Who can say they are Indian?

 In ENLIGHTEN, Respect

Who are you to tell my daughter what ethnicity she is allowed to put down on her college application? You give the categories, she marks down her heritage: white, Jewish and American Indian. As it is she has to fill in an ”other” blank to declare she is Jewish. Jews are Semites, not Anglos or Caucasians. That is bad enough. But to immediately upon receipt of her college application, you have the audacity to send her a letter citing a discrepancy in her indication of ethnicity. You tell my daughter that she cannot say she is American Indian unless she has a Roll Number or can prove a certain percentage. That is a low blow.

Oddly enough, I have never heard of African Americans, Asian Americans nor Hispanic Americans being asked to prove their ethnicity. Because you wouldn’t dare. And that’s the truth. I am glad to see that they can simply declare who they are and you accept them. In fact, what ”percent” someone is African American would be considered a hostile question, and rightly so. During their enslavement in this country, they were mixed against their will so much that no one knows what to do with a percent if it were known. We tiptoe around that reality and just simply ask them to indicate if they have any African-American heritage. Nobody wants to open that can of worms.

As I sit here, my anger turns to tears. Do we not remember where my people have been? Do we not teach the history of the Native Americans? True, they weren’t forced to come to this country and enslaved – they were just enslaved by those who came to their land. They were initially a peaceful, proud, loving people. And they were also trusting. I wonder what my people would have done differently had they been able to see into the future to what has become of their land and their people.

When Indians first began to mix with “whites,” the offspring “half breed” was an outcast in both cultures. I almost prefer that to becoming what I see today. We are non-persons. We have no identity, no heritage, no culture and no land. And we are even denied the pride of indicating our heritage on forms.

They must know if we have a number. When the Jews were given numbers, it was for a very sinister purpose. Even my daughter’s grandchildren would have been considered Jewish ”enough” for Hitler. Did it ever occur to you that there are those who would not take the numbers offered the American Indians for similar reasons?

My mother tells me stories about her grandmother who was full-blood Cherokee Indian. She was married off the reservation to an immigrant German man. She came to live with my mother’s family in her declining years. Mother tells wonderful stories of how close she was to her grandmother. She was a friend and confidante to her in her teenage years. Grandma Rose shared many stories of our people. She taught my mother to quilt in the tradition of the Cherokees.

Rose had married when she was quite young. She left the reservation just before the Dawes Roll census was taken. Anyone not living on the reservation was not even asked if they wanted a number; none was offered.

Her son, my grandfather, was often referred to as a half-breed. My memories of my grand daddy are of a quiet, proud, dark man. He had a sense of humor that I believe I have inherited. But he also had many troubling thoughts. He was generally an unhappy man. I do not know what troubled him, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that his mixed heritage caused him some pain during those times.

And today his great granddaughter cannot declare she shares his blood, his heritage, his pride, his pain. The anger I feel is as a jagged wound. My people have earned the right to declare who they are unto all generations. They have paid the ultimate price. You have set up your institutions of ”higher” learning upon the land red with the blood of my daughter’s ancestors. Do not challenge us if we choose to attend. Do not tell us who we are, or who we are not. We know all too well.

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