and now they all live in casinos.

I remember the Cherokee Freedman controversy when it happened, years before white folk found it on Wikipedia and claimed to be appalled by it. I remember being split up into groups to debate “whether natives should give up their land” in history class and having a fellow tribal come up to our group (the “no” group) and apologize for having to be in the “yes” group against her will. I’ve been to reservations, both Cherokee and others. And for a time, I was proud of it.

But when I went into middle school something changed. I’d always lived around racism, but it didn’t really hit home for me until middle school. Whilst my black classmates were being harassed by police and kicked out of class for vaguely-defined “belligerence,” I had to deal with a different type of racism. Some teachers wrote me off as being a pointless venture, because “Indians get free rides to college,” and didn’t offer much help preparing for tests when I needed it. Our program only offered a $500 scholarship and I didn’t get it. People asked me silly questions about my heritage when they were curious, like what my Indian name was (it doesn’t work like that anymore), what their dreams meant (since I guess I’m so spiritual), or what living in a teepee is like. Others were outright with it, asking if I was going to scalp them or calling me a dirty savage. Yes, it is the 21st Century. When I flustered, they offered “so that’s why they call you redskin” even though they were often just as pink as I. My brother, who looks slightly more Cherokee, gets admonished for his “Jap eyes” and his friends often joke about what it was like to be at Wounded Knee.

So I stopped going to Indian education classes. And you know what? People stopped asking if I owned a tomahawk. When before my teachers would have punished me with a bad grade for leaving class for a state-mandated program, now I could miss a whole day and still get make up work. The flu is a better excuse than cultural immersion. Life was inherently easier for me as a white man than it was as an Indian.

This made me aware of a few things. First, it made me aware of how alive and well racism is. Second, it made me aware of how thin a line ethnic identity can be. I don’t look like a Native American “should” look like, and the common misconceptions about Cherokee ancestry mean whenever I tell people I’m Cherokee I get scoffed at, as if my life experiences and traditions didn’t matter because “we’re all a little Cherokee.” It brings to mind stories of tribal leaders having to don headdresses entirely foreign to their tribe’s history just to be taken seriously among a sea of white, male lawmakers who think our matrilineal societies are sexist but their birth control laws aren’t. And then I have to deal with other white people who call themselves things like “Bear Claw” and claim an ancestry they have no knowledge of — a fad I am immediately grouped into when people see my name on the minority sheet. I’ve also never been beat up by police for looking like a Native either, something other tribals I’ve meet HAVE dealt with. That is, when the police aren’t refusing to investigate criminal actions on their reservation.

At first, I was angry. I was tired of having to point out that yes, Walela is a Cherokee music group, but no, the “Cherokee Morning Song” is not how average Cherokee music sounds like. And that’s to say nothing of Paul Revere and the Rough Riders. For a time, I tried very hard to hide my Cherokee heritage because I had seen both personal and institutional benefits to not doing so. I didn’t go to classes anymore (I think we actually took a break, but I wouldn’t have known). When my brother tried to practice his less-than-practical language skills, I told him “stop trying, you’re white.” Even my name is Greek and British, so it wouldn’t be hard to blend in with whites. Most of my life had been steeped in mainstream white American culture anyways. I made jokes at the expense of festivals and groups I once held dear. I joked that all our dances were fertility dances or rain dances, when in fact they were heartfelt stories acted out in complicated pageants. I joked about bow-and-arrow hunting even though most Cherokee used guns if they hunted. And those are a few small examples. I’d spent a huge chunk of my life teaching kids how to play lacrosse and eating frybread, but now I wanted to pretend none of it ever happened. I never used the word “powwow” until it felt derogatory.

In short, I tried to bury that part of myself because I had been treated like a minority and I didn’t like it. That’s something most white people never experience.

It wasn’t until I was older that I started to realize how important to me being a Cherokee was and accept that part of myself, even if I couldn’t be a part of the federally-recognized nations anymore (my ancestor was not on the Dawes or Baker rolls- a technicality brought me into Indian Ed). Many of the things I think or say or do I don’t think I would ever have done had I not been a part of that culture growing up. I’ve met others in a similar boat —  Jews, Hindus, etc. — people who’ve spent a large chunk of their lives steeped in a culture they later worry they can’t be a part of because it’s not considered “white,” even though plenty of others try to force themselves into that culture simply because they want to be anything but white. Last month, I was flipping through a textbook and found a retelling of the Cherokee creation myth, and all of a sudden I was a kid again, drawing scribbles on paper that in later years would be incomprehensible to me. Words for animals and objects that I would use English for anyway. These days, I know maybe a handful of Cherokee phrases, and can’t write a lick of it.

But I’m still, in many ways, intimately familiar with my heritage. It’s personal to me. And now, though I only refer to myself as Cherokee sometimes when needed, I am no longer fighting the fact that it was important to me. I still get angry when I see institutional prejudice against Native peoples. I won’t forget the first time I ever felt enraged by a sorority “Cowboys and Indians party” that hypersexualized Native culture, with some of their outfits representing outright sacrilege. I have bought Cherokee music, but it’s only a small part of my overall playlist. I don’t try to push the idea that I know something I don’t. I still go to festivals, though now more as a participant than a planner.

But sometimes I also worry about being that token white guy (make no mistake, I’m a beneficiary of white privilege), metaphorically wearing feathery headdresses (most people don’t do that, by the way) to “honor my ancestors.” And when we talk about reproductive justice, or social justice issues in general, I think context is important. We shouldn’t try to speak louder than the oppressed and also make an effort to make their voices heard. But we also shouldn’t assume what someone has or hasn’t been through before they’ve had a chance to explain themselves. And we also shouldn’t be cruel to them. A lot of comedians worry these days about whether they’re punching up or punching down, but in many cases that line can be blurry. If someone says something offensive, they need to understand why it’s offensive, not shut off because calling them out turns into a shouting match. Try telling a white man he’s not Cherokee when he says he is, and there’s a good chance he’ll claim he’s the victim of oppression. But then again, I sincerely doubt he’s ever been to an Indian School or tried to get healthcare when the government barely recognizes him as a person. But then again, maybe he is Cherokee. Maybe he DOES know about that culture. Maybe.

When someone holds all the power over you or your culture, getting angry with them only makes things worse, because then they can treat you like the useless savage they think you are. Our voices need to be loud and informed, but not just one or the other. There were 5 million registered Native Americans in the United States in 2010. For context, it only took 537 votes to sway the 2000 Presidential Election in favor of George W. Bush. Every group, no matter how small, still has power.

Modern activism, then, needs intersectional perspective. Trying to change the minds of a small group of privileged elite is not easy, but it can be significantly easier when the opposition is made up of many races and creeds. Young people aren’t a monolith, but drawing their support means respecting each of them individually just as much as collectively. Our activists need to create a positive, all-inclusive environment that not only tries to make many voices heard, but respects the perspectives each new voice brings. Otherwise, we may lose to co-opted farces like #AllLivesMatter, which has no goal other than appropriating and destroying a movement that is trying to draw attention to an important social issue. That is fictional inclusiveness, because it deliberately excludes the voices of many under the excuse that “those perspectives are just a little too ethnically-minded, and therefore we all feel left out”– a view that is easy for leaders to exploit.

Proper inclusiveness, in my view, means respecting the particular struggles of each group and working to make society better in tandem. I have seen the pains Native Americans experience daily, from alcoholism to lacking access to education, and simply ignoring it solves nothing. Yes, all lives matter, but black lives (and Native lives, and Latino lives) are specifically targeted by the powers that be. To make our society as a whole better, we need to respect that fact, and as much as I hate to say it we have to be careful in doing so because I learned very quickly that white people cannot stand to be called racists, even when they are flying the Confederate flag in front of their houses or dressing up in black-face for a fraternity party.

People with privilege don’t always know they have privilege, after all. I sure didn’t, until I started taking advantage of it. And even now, sometimes it’s easier not to be an Indian than it is to be a straight white man.

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