I submitted an entry to a BIPOC poetry contest yesterday. I was worried they would ask for a photograph with my entry because I look white. I look white because I am 75% caucasian. I identify as Indigenous. I am a registered member of the Round Valley Band of Pomo Native Americans.
Growing up, I got terrible messages about being an Indian. We say Indian in my family, even though it’s not politically correct these days, and we’re not from India. It’s frustrating when people tell you not to call yourself what you’ve been calling yourself your whole life, but I digress.
I got bad messages about being a Native American growing up. My dad, who is racist, said Indians were proof that Mexicans fucked buffalo. I was just a child, but I knew he didn’t think highly of Indians.
My father raised me in a white world. I didn’t grow up with friends of color, and I was estranged from my Native American family. Once, when I was around seven, my drug-addicted mother took me to an Indian reservation to score some drugs. She left me in the back seat of the car while she went in. In the yard were broken down cars and chickens running around. This is where the Indians live, I thought. I don’t want to be an Indian.
The only thing besides my brief glimpse of a drug addict’s yard I had as a reference to my heritage was what school teachers said about Native Americans. They shared with European settlers and were rewarded with smallpox and murder. Clearly, white people hated us.
When I was twelve, my family sent me to live with my Native American Aunt. I was a trouble maker, and my family couldn’t handle me anymore. She lived in the countryside, and I arrived in a fur coat and heels. “Well, you’re just a poor little rich girl without a pot to piss in,” she said to me. She wasn’t wrong. My grandparents were upper-middle class with a lavish home, and I had been living with them before my voyage to my Aunt’s house. I thought of myself as wealthy. It hadn’t occurred to me I had nothing.
At my Aunt’s, things were different. The furniture wasn’t fancy, so nobody was uptight if you needed to nap on the couch. People laughed a lot, and the kitchen was full of commodities. We ate noodles, meat and fry bread. The first time I was sent to the kitchen to make fry bread, I tried to fry a whole ball of dough because I didn’t know to spread it out by hand. When I pulled it out of the pan, it hit the floor and made a loud thud. I’ve never heard my Aunt laugh so hard.
One day I asked my Aunt if there was anyone who could teach me our native language. She said there weren’t many left who spoke it. When she was a child, the white men from the churches came and sent all of the children to schools. The boys were forced to cut their hair. Anyone who spoke their native language was beaten. Most had forgotten their native tongue. She said she had a sister who spoke Wailaki, that we could go visit her in Covelo. The next day, before I could meet her to learn the language, she died.
My Native American family didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t speak “proper” English, but they were the most generous people I have ever met. They were kind, funny, and loving. Still, with them, I was seen as a white girl. Nobody treated me differently, but they teased me about being white. My cousin Raymond loved to call me a wasi’chu.
I looked up to him. He had the jet black hair that I wanted so badly. If only my hair were black like my mother’s, I thought, they wouldn’t call me a white girl. I became ashamed of being white, knowing how white people had treated my native family. As I grew older and learned of European culture’s domination over people of color, being white became even more distasteful. I still identified as white, but I also identified as Native American. When Native girls or boys would make fun of me for being white, I would say, “what am I supposed to do? Is one half of me supposed to hate the other half of me?”
As I’ve become an adult, I’m still not white to white people and not brown to brown people. I was talking with someone the other day about being BIPOC, and she said, “yeah, but when people look at you, they see a white person.” It hurt. Brown people see a white person. White people see a brown person. They can tell I’m mixed.
So I entered a BIPOC poetry contest because I’m a Native American poet. I’m sick of white people telling me I’m not white because I’m 75% white, and I’m sick of non-whites calling me a white girl because I’m not just white; I’m brown, dammit. I can be both because I am both. I am mixed. There’s no word for that, apparently. Maybe there should be. But in case you were wondering, on those stupid check box forms, where you only get to pick one race, I choose Native American because my heart honors the land, my elders, and all people, not the oppression, murder, and racism that dominates white culture in this country. My skin is white, but my heart is brown.