“Part Indian”

Yvonne DSC01872I don’t know the whole story about Elizabeth Warren’s claim to have Native ancestry.  I have heard her mocked by being called “Pocahontas.”  That mockery is wrong on so many counts, not the least of which is the tragic story of the actual Pocahontas that has been obscured and romanticized by American culture and cinema.  But what I want to explore today is the sometimes confusing experience of those of us who are white but have some Native ancestry.

I know enough now to know that having Native ancestry does not make one a Native American.  But I didn’t know that when I was young.  It was through trying to understand what my Native ancestry meant that I grew to understand what it meant to be white.

When my siblings and I were growing up, all we really knew was our family stories.  Our mom told us she was part Indian.  She didn’t know what tribe.  It was through her mother’s family, my grandmother Yvonne who came from Quebec to Detroit.  (That is Yvonne’s picture I have included above–taken on the day she crossed the border from Canada to her new life in America with my grandfather.) My mom was proud of being part Indian.  My dad had worked as a cowboy, so we used to joke about our parents being the cowboy and the Indian.

Our family stories opened in my heart a curiosity toward Indigenous peoples. As a young adult I learned more about American Indian political struggles, and began to take what action I could in solidarity.  But I also learned that white people who claimed to have Native ancestry were often joked about, considered Wannabes, and especially tasteless was to claim a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian princess.

Perhaps that was why I was relieved to discover that we were not part Cherokee.  I was the one who researched our family history and learned that we were related to the Innu people, who are indigenous to the land now called Quebec and Labrador. The French settlers called them Montagnais. I learned that the Innu know their land as Nitasinnan, which means “our land.”  Later, in the midst of my activist work, I had a chance to meet Innu activists, working against the hydrodams that Quebec was trying to build on their rivers.

Gradually, I learned more about the Indigenous experience in America, and was able to better understand my own position as a white woman.  But in between my childhood and my better understanding, it was confusing to me.  There were a few occasions that I said I was Native American, many other occasions I kept silent.  My sister once took an art class that she got into because she was 1/16th Indian (we thought).  For a short while, I said I was Metis–mixed–because that was a word used in a book in French that spoke about some of my ancestors.  Not being in Canada, I didn’t know about the actual meaning of that word in English to describe another distinct group.  It took a long time to sort out that it was more accurate and respectful to say that I was white.

This is why I have some sympathy for Elizabeth Warren right now.  With only family stories to guide us, it is hard to sort out the dynamics of race and privilege from cherished ancestral connections.  And the stories of my grandmothers are also meaningful to me still.  I say grandmothers, because it was my matrilineal descent that originated in Nitasinnan.  My Innu great-great-great-grandmother was Marie-Madeleine, who married a Scottish trapper near Chicoutimi, Quebec.  Her daughter was Angele, whose daughter was Claudia, my great-grandmother, and Yvonne’s mother.  When we were kids, we thought we were 1/16 Indian, but it turned out to be 1/32.  Much later, a DNA test confirmed that matrilineal descent.

These grandmothers were gradually–or perhaps quickly–assimilated into the white community, first in Quebec, and then in the United States.  I learned that assimilation itself was part of the long campaign to divide Indigenous people from their land and their history.  When an Indian woman in Canada married a white man, she lost her legal status as an Indian.  So, on the census records for Angele, for example, she was referred to as Scottish like her father.  The mother disappears, through a combination of sexism and racism.  I don’t think the assimilation was without difficulty.  I don’t know the early stories, but my mom mentioned once that her mom and her aunts didn’t go in the sun, because they didn’t want their skin to darken and people to think that they were Indians.

Their lingering shame says something to me about the difficulties of the assimilation process.  And yet–they told the stories–they didn’t forget their ancestry.  And that means something to me as well.  The Innu word for “my grandmother” is Nukum.  Even though I am now very clear about being white, I pray to Nukum for guidance in my life, and she has helped me on my journey.

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Changing Lanes Without Signaling

"Ta-Nehisi Coates" by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ta-Nehisi Coates” by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, is a powerfully devastating window into the experience of living in a black body in America, a body that is constantly vulnerable to assault, to capture, to torture, to destruction, to death.

I am a white woman who has long been involved in the white anti-racist struggle–I say this, not with any attempt at boasting, but merely to point out the map that my reality has followed over the last more than thirty years of my life. But even so, Coates’ words painted a picture of soul-shattering fear that struck me to the core.

I grew up with a general feeling of safety. I belonged to a working class family in Michigan, living in suburban Detroit for the most part, raised to believe that “all people are the children of God,” but also living in all-white communities where racial violence was something that appeared only on our television screen. A liberal white world aspiring to be “colorblind,” in the “Dream” that Coates describes as the place where white America lives as if asleep, unaware that it is built on the violence against black bodies.

I was asleep like that, but in my young adulthood I began to wake up to the horrific realities that America was built upon–the theft of the land and destruction of Indigenous people, the slavery and destruction of Black people. The first window into those realities came through my own awakening to the violence that was perpetrated on female bodies. That violence was hidden under the mantle of (white) safety. I did not actually experience sexual violence in my own body, only the constant threat and fear of it. Don’t go out at night, don’t talk to strangers, don’t dress to draw attention to your body, and so on. But here was the irony–a woman could “feel” safe if she stayed “asleep.” It was only upon waking that the fear undergirding my life became visible.

Once I woke up to that illusion, other illusions began to break through as well, and racism became visible and anti-racism became important to me. But so much remained hidden. Layer upon layer, I kept being surprised again and again at the horror of it, the extent of it, the insidious forms it takes, the interlocking systems that perpetuate it. I got it that we are all implicated, that no one can escape the systems in which whiteness benefits those who are understood to be white, and devastates those understood to be not white.

Ta-Nehisi Coates broke open for me a new and deeper layer of the reality of racism–his words, along with the revelations of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which have kept before the public eye the many recent killings of black people by police. Last week, I watched videos of the police officer’s traffic stop of Sandra Bland. Pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, three days later, she was dead in her jail cell. Something about her story–her innocent journey to start a new job, her bright spirit–brought it all home. No black person is safe anywhere.

This week, as I passed the flashing lights of a police vehicle behind a pulled-over car, I felt an unfamiliar shudder in my gut. A tiny glimpse into the terror. When I read Coates describing the terror he felt when he was stopped in his car by police, these images and videos came to mind, and I understood his fear for his life, his shaky relief when he was let go. A few months later, his friend was killed by the same police force.

The thing is, Coates continues to live with this original and constant fear in his body, just as my body still holds that original feeling of safety, even though I realize its illusory nature. I have to choose to stay awake, to remember. I can take a break, not think about it for a while.

It is not easy to stay awake. Mab Segrest talks of choosing white anti-racism as becoming a “Race Traitor.” There is a loneliness in it, a separation from the mainstream American dream, a separation from family and friends. Most often, I feel more resonance with my friends who are people of color, but I will never really belong to that world either. So staying awake is often lonely and sad. I usually don’t have a clue how to create change, or make things any better. But I believe that if we stay asleep we will never find transformation. We have to wake up to reality, bear its pain, before any change can happen. So thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates for being willing to be so open about the reality in which you live, in which we all live.