Did you grow up hearing you have Native American ancestors? Ramone Romero reminds us that having Native lineage doesn’t necessarily mean you lived life as a Native person.
It’s kind of cool in America to claim to have a “Cherokee princess” for a great-grandmother, or claiming some impossible percentage like 1/12th because of a grandparent or great-grandparent. In the majority culture we rarely think twice about these claims, but Natives hear them so often that things like the “Cherokee princess” claim become a party joke. It is true that sometimes people in the majority American culture do have genuine Native ancestry, but have been completely disconnected for generations from the culture and community of their ancestors.
Recently there is another occasion arising which increasingly prompts people to claim Native ancestry: As Native Americans protest Indian sports mascots like the Washington R*dsk*ns, many Americans from the majority culture say things like, “I have Native ancestry and the name doesn’t offend me!”
The idea seems to be that if you have a Native ancestor, somehow it includes you as a genuine “Native American” and gives you the right to speak as a Native American about the mascot issue.
I am not going to challenge whether you have genuine Native ancestry or not (though if you think you had a “Cherokee princess” in your family, I advise you to study Cherokee history, your family’s genealogy, and to talk to your extended family to sort out fact from fiction). In fact, I’m going to actually assume that maybe you *do* have genuine Native ancestry.
I want to ask you a few questions:
Were you raised in a Native community? Do you look non-white or non-black? What do you know about your Native ancestors’ culture? What do you know about their beliefs? Do you know their traditions and ceremonies? Do you know some of their language? Are you connected to the *living* tribal community?
When I was a child I heard rumors of Native heritage in my family, but all I had around me were books and movies. I didn’t know a single living Native or a Native community. After a period of being interested in my Native heritage, I felt self-conscious, embarrassed and stopped talking about it. Without connection, community and culture, I felt like I really didn’t have enough “Native” in me to count for anything.
Having some Native blood is not the same thing as growing up in Native up in a community, sharing understanding, culture and tradition. A friend who has Creek heritage writes,
“I have enough Creek Indian blood in me to fill up my hand! Although proud wouldn’t begin to tell how I feel about that blood…I have not lived the life of an American Indian. I have not been singled out in the world of white America. Not lived on a Rez, in government housing, or seen firsthand the continuing atrocities dealt to a proud people all in the name of “more”. Have not had my culture stripped and stolen away. I have not been the OTHER…
I cannot imagine what it must feel like to try to find a way to defend your community and your people against an unfair oppression…to feel so helpless and to have such a small voice. When the ones you love are minimized and dehumanized. When they seem to count for nothing. To me that must be a small taste of the frustration the American Indians of this land must feel.”
When I was 26, I learned that I’m actually half-Mexican. (Mexicans are actually just Native Americans who live south-of-the-border, by the way, but that’s another conversation!) For various reasons, no one directly told me I was Mexican or taught me Mexican culture. I didn’t grow up in a Mexican community, and even though I visited relatives in Arizona every summer, somehow I never learned that my great-grandparents were born in Mexico. My father & grandparents spoke Spanish, but I never realized that was something most Americans don’t experience. I don’t “look Mexican” and I didn’t grow up feeling “Mexican” or identifying with them in any way (except for liking Mexican food and being irritated when people mispronounced words in high school Spanish class).
I share this to illustrate the obvious: Even though by blood I am fully half-Mexican, I don’t know the first thing about “being Mexican.”
So why do we assume that “having Native blood” entails us to some kind of right-of-identification with Natives?
Just because I’m half-Mexican doesn’t give my opinion on problems in Mexico any more weight than the next person. I haven’t been there, I haven’t experienced the Mexican experience, and I haven’t had to deal with prejudices that Mexican people can experience from the majority culture in America. I grew up in the majority and felt like one of them. I can’t speak for Mexicans much more than I can speak for Mongolians.
I have Cherokee ancestry. I have Cherokee blood, but I can’t speak for Cherokee people *at all*. I don’t know what it’s like to have someone barge into my family’s home and shout, “Which one of you F-ing r-dsk-ns untied my dog? I know it was one of you F-ing Indians!” (http://
I don’t know what it’s like to have a school friend tell me they couldn’t come to a birthday party because “Mom said she won’t allow me to go to a party with no r-dsk-ns” as a Mohawk friend has experienced.
My Native ancestry gives me no right to speak on behalf of people who have grown up as Native Americans.
But I will speak as one who wants to reconnect with and know the people of my ancestors:
When you cheer for the R*dsk*ns, the Indians, the Chiefs or the Braves, are you honoring your ancestors?
Does cheering for these teams teach you about their culture, their beliefs, their traditions or ceremonies?
Does wearing a headdress and face-paint teach you about what it means to wear a headdress and face-paint?
Do you learn anything about the people at a game or by purchasing team apparel?
Do the sports games educate you about their culture, their stories, their values, or who they are?
Does “honoring” them this way help you get to know and form relationships with living Native Americans today?
Do their “fight songs” and “tomahawk chops” teach you their languages and help you know the things of their hearts, their cares, concerns and needs?
Do the names and mascots of these teams show you how Natives are real people?
Be honest. Attending a sports game with an Indian mascot doesn’t teach you *anything* about living Native Americans any more than watching “Peter Pan.” It is purely for your own entertainment, purely for your own pleasure. It doesn’t teach you how to honor the living today, but rather how to defend caricaturing, stereotyping, and how to use twisted logic to justify being offensive.
Sports mascots don’t help you and they don’t help Native people and cultures. You spend money supporting billionaires and overpaid athletes. You don’t donate to recovery centers on reservations, cultural preservation or language programs. You don’t support the *living* Native community at all by cheering for teams with an Indian mascot. All you do by this is to further strengthen the marginalization of Native Americans and the insulting of their culture.
It’s time to learn what it really means to “honor” Native peoples and cultures. It’s time for you to honor your ancestors— many who likely hid their Native heritage because of the discrimination and shame they received from the majority culture in America.
Honor them: Stop supporting caricatures.
Honor them: Don’t use your ancestry as if it was a badge giving you the right to speak for those who have grown up as Native Americans.
Honor them: Get to know *living* Native Americans today, their communities, their cultures, values and stories.
Honor your ancestors by honoring their relatives today.
Ramone Romero is an artist who was raised near Washington, D.C. He lives with his family in Osaka, Japan.
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