Tuesday, November 22, 2011

pilgrims and indians.

My daughter came home wearing a pilgrim hat today.

She has this sort of light brown strawberry blonde hair, and she wore a little jumper today with flowers on it. A pair of pink sparkly Mary Janes. She looked edible, that is how adorable it was, except that my insides went all haywire. We are Native peoples, not pilgrims. And what is she learning about American Thanksgiving? She is in pre-kindergarten. What blanks can I fill in? Small pox? Mass execution? Guns? Reservations?

Howard Zinn bounces through my head, and I kneel in front of her and say, "We are Native American people, Beezus. We are the Indians." And yet, I suppose, she, like me, is part pilgrim. She doesn't understand, and I don't know how to explain. She is little and the myth of Thanksgiving is beautiful, healing, forgiving and compassionate. I want her to learn about gratitude. I want her to share her harvests. Strangers sharing a meal, making peace, giving thanks--those are good things, but the whole white-washing-the-relationship-between-white-people-and-the-Native-Americans-through-Thanksgiving-thing depresses me.

I had to make sense of who I was, culturally and ethnically, eventually. How I identified, who I am, what I hold as my cultural heritage.  And now I have to help my children make sense of that. I am a first generation American. My mother came to this country, but her people have been on this continent for a long long time. My mother is Central American. Her family is a mix of European and native--mestizo. In this country, my family were at one point aliens. Foreigners even though their history on this land spans longer than the people making those rules.

I have a pipe-smoking Indian great-grandmother who wore weavings and braided her hair together in a long loopy braid. And another who was Italian and Spanish who grew up in Panama cooking paella and spaghetti. My father is Irish and German. But what I look like is brown. Brown and not white. That is what people see--the brown. The Latina. That is how they treat me. And because I get ignored at jewelry counters, and followed in malls. I identify as a Latina, because I am treated by people as a Latina. I am brown. It does not deny my white father.

When I was younger, thinner and more beautiful, I would get asked where I was from on a daily basis as I walked down the street, waited to come into my building at work, buying my coffee. Mostly from men, sometimes from older women. It was a conversation starter, I suppose. I looked exotic, not American. People have asked me if I am from India, Turkey, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spain, Italy, Mexico. People have wondered if I am half-African-American. Sometimes they would ask me in loud halting English, like my first language had me translating each well wisher. I would answer "Schnecksville, Pennsylvania," because it was like a giant eff off to the idea what it means to be a Latina.

I once dated a man who told me he could hear my Spanish accent when I got mad. Spanish is not my first language, or even really my second. I do not have a Spanish accent. I am able to communicate enough in Spanish to find a communist camp and get us hydrated, but I wouldn't exactly say I am fluent. We all project something onto the person we are with, what we want them to be, why we chose them them in the first place, but there was something about that comment that felt so alienating, so objectifying. In that moment, my identity felt so confused, even to me. I had always felt in between races, cultures, identities. I was seen as white in Latino communities and Latino in white ones. But the Latinos would approach me to say, "Speak Spanish more. We need you. We need you working in our communities, smashing the stereotypes that people have of Latinos." And I felt like I fit precisely because I don't fit.

A couple Halloweens ago, I was dressed as Frida Kahlo. I was drinking beers with my neighbors, and I said something about how I am turning into that crazy Chicana who dresses like Frida slowly once a week, then every third day, then every other day, then every day. And my neighbor said, "Oh, honey, you are white." And someone else nodded, and I grew red hot with confused anger.

Do you think I am white because I live in a nice house in the suburbs?
Because I am not doing your lawn?
Because I am not taking care of your children?
You think I am white because I am smart and articulate?
Because I am confident and look you in the eyes when I speak?
Because I dress in black and listen to the Smiths when I get depressed?
Why do you think I am white? Because of the color of my skin? Because of my voice? Because of what?

I said nothing.

It shames me that I say nothing. But I don't. There is a historical and upsetting history of white people passing laws about what it means to be white or black or Native American and making judgments on who is and isn't white. White people assigning racial identity has a long and dark history. Just because you have never met a "Latina Nerd", or a successful, articulate Latina does not mean they don't exist. There is not one way to be Latina, just like there is not just one way to be white. People who diverge from the racial stereotypes about money, education, articulateness, skin tones, and music preferences are not diverging from their own race. I hear it said about our president, the mayor the city near where I reside. It makes me bristle, because I understand what that feels like to be told that even though you are brown, you are not brown enough. I know what it feels like to be told you are not white enough too. I am both in equal measures. I am not white. I am not brown. I am not not white. I am not not brown.

When I just had Beezus, she of the blue eyes and blonde hair, people would approach me and talk about how beautiful she is. Coo at her and then turn to me.

"Is she yours?" 
"Are you the babysitter?" 
"The Nanny?" 
"Her mother must be jealous at how much she loves you."

That is a role people understand--brown lady caring for a white baby fits what it means to be a Latina in the well-to-do suburbs of New Jersey. But brown lady who gives birth to a white baby is confusing. Now with Thomas in my arms, my little baby with brown eyes and olive skin, people seems to understand something more about our family. That we don't neatly fit into a box marked Pilgrim. or Indian.

I am sharing this today, because that is how all these things feel to me--PICK WHO YOU ARE. Mark a box. White. Latino. Native American. And if so, which type? What nation? Are you an alien? Are you legal? Are you illegal? You must be something. Who are you? Let's define you. What is the color of your skin? Where are your people from? What kind of music do you like? What sneakers do you wear? What side of the Thanksgiving table are you sitting? Maize or creamed corn?

I am many things. My children are even more. I talk to Beezus about the Native Americans, the Five Hundred Nations, the myths and the religion, the food and the connection to the earth. I don't speak of the mass slaughter, the disease, the humiliation. I do not speak of Leonard Peltier or Chiapas. One day, but not today. I tell her about the reservations, the loss of their language, the racism. We pray for the people suffering. I speak in ways that explain why the Pilgrims told the story of Thanksgiving and not the Indians. And I include her.

You are Native American. We are Native American. We are part pilgrim too. We have a little bit of all parts of this country. And for that I am grateful. I am grateful to feel a little bit a part of everything. I am grateful to be part of your tribe.


  1. This is why I hated teaching Kindergartners about Thanksgiving. I was always the crazy lady teaching these little suburban kids about Native People and that the Pilgrims weren't exactly all they were cracked up to be and DAMMIT THEY DIDN'T HAVE BUCKLES ON THEIR HATS!

    It had never occurred to me that someone would confuse you for Beezus' nanny. I'm sorry that has happened to you, because that sucks.

    Just so you know, you are among the many things for which I am grateful this Thanksgiving.

  2. I am dark blonde with brown eyes. My mother...pale with white blonde hair can be. My bio father had Native American in his background. My hubby was a towhead with blue eyes as a child. I was born with black eyes and black hair (that eventually falls out and turns dark blond) and so were two out of four of my boys. They and I never had that blue cast. They even have "mongolian spot" birthmarks on their backsides.

    So when they are with my towhead, blue eyed boys, they are pointed out as "different". I hate that for them. I don't know anything about my heritage and I cannot claim the difficulties you have gone through, but reading what you have felt and are feeling hurts my heart.

    I am so sorry!

  3. When you write a book, I will buy it.

  4. My mom is Cherokee and your words about white washing the past really spoke to me. It is hard... We grew up hearing the nonsense BS about Thanksgiving. It ticks me off that kids are still learning that. My family still has a lot of pain regarding the treatment of Native Americans in this country. The happy-all-was-well thanksgiving nonsense that is taught doesnt help heal that... It's a shame.

  5. Sometimes I wonder what I miss out on by being just one thing.

  6. Good one, sister...this of course speaks volumes to me, as I deal with the same stuff. Sometimes I think I have it easier than my children, as I can check three different boxes based on how I feel that day. Their boxes are checked for them because someone looks at them and says, "White." And it doesn't give an even representation of how many cultures went into making that perfect "white" child you just classified. They are all of it, not just one.
    And i still think of Pennsylvania Dutch as my second language. Doncha know wunst?

  7. By any objective measure, I am White. By any internal measure, that has never quite fit for me. I have never felt entirely comfortable in mostly-White environments. For the record, I also don't feel particularly American most of the time, whatever that means. I have never quite gotten my head around all this.

    Thanksgiving isn't a holiday I have ever felt especially good about- but I am big on gratitude. And, like Mary Beth, I am grateful for you.

  8. Another great post Angie... sending light.

  9. Thought-provoking, Angie. Obviously as an Aussie, we don't do the whole thanksgiving thing, but I still really enjoyed this post. And yes, I am thankful for you too.

  10. I was nodding at so many sections of this post, obviously... ;)

    I remember when I was first going out with my then boyfriend (now DH) and his niece dressed up as Pocahontas for Halloween and wanted to show her costume to me. His family is Irish (emigrated to Canada years ago). Looking back, I now understand that it was the character she was emulating, but at that time, the whole Pocahontas hype bothered me. I recall saying to them, tongue-in-cheek, "Hey, maybe I'll dress up as a white person next year."

    My mother's side is mostly Anglo--the real pilgrims too--New Hampshire and Mass. after coming over from England. My father's side is French and Native American (Metis, Assiniboine/Nakota). We've got both the pilgrims and Indians in my family lineage and the inside joke for years has been it's no wonder my parents divorced--French vs. English (their ancestors were at war with each other over the centuries) and colonizer vs. Native, well, no kidding it turned out so well for them.

    I identify as Metis--one of Canada's recognized Aboriginal peoples and I'm a member of the Metis Nation and it provides proof of my ancestry. They require a pedigree back several generations attesting that one's ancestors came from a certain area of Canada and can be traced back to the original families. I'm also quite dark, so this makes the most sense for me. I had a rough time growing up. There was a reserve near my school and a lot of racism and anti-Native comments. For a while as a teen I'd say I was French, but who was I kidding?

    I still have the quizzical looks from people trying to figure out my ancestry--French? Italian? Hmm...I have cousins who have chided me for "passing":

    "Cousin, you have it too easy. Must be nice for you. You don't have to deal with the crap we do."

    And this...

    "Do you think I am white because I live in a nice house in the suburbs?
    Because I am not doing your lawn?
    Because I am not taking care of your children?
    You think I am white because I am smart and articulate?
    Because I am confident and look you in the eyes when I speak?
    Because I dress in black and listen to the Smiths when I get depressed?
    Why do you think I am white? Because of the color of my skin? Because of my voice? Because of what?"

    Yes, it's tough sometimes to negotiate. My cousins, relatives, friends in the community expect me to act a certain way because of my heritage. And at the same time, I've tripped up people (online and in real life) going on tangents about drunk, no good, no hoper Native peoples (um, like this one--where is YOUR Master's degree and 4.0 average, hey). I also get the "oh that's quaint, dear" and "you're not like those people," from others.

    My kids are being raised to appreciate all of their background. They can be proud of being Irish and being Native American (as well as French and English). I think their fairer looks might mean they have an easier time of it than I had, but I want them to remember and acknowledge all of it...soda bread, shamrocks, boulettes, Red River jig all around.

  11. P.S. My mother got the babysitting comments too. I was very dark as a baby and my mother is light skinned with green-eyes. People would say, "Oh are you watching this Native baby? Whose is it?"

  12. I am totally with Janel.

    Cathy in Missouri

  13. Thanks for writing this - I think it's all to easy to think that we've overcome racism and too easy to downplay the role it still plays in so many lives. I'm a fan of the warm fuzzies that come with celebrating thankfulness, but Thanksgiving is a fraught holiday.

    I'm surprised (and disturbed) that kids anywhere still dress up as pilgrims and/or Indians. I thought we'd passed that point.

  14. Great post, Angie. My mother used to get the same babysitter comments. She is dark brunet and I was very pale and blond. She would get quite upset. Her grandmother was a mulatto and my generation came in many different colors. I feel multiracial, but people always say: "you're not, you're white". I am glad you are teaching your children the truth about Thanksgiving.

  15. I would also buy any book you wrote.

    In college I took a genealogy class. My father's side is British, with legit documentation for having come over on the mayflower (the dude even fell off and had to be rescued). They settled & established themselves in NY. They contributed to this sugar coated vision of thanksgiving. And when talking with my gparents, nothing was said about the injustices that made our family name and money. Only glowing stories of good character & heroism.

    In seminary we talked about something along the lines of how even if now we aren't racist, by being white we have benefitted from generations of injustices done by white people. Guilty by association I suppose. And it made sense. And I was guilty. I am guilty.

    I'm pale skinned, red haired and married to a man of swiss/german background. Simon is white to the nth degree. But I hope to raise him so he is more aware. So he is included - but not because of his skin color or family history. But because he's respectful and sensitive and open minded. So he includes others. And if he's a nerd like me, he'll have read histories and biographies and know that there are always more to "historical" holidays than just the sugar coated version.

    I'm thankful for you. For your perspective and words. Sending love.

  16. This was a wonderful post, Angie -- thank you for it.

    I can relate, just a little, to feeling that sense of "otherness," although in a somewhat different way than what you've described. Dh's family is Italian, came to Canada in the 1950s. I was the first non-Italian, non-Catholic to marry into the family (& still am, on his mom's side). His relatives would teasingly call me a "mangiacake" -- or refer to me as "Canadian" or "English." I'm sure that would have pleased my Irish ancestors. ; ) The first time I met his family, his aunts all stood talking about me in Italian in front of me. Dh later told me they were marvelling that I had pierced ears -- just like an Italian girl!!

    I called my mother & told her that I had never thought about it before, but I now understood & appreciated what it must have been like for her (Minnesota Swedish as well as Irish American) to meet my father's Ukrainian Canadian family for the first time. ; )

    I could never quite figure out the "English" label. As I once told dh, "I'm way more multicultural than you are." ; ) I often thought what a mix of cultures our kids would have been -- & then if they married someone whose background was Asian or Aboriginal or French...

    I don't know why we feel so compelled to slap simplistic labels on people. They never quite tell the full story, do they?


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