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.