When I was a little girl, I told people that there was a war going on inside me.
My father is full-blooded Native American. His skin is dark. A dreamcatcher is tattooed on his arm. He’s tall, stoic, and his voice is deep. He speaks in a rhythm that I’ve only ever heard on the reservation. He calls me every time he sees an eagle.
My mother is Scottish, Argentine, the kind of Spanish with pale, pale skin. She grew up in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. If you asked her, she’d ignore everything else and tell you that she’s British. She’s not wrong. Her accent is strong and musical, even after 25+ years in America. She has a Union Jack flag on her car and her friends send her copies of British tabloids.
As a child, I knew that in the war that made America, my mom would have fought for the redcoats, and my dad would have fought with the revolutionaries. The colonists. The Americans. The fighting was inside me now, deep in my heart or somewhere in my DNA. I didn’t think it was a sad thing, back then. I thought it was cool.
In kindergarten, I played the role of the Friendly Indian in our Thanksgiving skit. I wore a brown fabric “buckskin” dress, a feathered headdress made of construction paper, and smeared two red lines of warpaint under my eyes. I was so very proud, but my skin was still white, and I didn’t really look anything like Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The pride floated around above me, nebulous, conceptual in the way that five-year-old me had no way to explain, even to myself.
My roots are in my father’s experiences. My roots are in my mother’s experiences. My roots extend beyond the place I was born, beyond the mountains my tribe is from, beyond the Spanish mountains my mother is from. My roots are stretched and twisted and extended beyond what I can keep track of, or understand. You ask me, where am I from. Who am I. You ask me, what does my cultural identity mean to me.
I have no answer for you. I’m removed from my Spanish roots, my Scottish roots. They mean something to me, but I don’t know what yet.
Because I grew up near my tribe, I have more lived experiences as a Native than as anything else. But even then, it’s not really the Native experience. I’m mixed. My skin is white. I have no answer, really, when you ask me what my cultural identity means to me. I can’t explain these things.
But I can try to show you.
The casino. The slot machines ding and trill in the background while I show you the Culture Corridor, a tiny hallway with museum-esque displays of beadwork, baskets, and photographs of my tribe’s history. We get stopped once or twice by someone with a nose like mine who tells me that they know my dad, or they knew my grandfather, and that I should say hello to my dad, and have fun at school. The people with noses like mine are usually wearing the maroon shirt of a casino employee.
The next place I would bring you to is Friday night bingo. The bingo hall is a one story building positioned right next to the casino, with the aesthetic of a cafeteria, all metal chairs and folding tables and white-speckled-with-gray linoleum tile. You can smoke at some of the tables, but we sit far away from that. A woman with a pleasant, monotonous voice calls off numbers from the front of the room, pausing while they flash on the screens set up near the ceiling. “B-9,” the bingo caller says. “O-57.” “I-22.” We daub our numbered sheets.
You see even more noses that look like mine. You don’t win anything, and I don’t either. In the bingo hall, there’s a tiny place called Frybread Heaven. It looks like the place the middle school lunch ladies put the hot food--hot pans with a sneeze guard, a metal shelf to slide your plastic tray down once you pile it with food.
I buy frybread, and I ask them to put cinnamon sugar and butter on it. Most of the time, frybread is eaten as an “Indian taco,” which is just a taco on our culture’s particular flour creation instead of another’s. But I don’t eat meat, so my frybread is more like a funnel cake from the fair. My dad always says that “vegetarian” is the Indian word for “bad hunter.” I tell you that this is the only traditional Native cuisine I can show you, because nothing else remains. Frybread is a staple of our culture because it is cheap and filling. It is not an age old recipe passed down from the days before the white invaders. It’s something that we made up out of necessity. For survival.
And here is a truth I have only learned very recently, and I’ve been living it all my life. When your people die, your culture dies too. The valiant attempts made to preserve our life and our ways have only been able to preserve slivers--bits and pieces. What we have saved, as rich and beautiful as it is, is just a fraction of what we’ve lost.
The genocide of the past, the genocide of America’s beginning, has not ended. Native women were forcibly sterilized well into the 70s. Alcoholism plagues us. Our children are dying in droves. Native children are three times more likely to commit suicide than any other ethnic group. In certain tribes, they’re ten times as likely.
Scholars have begun talking about intergenerational, historical trauma, or the idea that Natives born today are born cursed with the fear, pain, and trauma of their ancestors. It’s weaved into our DNA. Every dead native child is a direct result of colonization, colonization that continues to this day.
This is what we all have in common, I suppose, besides our wide noses. That trauma. That pain. That is what my roots are firmly dug into.
I can walk freely in the casino, in the bingo hall, around the Pow-Wow and the tribal council meetings, because my ID says that my blood qualifies me as a Native. But my skin doesn’t. I am free to enjoy the rest of the world because of what my mother gave me--white skin. Colonization, the very reason for my intergenerational trauma, is also the reason that my skin affords me so many opportunities and freedoms. Maybe most importantly, it’s what gives me a measure of safety in the world.
How do I reconcile these things? How do I live as a contradiction, a human being pulled in all these different directions, rooted in so many places?
I don’t know. That’s all I can say.