Who Are You!
My uncle always described us as assimulated traditionalists. Men in our family went in to construction or the military. These were acceptable choices for warriors. Those who worked in construction usually left their families during the months when the building trades had work. They returned home in winter. Military families went with their men when possible and returned to the reservation when they weren’t allowed to go to posts in war zones.
My father was a master sergeant in the army and a full blooded Apache. My mother was born on the Isabella Reservation in Mount Pleasant Michigan. She is Chippewa. My grand father was a six foot 8 inch Full blooded Chippewa who left the reservation to find work. He and my grandmother lost two of their 8 children to malnutrition and disease as toddlers. My mother was their first surviving child. She married my father at age fifteen and followed him to California where I was born when she was seventeen.
When I was four, I was living in Louisiana and had a black baby sitter. I asked her why her skin was such a pretty dark color. She said that god had made her with chocolate. White people were made with vanilla. I asked what flavor I was and she said a ginger snap.
When I was in the first grade living in San Antonio Texas, my teacher went around the room using last names to illustrate emigration. When she came to me, she said “Your ancestors probably came from Mexico.”
I shook my head and replied, “No, I don’t think so, I think we were always here.” My classmates asked if my parents wore paint and feathers. In all innocence I answered “Only on Sundays.” My mother wore a hat to church with feathers on it and used makeup then too.
When we were away from the reservation, people assumed my mother was Hispanic and tried to speak Spanish to her. My Apache grandparents spoke Spanish, so I learned a little as a pre-schooler. I was lighter than my brothers so often confused people who weren’t familiar with my Apache face. I have been mistaken for someone from the Philippines, or asked if I were Caribian, Samoan, or even Eurasian. Until the flower children began viewing all things native American as mystical, it wasn’t popular to be thought an Indian. People living near reservations held negative opinions of us, believing we were all alcoholics, came from broken families and obstinately held to beliefs that were little better than ignorant superstitions. Children were placed in schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. They were shipped far from home and forced to conform to mainstream religion and cultural beliefs. If we wanted to learn more of our culture, we had to make an effort to seek out elders who would teach us.
This has led to a gradual decline in the numbers of native people who remember who they are. Somethings I have learned by watching the adults in the family are:
Babies and young children are people too. They should receive the love and attention of the family. Native American babies aren’t left to cry but move from loving lap to lap. Small children are encouraged to master tasks to add to the well being of the family because all hands can make contributions.
Elders are to be respected and listened too. They have survived many things and can offer much wisdom.
If you have something and another doesn’t, then share. Gifting your little extra will come back to you someday when you may need it.
You are as the great mystery has made you. Value the gift of life and make the world a better place for having been born in to it.
Don’t fear death, it is just another change like birth. Just because we don’t know what to expect doesn’t mean it won’t be good.
We aren’t superior to our brothers and sisters who walk on four legs or swim in the streams or fly. All living things are equally the children of the maker. That is why we owe them respect if we take their lives to live.
These are the gifts I carry in my heart as I walk the world and they define who I am as much as my dark hair and high cheekbones.