These well-meaning white women could not believe that I, a little blonde, light-skinned sack of potatoes, could possibly belong with my brown-skinned, black-haired mother and my brown-skinned, black-haired brother.
“She came from my very own vagina!” my mother would say, and we’d continue on our stroll. This has been a common narrative throughout my life. I’m not blond anymore, but I am light-skinned and I’ve always been white-passing. My mother is of the Tewa Native American tribe and my father is white. Physically, I took after my father.
Because Tewas have never been a federally recognized tribe (there are between 400 and 500 tribes that aren’t recognized in the United States) and because our family has never lived on a reservation, we don’t quite count as Native to many people. I get it. I do. Historically, many non-indigenous people have claimed to be indigenous to stake a claim in (i.e. steal) tribal land or resources. Despite the lack of recognition and despite my skin, I claim both whiteness and Nativeness, because there’s a knowing in my bones that has been shaped by my mother, and her mother, and her mother before her.
The debate surrounding who gets to be a Native American has been intensely contested for years, and was fueled this week by the release of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) DNA test results, which showed she had a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago. But the question of Native American identity can never be boiled down to DNA. What if your tribe has never existed in the eyes of the government? If you’re not on a tribal roll or don’t possess a CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood) card? If the Natives you grew up with belong to a different tribe from yours? If you’re adopted or passing or married in? The question is incredibly complex.
To my Tewa mother, being Native meant working with Natives, living with Natives, befriending them and attending 12-step addiction recovery meetings with them. It meant sharing recipes, making beadwork and helping the communities of Natives however she could. She lived and worked on several reservations throughout Arizona, and later, she was in charge of the mental-health department on the Yaqui reservation in Tucson.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with the Yaquis. I didn’t live on the reservation, but I was immersed in the culture. I danced in their powwows, ate their fry bread, and learned how to cook red chili with them. I had crushes on their sons (and later, their daughters), participated in their community events, sweat ceremonies, “fun runs,” and outreach programs. At 12, I attended what my mom and I affectionately referred to as “Indian Camp,” a summerlong program on the reservation that taught life skills and how to keep cultural traditions alive. My mom taught the class on Native beadwork. She learned from her mother, and has since written three books on the topic.
I carried on that tradition during college and beyond, volunteering at the Tucson Indian Center to teach beadwork to kids in an after-school program that my mom created. I make excellent Huichol earrings, though my fry bread is so-so.
In my experience, belonging has involved so much more than a blood test. It’s about reciprocity. It’s time spent in communities. It’s shared culture and history and language and food. It’s who raised you, who showed up for you, who broke bread with you, and who held you up when you thought you could no longer go on. It’s claiming a community and having them claim you in return.
No one has yet claimed Warren, and her recent political showboating is not helping her cause. Indeed, Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, said that Warren was “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
What is Warren doing to improve the lives of the Native people with whom she says she shares kinship? What has she done in the areas of health care, housing, domestic violence, police brutality, sexual assault, clean water, clean air, and any other number of issues affecting Indigenous populations? Why was she silent during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, when water protectors were being shot with water cannons, bit by attack dogs, and threatened by military and police in riot gear? She eventually wrote a statement on Facebook, but by then many deemed the gesture too little and far too late.
Part of claiming kinship, particularly as someone who benefits from white privilege like I and Warren do, is to assume some of the risks and burdens of the communities you’re claiming. It’s easy for a white person to say they have Cherokee ancestors when they don’t have to worry about the racial or social inequities faced by those who don’t pass as white. It’s far easier to boast about a DNA test on Twitter than to go head-to-head with riot-gear cops to protect one’s ancestral lands.
I’m not saying Warren needs to be shot with water cannons to prove she has skin in the game, but I do think that the more power a person has, the more responsibility they have to show up for communities that are less resourced than they are. Warren is a person with tremendous power. Will she use her privilege to amplify Native voices and Native issues?
One of my mom’s sweetest lessons about belonging involved an interaction she had with an elderly man on the Yaqui reservation. He asked her if she was someone's daughter, a polite way of asking if she was Yaqui. She responded with a long explanation about not belonging to any recognized tribes.
After she finished, the man smiled at her, and said, “I recognize you. So if anybody ever asks you, tell them you are my daughter. That should be enough.”
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