On Passing and Being Seen

My parents & me in 1994

I am a mixed urban Indian of Welch/English and Cherokee (of the Long Hair clan) on my mother’s side and Irish/English and Mohawk Iroquois on my father’s side. On both sides of my family there are fissures between those members who would like to assimilate and those who are dedicated to preserving the teachings of their elders. My mother made the decision to raise me with many of the traditionally indigenous values she learned from her grandparents. Both of my parents made significant efforts to keep me connected to Native communities.

When I was eight, we moved away from the midwest to a Washington suburb where I spent a significant amount of time in a very white world that contrasted greatly with what I was learning at home. Growing up, if I told other kids about my culture, I usually got one of two reactions: either I was exoticized or put into question. Both of these reactions were rooted in an antiquated notion of the “pure” Indian untouched by modernity. I was seen as either a mystic or a liar, but never just as someone who struggled to navigate through many different and sometimes contradicting worlds.

Being someone who, as my mother put it, “has their feet in two worlds,” sometimes I’ve questioned my right to identify as indigenous. We’ve all heard the “white girl whose great-great-great-grandma was Cherokee” story, so I understand the skepticism. The thing is, though, that practically is my story. But, that story is so prevalent because it happened a lot and people invented the concept of a happy and willing Indian Princess bride to cover up the horrendous truth. Throughout my family’s histories there are multiple accounts of indigenous women who were bought as sex slaves or kidnapped and forced into (sometimes polygamous) marriage. The history I come from is a really messy one, so that means when I talk about my identities, it’s going to get messy, too.

I will never make the claim that I am somehow not privileged because of my heritage. People see me as white and while it makes me feel silenced, I know that it opens doors for me and allows me to move freely in spaces where others may not. Passing as white is a privilege in many respects – it gives one the option of avoiding violent and oppressive situations. But it is also the result of a long-standing refusal on the part of white society to recognize the continued existence of indigenous peoples. It is this belief in the extinction of Native Americans that continues to justify settler-colonialism. As an elder-in-training with whom I work once reflected, “All the time people tell I’m white. They tell me I’m ‘not Indian enough.’ They refuse to see me because they refuse to believe we’re still here.”



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