The answer would depend on who you ask, and whether you wished a technical/genetic/geographic reply or one based on personal knowledge, belief or history. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they do not. Sometimes it’s just a feeling or so I’ve been told, and I’ve not disagreed with those who feel they are native in spirit, but may not be so by birth or ancestry, but yes, their actions or lifestyle etc. would show me their heart.
I am mixed Native American, as some natives are these days, in that you are not just from one tribe but a couple, or a few. My ancestry is Chiricahua Apache and Cherokee, and there’s a splash of Welsh and African in there also, as my great-grandparents were wanderers, and I’ve cousins that are other mixes besides. If we have a family get-together, the main relatives tend towards a uniformity in that they have dark eyes and hair, light tan skin to medium, but we’ve also some green, blue and grey eyes, blonde hair, and in my case: reddish (it’s how I got my name, after all).
Recessive genes aren’t so recessive in us, though as you can see in the photo, my son has a “classic” look. Then some go into the gender differential, in which Natives do not have such a wide divide generally as Caucasian or others. My son has lamented at times he looks too feminine, but I ask according to who? He looks like us, his parents, his ancestors. If someone who has issues with gender and sexuality, or they try to superimpose their ethnicity on ours they try to make fun because you don’t grow a beard a certain way, or your voice is not as deep. I simply don’t understand such propensity to judge and try to shame or belittle others because of differences.
So what do natives look like? Sure, many people saw “Dances With Wolves”, for example, and think all “real” natives look like that, when those Indians were supposed one tribe primarily. The actors portraying them were from various. There are very many different tribes today (over 500 in North America alone), and some have distinct looks. Some look more “classically” native (to the non-native eye) and to those who say they are native but don’t know the varieties. Some have darker skin, some have wavy hair. Some are shorter, wiry, while others are taller with the large ribcage and bowed legs. There is no one “perfect” look, though some may be more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, or have a more stereotypically native look.
I know my ancestors directly back six generations, though other cousins and the like are spread all over North America, and even the world now. But back in those days when Indians were being forcibly removed from the ancestral lands by the US government, some of my relatives, dependant on coloring, were able to pass as African descendants, and so they could remain although segregated within black communities. In order to live, some went North or to new areas and passed as Italian, Spanish or French until they were comfortable or felt safe to make it known they were native. Some did find other Indians and “disappeared.”
True, other cousins may not have agreed with their choices, those forced on reservations in Oklahoma and Florida specifically, but though life was hard on the reservations, it wasn’t easy either being with “new” Americans, when the old ways burned in your blood. In the South especially, you weren’t “white” and you weren’t “black” either, so you could have ridicule on both fronts. And if they knew or you looked obviously Indian, that could bring its own special prejudice.
When most of my family decided to leave Alabama, it was following the lynching of a great granduncle. He was thirteen years old at the time, and it was said he made a sexual comment at a “white” woman. A common theme now portrayed in film on the topic, but after being tortured, he was hung. That night most of the family left the area, except my great grandmother who was fourteen at the time and promised to a man who could “pass.” He was Chiricahua Apache, but commonly thought to be Spanish.
So my parents still live in Alabama, where Geronimo and other Apaches were imprisoned by the US gov for a while, and where his son is buried after dying from illness many suffered because of the horrible living conditions. My parents actually live in an area that has the most natives for the entire state. Partially, that may be because of the military base located there, as I’ve met many who’ve been stationed there, stayed, married, etc. As former president of the parent’s committee of Native American Education in the local school system’s federal program for several years, it was a regular part of my duties speaking about natives to schools, educators, government reps etc. as well as talk to the parents, children and others in the native community.
“There are still Indians?” a member of the school board asked once. “There can’t be too many. I don’t think it’s a program we really need anymore.”
I questioned the use of the term “we.” We meaning him and those like him, or natives? The natives still need and want it, and by agreement and treaty must have it provided, though we always tried to supplement whatever we could ourselves, monetary or donations to keep it going. When the then-president Bush decided to divert millions of dollars from the program to his war-efforts, the program almost did go out in the area back in the early 2000’s.
Then many of the principals didn’t want the program in their schools. No longer I should say, for as a kid when I was in the US, I did attend Indian Ed classes, and that was around thirty years ago. Then, they were “break-away” classes, where at a certain time the Indian Ed teacher arrived at the school, and all listed natives had that special time to learn, do crafts or a special project, and even go on field trips.
When I spoke to the principal at my son’s school about why she wanted the program out, she said that it made those kids think they were special. So not true, and ignorant in it’s way, because my son actually didn’t want to go to Indian Ed because whenever other kids learned or guessed he was native, they made fun of me making wooting calls or ignorant remarks that made him feel badly. Not specialized treatments for Indians, but it was remarkable by a number of children. Remembering my own times in school, occasionally I didn’t want to go either or was shamed by teachers. One even going so far as to making slighting remarks about Indians to make the other students laugh, so I remember walking out silently, facing burning at being mocked. To see the other natives afterward though was healing. I was not alone.
If you mentioned or were guessed as native, these were some of the remarks:
“I thought you people were extinct.”
“You’re just Mexican.”
“You’re black, your hair is just straight.”
(That last remark was made to a full-blooded Lakota woman by someone at a pow-wow who said they were a “real” Indian because their grandmother was Cherokee! Not saying they weren’t but who are they to judge?)
Actually, that principal had suggested money provided for Indian Ed students go into their own funds for other school projects, which legally and overtly is impossible, but believe me, it got done “undercover” all the time by the decisions made for the natives. Like the time, we were forced to move from one location to another because another program wanted our room. You had 100 natives ready to do the moving, but no, the school decided to take almost $5000 from our classroom money to give to two college students to do the moving for us. Besides that money, thousands of dollars worth of, to us, priceless artifacts, regalia and books disappeared, only to resurface for auction on eBay and other selling venues. When we protested, the school first said they didn’t know anything about it then later apologized but the damage was done.
When you say your native, sometimes people look surprised, maybe they thought you were something else, or maybe they think you all live on reservations or should be dressed in what they think of as “Indian costumes?” Some people are curious, interested in a good way, respectful even, or it’s just something to discuss if you like, just as if you’d said you were Icelandic or something, and they’d never met anyone from Iceland before.
I don’t say it’s really bad, as many things regarding race and ethnicity have improved in the US, but there is still some general ignorance, and only education can help that, which is why we have the program and remain in the public eye. We’re writers, professionals, soldiers and warriors, parents, the cashier at the shop, or what have you.
Many us of are spiritual, but not bead-clacking or bell-wearing everyday of the year to prove what we are. Some know the mysteries, but others do not completely, and that’s just the way it is and has been in the tribes. Some exclusive knowledge is kept and protected. It is not to be exclusionary of “non-Indians”, there is just difference. Some things are sacred and not for everyone. I’ve been asked for authentic details or explanations of Native life, history or traditions in the past, most notably in the article “Two Spirit: Tradition, History and Future”, where I’d had to correct some wrong assumptions about them and natives in general. Well, I didn’t have to, I was asked to, and though they didn’t care for my response, it was the only thing I could give: truth.
Recently, I was again asked to provide specific details of sacred ceremonies for a writer seeking information to include in their work, to make it really authentic they said. One of my questions in return is why they needed to give such specifics, to prove what, and to whom? In that instance, I chose not to provide the information because it was sacred, and possibly dangerous if someone tried to recreate or use the ingredient combination, even though I knew the ceremony. I wouldn’t include that exact information even if I wrote a similar story because it is not knowledge for the general public, plus it is not mine personally to give. I might give personal knowledge of what I’d experienced, but not knowledge of that sort given to me by elders. Only they can give that if they wish to or not. Some may choose to do so. I do not.
It’s not my summation, though I agreed generally with the comment from an anonymous poster on a thread about native ceremonies and why some are not shared even if someone is possibly good intentioned. The responder suggested that maybe those from cultures where few things are deemed sacred, or who freely give any information about themselves or religion (prostylizing types), they do not understand when a culture or group chooses not to, even if it is their right to keep it to themselves.
At the same time, I believe most of us don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s just a part of who we are and how we believe, and unfortunately some see any references or comments about our beliefs as momentous, even when they do their “god bless you’s” and “thank god” comments all day long. I’m a fan of Star Trek in general, and was watching Voyager the other day, were the native American character Chakotye is often called upon to guide people on vision quests etc., the eternal “holy man”. I didn’t disagree with the character as written, and liked him okay, but it was rather stereotypical, not wholly bad, but there are just as many natives who take their beliefs quite seriously but who also have a distinct “modern” personality as well.
I came across an Indian jokes site a couple of months ago, please read through them when you have the time, and I must admit I absolutely rolled with laughter because so many were exactly like native life as I’ve experienced it. There are jokes both Natives and non-natives based on perceptions and viewpoint, of course, but so many are on the mark of the comments many of us have have directed our way.
I guess the thing of it is, after all and through it all, what our ancestors suffered, the things we’ve lost and things we still keep fighting every day in life, you just have to laugh because sometimes that’s all you can do. As an elder once told me, “Everyone thinks of an Indian being good-natured because we like to laugh and make jokes, but if we ever get angry we get angry and we fight.” He basically said, “I don’t have to be an Indian for anyone else but I am an Indian, doesn’t matter what I’m wearing or not wearing, or who thinks what.”
“We’re not all alcoholics, and we are not all ‘chiefs’,” he continued, “we just try to live life and get along, and that’s hard enough without someone worrying about ‘real’ or ‘not real’. Even some of the people argue about that, but the real Indians, blood and spirit, don’t have to fight about it. A lot got taken from us, but we can’t do the same to others. We have to keep the things we know and pass it along our children.”
I’m a Native American. I can’t say it’s special to me because it’s just how I was born, and when I think about it, it makes me remember that same elder who I was thankful to have spoken with and had relayed knowledge to me, is a many times decorated veteran and well-known throughout the world, and if someone tries to give him praise, he smiles and waves it away, or even walks away more concerned with his grandkids and stuff. He will and does take the lead in the family, at ceremonies or at pow-wows, but that’s just part of life, of no comment or deserving or recognition. He considers it his privilege.
Being Indian is no more or less important than anyone else’s ethnicity or culture, though I respect, love, honor and practice many of the old ways, and even if that name is a misnomer of itself, given by confused Columbus. I love the People, all the people, and my heart just could explode with joy when we’re together or when I think about them, like in the article “The People: The Power of the Pow-wow” and even in the sad times, such as in “I Have To Dance: Grieving for a Suicide.” Yet I also feel that way about others as well, because I want there to be peace, and I am sick and tired of misunderstandings because different cultures make assumptions about another and act upon them. I can’t let anyone take my joy away, however, nor should you. I go back and read some of those jokes at the link I gave, and have a good laugh and keep trying to educate others about us, because it takes all kinds.