When I lived in Ohio the fact that my grandfather was an Indian was not relevant. Nobody in Ohio seemed to care about who your ancestors were. When I moved to NC in 2003 one of the first things that happened to let me know I was not in Ohio anymore was that people began to quiz me on my heritage.
I told the questioners that I was black, period. That, however, some of them were not willing to accept. When they found out my mother had been born in Hollister, NC, in Halifax County they all had “aha” moments and said triumphantly, ” You are part Indian ( actually they said Native).” I explained that yes, my grandfather had been an Indian, but that he died when my mother was three, so I had not been raised with any knowledge of the culture. I am pretty sure I have at least as much white blood as Indian blood and I am certainly not white.
That did not sit too well with my Indian colleagues and friends. They seemed to consider my failure to mention or acknowledge my Indian heritage as evidence I was ashamed of it. I was puzzled. To me people who try to attach themselves to groups they do not belong to are culture vultures. True, my uncle and aunt used to wear regalia and dance at pow wows, but that was them.
Today, at the pow wow, one of the food vendors was named Mills. My aunt Tempe’s maiden name was Mills. When she waited on me I asked where she was from and she said ” Hollister” I did not know whether to mention my aunt or not. I did not want her to think I was claiming to be related to her.
So, it is very confusing. In my opinion American Indians are the only group to have been treated worse than black people in America, yet we treat them in many ways in our society like magical, mythical beings. One of the frustrations I see in some Indian folks is the fact that they are often ignored, even in discussions of diversity. It is also problematic that a lot of people who identify as Indian do not look like the stereotypical Indian, e.g. a plains Indian or western Indian. Most of the people I know who identify as Indian could be either black or white, depending on their hair, their skin tone and their features. I have probably met fewer than five people that I would have picked out of a crowd as an Indian. That does not make them any less Indian, it just illustrates one of the difficulties of being Indian.
Besides my cultural ambiguity today the thing that struck me was that even though they have been historically the targets of genocide and still are the objects of much oppression, they have managed to keep a lot of their culture, something that was denied blacks. As I watched the dancing and listened to the drumming I tried to imagine what it would be like to be raised in a culture where you had songs and dances that you knew your ancestors generations ago had sung and danced.
Blacks were stripped of all that through slavery. You were “cured” which meant made less African and you were forced to give up any tribal customs, language, religion, music, etc. As a result black American culture can be said to have started only in 1619 with the arrival of the first blacks in America, our connection to the African continent, although frequently written on our faces, was cut like an umbilical cord and our individual cultures bled out somewhere in the Middle Passage.
White people too have lost culture. Except in some enclaves in big cities and with remnants in music and recipes, white cultures have been subsumed in the larger and much less interesting phenomenon known as white American culture. White immigrants, if they wanted to be considered white, had to leave the customs and tongues of their mother lands behind.
If they were not WASPs then it was even more difficult to get to be white. The Irish and the Italians and the Germans and the Eastern Europeans all had to struggle, change their names, lose their accents, give up their customs in order to gain the rank of “white.”
So with all the advantages America has, she has been a hard task mistress on culture. Perhaps my Indian friends have held on to more than I once thought. I, however, am still black.