Quite the Little Indian: the Stigma That Comes With Being a Breed

shipman
Grandpa Shipman holding the newest Shipman Ellingburg.

On the reservation in 1989, when all the newborns were dying like the infants of Bethlehem, when the mood hung so heavy in the thick smog that rolled in from the bay even the ocean’s tide came in cobalt blues and midnight blacks, and those selfsame waves crashe
d against the shores like a madman foaming at the mouth, tracing unnamed patterns in the sand – way back, in a run-down cal-de-sac between Chief Charley’s Smoke Shake and the small cedar Indian Casino, amongst the ding of slots and the white noise of water, I was born, and I did not die.

My mother was (and is) a light-skinned Native American woman, and my father is white.

Although I was not raised completely Traditional (my family became more traditional when I was seventeen or eighteen), I was raised to be proud of my Tribe. Before anyone told me, I knew beautiful truths of the ocean, of the way the saltwater wind blew back my hair and tasted of freedom. I knew our connection to the land and water, knew of all that passion and intensity that comes with a proud heritage, and knew myself, intrinsically, at a core level, to be Native American. I was enrolled in my Tribe when I was three months old; I don’t remember those three months, and so I will never know what it is like to not be part of a Tribe, paper documents and all (not that the paper is what matters – you know what they say! Indians don’t trust anything after it gets put in writing).

loveI grew up with all the passion of an Indian girl, and none of the external signifiers of my heritage. Even in full regalia, wearing Eagle feathers, with my NDN I.D. card in my pocket, people are loathe to recognize me as a Native girl. I can sew, bead, and make mean frybread; I’ve seen Smoke Signals upwards of 100 times and have met and subsequently salivated all over Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo; I was born on the reservation, and lived on or near reservations for most of my life; my ear is tuned to the lilting cadences and rhythms of Indigenous speech patterns, but despite all, my light skin serves as a disqualifier, as if my lived experience were less important than random skin pigmentation.

This strikes me as horrendous.

When I was young, the Native mothers used to tell their sons not to date me – they didn’t want no white grandbabies. Once, at a Powwow, when I was only fifteen, I asked the most exquisite Grass Dancer to Owl Dance (Ladies’ Choice) with me. He turned his back to me and walked away, one of the greatest taboos in powwow protocol. I attend Indigenous ceremonies or community events, and am treated like a voyeuristic outsider. And for all this, I only seem to cling all the more tightly to my mixed, but very real, identity, knowing full well that for some, this identity and lived experience will never outweigh my apparent whiteness.

It’s so normal to want to fit into your community, to want to be seen as “one of us,” that at times, I forget I don’t have to over-compensate, show off my traditional knowledge, serve as the token Indian In the Room. The number of times I’ve seen Smoke Signals, while approximately in keeping with your average rez girl’s, doesn’t make me any more or less Indian. Nor does my skin. It comes down to a matter of lineage, plain and simple.

mother
my mother

Now, lately I have been reading Perma Red, a book all about the Indigenous woman’s sometimes-sad plight, and I am connecting with the main character, Louise – I feel as if I know her. And when I read Sherman Alexie’s writing, Joy Harjo’s, and especially, Louise Erdrich’s, I see myself in them. I want to be one of them. But in the back of my mind, I hear a voice reciting, as if from a Sylvia Plath poem, “You do not do/You do not do.” Lately, I don’t want to bother proving to anyone that my identity is authentic. I know what I know. I am who I am. I’m going to keep watching Smoke Signals, keep listening for the soft cadence in the voice of an Elder, keep admiring the Fancy Dancers and the Chicken Dancers as they swoop and dip, transfigurative, alive.

You see, I don’t want to play this game anymore – the, “I count,” game. At the same time, I don’t want to be asked what my blood quantum is every time I deign to discuss my heritage. I don’t want to feel like an outsider, and while there may not be much to be done for this, it bears mentioning.

ant

The first poem I ever had published reflects the way I feel about my mixed heritage. It’s an older piece, but it reflects all that I feel – the love I have for my father, the passion I have for my culture, and the fact that I matter. I exist. I wear leather and feathers and dance in powwows. I write postmodern literary fiction, and whether my characters are Indian or not, my writing is Native American writing, because I am Native American. I read in coffee shops and teach classes. I attend Canoe Journey, Salmon Ceremonies, film screenings for intrinsically NDN moves, and I lay in bed and watch Netflix while drinking ginger ale. No matter what I do, I am an Indian doing it. I am not more Indian when I paint my face to enter the powwow circle than when I am at home in pajamas snapchatting and uploading photos to instagram. And I’m not going to try to convince anyone of anything – because honestly, it’s not anyone’s business.

A Mixed-Blood Native’s Soapbox Gospel

My father
has the most beautiful blue eyes
in all the world.

They are the color of the Seattle sky on a good day.
They are the color of an ocean at its calm.

And I don’t care
if a thousand thousand
Indian men call me white girl.

And I don’t care
if all the Indian women in the world
get together in a knitting circle
and call me half-breed.

I would not trade
my father’s blue eyes
for all the copper skin in the world.

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5 thoughts on “Quite the Little Indian: the Stigma That Comes With Being a Breed

  1. What a beautiful poem. I also liked this line, “No matter what I do, I am an Indian doing it.” I am a white American living in the Dominican Republic and for a while I looked forward to the day when I could be counted as an honorary Dominican, to the day when I got my residency and wouldn’t be counted as a tourist. Then one day I realized that no matter how long I live in the Dominican Republic, I will always be an American. Nothing can change my past, my heritage, my upbringing, and the culture that has been indoctrinated in me from birth. I can grow in knowledge and comfort, in relationship and familiarity, but I will never be Dominican. And that’s okay. I wouldn’t trade my blue eyes for all the copper skin in the world, either.

  2. This made me cry. I know if you didn’t tell me you were Indian I wouldn’t have known at all but people don’t think I’m half Chinese at all. I’m too fat and too tattooed. Half breeds for life.

  3. You are so right. I, too, have come to the understanding that whatever I do, whatever I wear, no matter how others see me, none of that matters. Being Native American is not something you can put on or practice… it’s who you are. Down to the very core of your being. And no one’s opinions can change that. And whether the government who murdered my ancestors and stole their land and took away much of their culture, recognizes the fact that I am Native American or not, could mean less to me. I know who I am and where I come from and I could not be more proud of my heritage.

  4. This is heartbreaking, I am also biracial, Caucasian and Chinese and I am proud of both of my heritages, I don’t consider myself more Chinese or more White, it’s both equally passionately.
    I also find the word ‘half-breed’ to be very very insulting. I am sorry you face this type of struggle. Who is anyone to say whether you are truly Native American or not by your appearance, it’s how you feel. If you grew up on the reservation, it makes total sense that you do not identify with WASP culture even if you are half white.

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