exactly that

I have done a lot of thinking in the last week since reading of Cecelia’s encounter.  After a conversation w/ my very frustrated cousin I gave some thought to the stereotypes surrounding Native Americans.  I don’t mean the ones that I usually get a little pissy about, but rather modern day stereotypes that people toss around lightly w/o even thinking.  It might seem funny at the time, or even not a big deal, but I can assure you that it cuts all the same.

I live a life of white privilege, something which I have been ignorant of in the past, but still something which always annoyed me slightly.  I have spent time trying to check that privilege.  The thought of having white privilege has long caused me identity confusion as to my heritage.  I was raised two steps off of the reservation.  My neighbors, in my childhood, had outhouses and some even had dirt floors.  Our income came directly from Gitchee Gumee, and we got by b/c of the Treaty of 1836.  I was privileged b/c I had heat and indoor plumbing.  On one side my Papa was well known for running a fair fishery w/ quality filets, and he and my uncles did well selling to local restaurants.  He has a brother who is both a Catholic Father and recognized as a Medicine Man.  On the other side, my Papa Joe was well known for Pike Distribution, a warehouse that supplied local bars and restaurants w/ beer, soda, and (my favorite thing growing up) New York Seltzer (do they even make that anymore?  I would love a Seltzer!).  When I went to the public school I was the Indian girl, and that meant my parents must be drunk fishermen w/ bad tempers (my dad wasn’t even an Indian), and when I was on the res I was the white girl who didn’t belong w/ those of better blood.  While I can’t speak to the racism that many people face everyday, I have a slight understanding of what it feels like to be marginalized (and let’s not forget that I am a woman).

Even when my mother moved us away from the great U.P. she always insisted on raising me as a proud Indian.  If nothing else, no one can say that we were not proud of our heritage, even if I was too young to understand most of what it meant to be Chippewa.  All her faults aside, my mother tried to instill some “Indian Pride” in us.  But when I went to school and filled out forms my teachers corrected me when I would claim being “Native American” on the forms.  I always insisted I was right, much to their dismay.  When I got older and became more aware of myself, I would openly identify w/ my Native Heritage.  People would always tell me “you don’t look Indian”.  Even better, into my adult life, starting w/ college, they would always joke “hey, you went to school for free, eh?”.  This would strike me particularly hard.

As a matter of fact, no, I didn’t you asshole.  And not that it’s any of your business, but…

I was privileged, again.  I have what has been deemed the acceptable amount of “pure blood” according to tribes to be considered a genuine Indian.  I have the birth lottery luck to have one quarter Chippewa blood flowing in my veins.  My genealogy on my mother’s side is not disputed.  We have all the proper documents showing that yes, in fact I was born in Michigan* to Michigan born tribal counted family.  My grandparents have valid documentation (in our tribe, more on that later) proving that they are in fact both at least half breeds, making my mother another half breed**.  My blood quantum makes me eligible for certain benefits under certain treaties, including a tuition waiver.  My cousin didn’t fair as well.  Her tribe shows things differently.  They claim both that my grandfather is of the First Nation of Canada, and that my grandmother can not prove her claims of having half blood.  They will not accept any of the documents my grandparents have proving otherwise.  My cousin has the exact same family as I do.  Her father is my mother’s younger brother.  She has been denied the waiver two years now.

But even under the waiver, I by no means went to school for free.  The Land Grant school that I went to found every way to make sure that I had out of pocket expense.  They would only bill the tribe for credit hour costs.  All of the registration fees, course fees, lab fees, and any other fee that came w/ the cost of a University education came out of my pocket.  My second year I could not afford to live on campus or the meal plan.  I had to live off campus b/c monthly rent was cheaper.  Each semester I had no less that $2-3,000 out of pocket expense.  My mother made too much money for me to qualify for FASFA even though her tremendous debt allowed no money to help me.  Additionally, the school expected me to pay it all up front and wait for the tribe or financial aid (which was $0) to reimburse me.  They wouldn’t bill the tribe until I was verified from the tribe, and the tribe couldn’t verify I was enrolled full time until the school billed them for my classes.  This resulted in at least another $1000 a year.

And my dad died the summer after my freshman year.  While he was negotiating w/ his mother for some money to help me out.  Needless to say, I didn’t receive any.

In the end, I still scheduled all of my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that I could work full time as a waitress and bartender the other days.  At some point the school began allowing me to pay monthly, and that might have been my junior year.  I got by w/ no debt (which was good, b/c I got pregnant that year, and would now have extremely high debt).  I got by, and w/o the help of the tribe, I wouldn’t have gotten that far.  I was privileged by Native standards for the help I received.

So, when people assume that I (or my cousin!) get to go to school for free I get righteously indignant.  I didn’t go to school for free.  Perhaps in my younger days when I didn’t realize the racist implications of such comments I may have joked along, “Yeah, I sure did.  Lucky me!”, but older, wiser and hindsight being 20/20 I can now see the ignorance and presumptive nature of such comments.  When people tell me or joke that I don’t “look Indian”, I become angry.  For a while it made me hate the skin I was in, and it made me hate the people I knew who were more acceptably “Indian looking” by societal standards.  It has been a tough journey through that anger to a place that has now allowed me to be more than willing to be an ally in the fight on racism.  While my perceivably white privilege allows me to escape the harsh racism that other people must face daily, the way that it feels (while not in any way the same) to not be accepted by either side and having my heritage and identity ignored has opened my heart to try to work harder to listen.  Knowing that the way I identify and the way society sees me are not the same has made me more willing to listen.  It is a confusing place to be, and I am working through it.

*My hometown shares a name w/ a town “across the river” in Canada.  There are prominent Tribal Nations on both sides of that free flowing border.  In my home town, discussion is usually about whether you are from Michigan or Canada.  This is part of my regional lexicon.

**I use this term deliberately to show some of the language that can be used against Native Americans even at the hands of other Native Americans.


Comments on: "As a Matter of Fact, No, I Didn’t…" (8)

  1. Great piece! Oh goodness, I always get the “you don’t look Indian,” thing too. Recently a friend thought I was from Eastern Europe because my skin tone is move olive/yellow. Plus, being Ojibway our skin tone would be a lot lighter because of being from the north where it is much more cooler climate. But, then I also get the “oh yes I can see it now,” when I tell folks I am Indian. In conversations like this I want to ask people if they would say to someone if they were Black, White, Asian, Latino or whatever else “oh you don’t look that (fill in race),” or “oh I can see it now.” Having Native heritage is interesting. You get dissected under a microscope on the basis of your heritage. You have to prove who you are by your blood quantum, skin tone, hair, the way you dress, where you live and how you act.

    Having an identity like ours is confusing. What privileges do we or don’t we have? What perceived privileges do we or don’t we have. Its like the suburb I live in right now people assume I am wealthy when I have made below poverty level wages for my whole life and I am Master’s educated. Society is always going to have assumptions but we need to live in our strength, wisdom and power.

  2. I get the “prove it” thing all the time. Another privilege I have is my tribal identification card (which I have had to prove to people on numerous occasions that it is just as valid an ID as a driver’s license *groan*), so as soon as I whip that one out they are always, “Oh, I see it now, you have very high cheekbones” or something like that.

    I shouldn’t have to prove it to anyone. It’s how I identify. It’s my truth. Why do we have to “prove it”?

  3. No one should have to prove their identity. It is like asking to prove your heart and soul. My Dad has a tribal card and tons of my relatives do, even the ones who have the same ugh…”blood quantum” as me, but I don’t have one. Tribal politics, I actually may try and get affiliated with a completely different tribe. My Great Uncle did that because of the same tribal politics. I have always wondered how we prove our blood too? And proving your heart and soul is another weird thing to me as well?!

    We just have to live our truth. Like my incident last week at that bakery. Gotta stand tall and be who we truly are no matter what! What do you think about that?

  4. My cousin is considering that now. Her tribe disputes our “blood quantum”, and the tribe that my grandparents, mother and my daughter are in doesn’t. Her father and my other uncle adopted into that tribe for fishing reasons. Tribal politics drive me crazy w/ their blood quantum and their insistence that some families are more Native than others. You get benefits based on how closely you are related to some people (like Big Abe). The rest of us just don’t measure up, I guess.

    It’s frustrating as hell. It’s good to find a positive outlet for the frustration.

  5. Tribal politics drive me crazy w/ their blood quantum and their insistence that some families are more Native than others.
    ::Looks up blood quantums::

    I can’t imagine how terrible it must feel to have my heritage called into question like that. I’m of African decent but I don’t have to show family tree evidence to trace my lineage back to the slaves that came to America as part of the trade. Wow…

  6. Exactly. What if we asked everyone who didn’t obviously fit our stereotypes of what we think their race should look like to prove it? It’s frustrating, and insulting.

    I should mention that having a tribal ID card does not prove blood quantum. My daughter has an ID card. For us it works like a license, it’s considered a government issue ID. It does, however, entitle us to health care at our own tribal facilities. Being born to a parent on a tribal roll will get you a card. Blood quantum is nigh impossible to dispute if you are not the keeper of the power, so to speak. It’s tricky b/c you have to be able to trace your ancestors’ place of birth and parentage back several generations.

  7. Yes, I agree a positive outlet for the frustration is great.

    Basically blood quantum was set up by the government in the 1920’s for annihilation. The 1/4 standard is what most tribes adhere to. Although there are tons of tribes that go much lower. I have heard some go down to the 1/64 mark. At any rate, it is known that once the blood quantum fell below the 1/4 mark standard the person would not be considered Native. The government assumed that the Native American person would eventually marry out and out until they no longer existed. This is a very racist “policy.” Why is it even in the laws in the first place.

    You have folks like Ouyang and I who feel pride in our hearts and spirit but are not 100% Native. This annoys me to be denied of my existence since it is something I take great pride in. I also only feel connected to my Ojibway heritage and nothing else. I can’t deny my heart and spirit. I am also committed to living from my heart, spirit and not living an inauthentic life.

  8. Shannon Elise said:

    Ouyang, I didn’t know that you had written this until today when it was linked to another blog that you wrote. I recently had a good friend of mine mistakenly assume that I was getting to go to school for free. Let me tell you Ouyang, I had to explain to his for 30 minutes (he wasn’t even from here–he was an international student–so you can see how even other countries view our heritage) that I wasn’t getting school paid for free and that I work 2 jobs almost year round to make up the expenses. Fortunately for me, now that I’m married, FASFA is giving me a lot more money to help out, with 2 new scholarships because I made the DEAN’s list both semesters in a row.

    I’m proud that you talk about the hardships you and I have been in. It was a very well-written piece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: