On Thanksgiving, I’m often asked how I reconcile my disdain for the “holiday” with spending time with my family who observe the “traditional” American version. While it appears simple, it really isn’t so much when you look through my eyes. It’s a deep conflict of my soul and one that I struggle with each and every year.
Walking in two worlds is never easy, but living in two worlds, is even more difficult. Difficult, but very real and at times, very rewarding.
I am Indigenous and I am Caucasian. There’s no denying that. All one has to do is look at my fair skin and blue eyes and I’m questioned more often than not how I can call myself Indigenous rather than white. I am not asked this so much by my Indigenous brothers and sisters, but instead by Caucasians who insist that I am white. Even more so by those who ask to see my “Indian Card” and have attempted to force me to list “white” as my race because I am not a member of a federally recognized tribe. My ancestors did not need the government to recognize them because when they did, their blood was spilled, their children stolen from them, and their culture nearly eradicated from American history. That is a recognition I do not need, want, or require.
As for my Indigenous “family,” blood means nothing when you call yourself related. Acceptance is because of who and what you are and I have many Native brothers and sisters, simply because we are so. We are family because we choose to be family and that’s just the way it is.
When I was twenty-one, I can recall working in a sports bar in Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, KY. My hair was short and blond then and there were a group of Native activists protesting the excavation of Indian grounds on the other side of the river. A Native gentleman came in one night and ended up at the bar where I asked him what he would like to drink. I can’t remember what he ordered, but he looked at me and asked if I was Indian. I affirmed that I was and he sadly shook his head and said, “Then why do you color your hair?” He picked up his drink and as he walked away he turned back to me and said, “Just be who you are…”
I don’t remember if he told me his name or even what nation he was from. I just remember the look of disappointment and sadness in his eyes and the effect it had on me that day. It would be the second step in my journey in finding who and what I was in the two worlds that I had been thrust into at birth.
I am Haudenosaunee. Kanienkehaka. Mohawk Indian. I can’t prove it on paper. I only have my family history. An oral history that was handed down through the generations. Only in recent years has it been required that we as a people, prove who and what we are by the use of government documentation. And sadly, it is only recently that our own people have decided that government recognition is that by which we are able to rightfully call ourselves Indigenous.
My ancestors lived in Canada and the Mohawk Valley area of New York state before they were slaughtered. Those who survived were removed to the St. Regis Reservation and many ventured even further beyond. My knowledge of my family is sparse, having been adopted by a Caucasian couple at birth who denied me any and all access to my Mohawk heritage, culture, tradition, religion, and identification. Through the years, I have found lines to the Delaware, the Algonquin, the Creek, and the Mohigan tribes. But my heart, my spirit, my soul, and my identification as an Indigenous woman, lie with the Mohawk of St. Regis.
I was raised in a Christian home where all Christian holidays were observed and celebrated, or else. Although time with my adopted Grandfather was the epitome of love and devotion, I had little else to look forward to when it came to spending time with “family.” I was told the myths surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter and forced to attend services honoring them. Even as a young child, I could never understand how death of the innocent was to be celebrated.
Looking back over the course of more than three decades, I realize that I was fortunate to have the company of an Elder Indigenous man whom I met as a young girl of perhaps seven or eight. A man who had the patience of eternity with my meandering thoughts, endless questions, and often times, unseemly behavior. His instruction, his smile, his love, his gentle hands, and the deep weathered lines embedded into his ancient skin, will remain in my soul forever. He was more than my friend. He was my guide, my teacher, my conscience, and the only one who could have prepared me for the world I was destined to walk through. He led me through my first steps in finding who and what I was to be.
He taught me the true history of Thanksgiving, and yet I would return home and sit quietly and solemnly through the holiday dinners, faking interest, while nauseous at the idea of ingesting a meal in which the history was surrounded by blood and genocide.
I don’t know what ever happened to him. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember his nation. But I remember his face, the lines in his hands, the way they held mine as he taught me so many things, I remember his voice, and I remember his blue, blue eyes and often wonder as I look into the mirror and see my own cerulean sea of vivid questioning blue, if perhaps he and I were related somehow.
I still wonder today what became of him. I went to visit him one day and he was gone. That’s all. Just, gone. I was too young and too afraid to ask anyone about him. I lacked the knowledge to check the newspapers or search obituaries, but thinking back now as an adult, something tells me his name or likeness were never there.
One of the things he taught me was that I would always walk in two worlds, because I had two worlds living inside of me. He said I could struggle with them, or find peace with them. I struggled for decades, until I learned that they CAN live in peace if I allow them. He taught me to respect the beliefs of others while honoring and living my own as best I could. And that’s exactly what I try to do.
I spend time with my family at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and other holidays, because it’s important to them. Not so much about the religious aspect of the holidays, but rather the time spent with family and friends in just being together. Every day with them, every moment, is a gift that I cherish. Thus placing the history of whatever day it may be behind me, is so much more important than allowing myself to miss out on the opportunity to love them yet another day while they are still with me.
And so on Thanksgiving, while I abhor and despise what it stands for, I remain walking in two worlds simply because it was destined to be so. I love my family and what is important to them. I honor them just as I honor my ancestors and thank them for the sacrifices they made, for their blood that runs through my veins and the veins of my children and grandchildren, for the Elder who made such a difference in my life as a child, and even now, there is much to be grateful for regardless of the history behind Thanksgiving and America’s refusal to treat it as the celebration of genocide that it truly is.
I am Indigenous. I am Caucasian. I color my hair again now that I’m older; but instead of blond, I color it my natural black. My hair is now as white as the Elder’s who taught me as a child. My skin is just as fair and my eyes are just as blue.
I walk in two worlds and I live in two worlds. I AM two worlds… and that’s the way my Creator made me to be and therefore I not only accept my destiny, I am proud to wear it as openly and honorably as I can and pray that I am exactly what it created me to be and am doing exactly what it created me to do.
The tattoo on my left arm bears the words, “Tohsa sasa’nikon:hren…” Never forget.
May we never forget those who sacrificed their lives so that we are who and what we are today. May we never forget who and what we are and may we never forget those that we love and cherish and never… NEVER forget to tell them that we love them.