This piece was written last year by Dr. Eli Reding. In honor of Indigenous People’s day, we decided to release it on the Grounded Therapy Blog.
November is Indigenous Heritage Month and as a mixed Indigenous person, for a long time, I appreciated this celebration but largely felt it was not for me. When I was younger, I grew up in a White, wealthy suburb. Diversity was not celebrated, and most times was not even accessible. I have memories of going to pow-wow or eating Auntie Brenda’s fry bread (who was technically not even blood related to me but who loves me as her own blood, classic). These moments, however, felt like a vacation from the Whiteness that enveloped me elsewhere in my life. These experiences were vibrant and powerful, but I also felt like an outsider, a visitor to a place that I did not necessarily belong. As I grew, I continued to engage in primarily White institutions, valuing education and discipline as indicators of success. My Indigenous identity became a quirk, something I would speak on if directly asked but for the most part was ignored, both by me and others around me.
My NDN self is so different than my mother’s or my grandfather’s. For one, I am not tribally enrolled due to lacking blood quantum. For those of you who do not know, “blood quantum” is a measure of how much “Indian blood” you have. It is often used as an entrance criterion to membership. The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians requires ¼ blood quantum and mine falls just around a sixth. This felt, and continues to feel, that I am often not Indigenous enough to claim this heritage. Recently I have heard the term Pretendian being thrown around on Indigenous Twitter and I fear it resonates too clearly for me. Is my exploration of my Native identity merely a desire to escape my Whiteness, which seems to choke out any form of identity other than itself?
NDN can be shaped by so many factors: on rez/off rez, language, spirituality/religion, community participation, and family identity. Each of these has impacted me in unique ways and made me feel more or less Indigenous depending on context. An important term in cultural identity work is “identity salience” which specifically refers to the amount an individual cultural identity stands out and attracts attention, both internally and externally. As an individual with multiple minority identities (neurodivergent, Queer, Indigenous), the salience of each of these rises and falls depending on the environments I find myself in. However, my NDN self is the only identity that isn’t global as I am also majority White. This is why I have actively chosen to identify myself on social media and professionally as White/Indigenous, not to dismiss my Native identity but rather to recognize my privilege of appearing White and easily engaging in White spaces. For the most part, I get to choose whether or not I present as Native due to skin privilege.
What then does oppression look like to the mixed-race person, the one who gets to be assumed white due to the lightness of their skin? Due to exploration of my Queer identity, I have a word for this “White passing.” Most people if they do not know me, and even sometimes those who do, do not see me as Native. This means that during the summer, as my skin darkens, I get questions of “where are you from.” I get calls of “hey, papi” for people who confuse me for Latinx. I get to hear co-workers say things like “Let’s have a pow wow,” and “What’s your spirit animal?” Often, it is easier to sit in my silence than correct a stranger, or harder yet, a friend. But each time I do this I tacitly endorse that my Nativeness is not sacred, that those beliefs systems do not have value to me. Even contemplating how often I do this for something as simple as personal ease makes me nauseous.
My Indigenous identity is also something that varies in salience in non-White spaces. In my family, I have cousins who are significantly more Native, both by blood and cultural upbringing. To be Indigenous next to family feels appropriative, even next to my own mother. Here is a strong woman who is visibly Native, who helped advocate for her culture and who actively displays her ethnic power in her field. She lives her NDN heritage through consuming Native art, through her enrollment in the tribe, through her connection to her father, through giving back to Indigenous causes, and in so many other ways I cannot be aware of.
My identity seems nascent to hers. I spent some time working on reservation in graduate school, completing a practicum on the White Earth Nation Reservation. In working there, I was immediately recognized as Native. The Native women at the front desk kept me up to date on reservation gossip, the other mental health professionals on staff shared stories about their identities and asked me for mine. I was seen as part of the fabric of Nativeness in an inalienable way. I was invited to participate in ceremonies and Native events. I resided once a week in the tribal casino and occasionally was in events in the community. For the first time, I did not feel like a stranger to my own identity. I was validated for who I was as a Native and for where I was in that process. I did not feel like a Pretendian anymore.
I first started to actively think about my Native identity in graduate school. I had the great fortune of studying under an advisor who was mixed race herself, Latinx and White. For the first time, I had someone who actively told me it was alright to explore a part of myself, not matter how small. We had conversations about the systemic attempt to eliminate Indigenous people and that in some ways, disavowing my NDN part was internalized colonialism. In those years, I learned terms that described ways I had felt from childhood. I began to see myself as intersectional for the first time: Queer, cisgender, Native, White, Lutheran, Agnostic, wealthy, suburban, male, mentally ill, chronically ill, and neurodivergent (I could go on but I stray). I felt discomfort in not knowing who I was and feeling like I would never be enough of any of these things and at the same time struggled with being too much of them at times. To this day, I cannot escape this constant feeling of identity anxiety, of moving from one to another and having trouble recognizing what is fully me. Nowhere is this more true than my racial identity where I have a great deal of pride but also constantly suffer from an internalized imposter syndrome.
As a professional psychologist, I possess a significant amount of privilege. In many ways, I did not feel qualified to write this account due to that intense position of privilege, that my voice is not as valuable as others who might speak on this topic. But this is my story and is who I am, for better or for worse. I’m just as human as the rest of the world. I will continue to explore all of my identities but for this month, my Nativeness is at the forefront of my mind. It can be uncomfortable to explore yourself when you often feel like not enough but for those of you still reading, I want to extend an invitation to you to try. Find the thing inside yourself that you are hiding from, that makes you ask the questions that you do not have answers to, that you may never have answers to. For me, this month, this year, this life; I am both White and Indigenous. Its frequently easier to live in black and white but for this month I’d invite you to explore your other colors, your reds and yellows too.