Deep Stories, Race, and Identity

A Long, Long Run

The Long Race: Today’s Vermont City Marathon

Issues of Identity are complex. They demand our attention and dominate our stories. They shape our political debates, and spar in our contending versions of history. They are ever-present and often invisible. Yet they form the very ground of therapy sessions and healing ceremonies.

A few days ago a colleague told me about a conversation he had with a regional community mental health agency. This agency is located near a well established Native community, yet a representative from the agency, when asked about issues of racism in the community, said, “There are no people of color here. We only serve Caucasians.” Now the residents of the Native community do appear White, as do most people in rural Vermont. After all, Native people in the Northeast have interbred with Europeans for hundreds of years, and we are often very light-skinned. That has served us well in terms of survival; it also makes us invisible.

Also last week, I found myself in a meeting of about twenty fair-skinned folks. This group was composed of bright, articulate, fair-minded people. The conversation turned to problems of racism that have arisen in Burlington’s schools. At one point, a particularly thoughtful person said, “But we are all White here (in this room).” I was stunned and confused. At that point, another person asked me how I felt about that statement, asking, “Do you identify as a person of color?”  My response, not all of which was verbal, was “Yes! Sometimes. It’s complex.” Issues of Identity can be daunting!

A significant number of the people who come to me for aid are of Mixed Ethnicity, usually a combination of Native American and European.  They come because they are suffering, and because part of that suffering is a loss of connection to Native heritage. These are often folks whose parents are grandparents were Native, but rejected that identity in favor of a European identity. Almost always there is a family history of violence and rage.  When parents and grandparents consciously distanced themselves from their tribal roots, simply discovering those roots can become supremely challenging.

When a person has become separated from her cultural roots, she may find herself in a cultural, ethnic, or racial no-person’s land. Her interior world may encompass at least two, often feuding, sets of cultural instructions. Her outside world may well be rejecting of both her polarized options for identity. For persons with Native ancestry that cannot be traced, attempts to reclaim that ancestry may be met with scorn from Natives with tribal identity, and the seeker labeled a “wanna-be. ( In many cases it is supremely easy for light-skinned Natives and persons of other Ethnicities to change their public identity. One simply checks the “Caucasian” box on a form.) White culture may appear relatively welcoming, but  may require one to reject family values, beliefs, and practices that are decidedly Native, to reject large parts of Self.

These conflicts are clearly visible in the ongoing, racially charged discussion of Elizabeth Warren‘s heritage, and her checking of the box marked “Native” on various forms. (Maybe we could be talking about the 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act instead?) Vitriolic attacks against her have come from both Conservatives and Indian Country. As Lindsey Catherine Cornum points out, this puts Warren in  nearly impossible position:

To begin with, anyone who still believes blood quantum is a true measure of identity is living in the 19th century. Blood quantum, the measure by which the government determines one’s degree of Indian ancestry, has got to be one of the most plainly hypocritical logics the American government has ever used to disenfranchise people. At the same time America was using the “one drop” rule to categorize as many people with African ancestry as slaves as possible, they were using a reverse “one drop” rule on Indians in order to categorize them as white in the hopes this would loosen ties to the communally held land settlers desperately wanted.

Yet, if Warren claimed 1/32nd Cherokee heritage and was dark-skinned, I bet the conversation would be a lot different. The problem is Warren just doesn’t look Cherokee enough. Because of her physical appearance, many believe she has not had a genuine minority experience and does not deserve to claim minority status. To some degree, that is correct. As a light-skinned woman whom most people read as of Western-European descent, Warren has probably never experienced outright racism first-hand. Because she is granted white privilege based on her white appearance, however, does not necessarily mean she is just white—this applies not only to Elizabeth Warren but to all light-skinned people with non-European heritage. Though they must be held accountable for their conditional privilege and to the communities they purport to belong to, their decision to connect to their heritage is theirs alone. Nobody gets to decide that for them but their ancestors.

Unfortunately, in defending herself and her choice to list herself as minority professor, Warren has relied on her own reductionist interpretations of Indianness. While she did give a sincere account about the family history she was told and raised on, she has also tried to confirm her Cherokee ancestry by pointing to the high cheekbones of her grandfather. I mean, a part of me gets it. For those of us who do not look Indian enough (which these days requires full-blown regalia or being dead) or those of us who are cut off from our tribal communities, there is a struggle to identify what exactly is Indian about us. That sometimes comes out in misguided generalizations that we know will be understood by the ignorant, Hollywood-fed American public. In many cases those ignorant, Hollywood-based images are some of the only ways we know ourselves what constitutes an authentic Indian.

While the issue of Elizabeth Warren’s identity, and the various attempts to silence her (and thus all people of Mixed Heritage), are central to Native identity politics at the moment,  these issues are hardly unique to Indian Country, as Akemi Johnson writes in a piece entitled “Blood Quantum and Beauty Queens”:

Torika Watters, the 16-year-old multiracial beauty queen recently stripped of her Miss World Fiji title over questions of age, race, and corruption (was she too young? too white? was the whole thing rigged?), got me thinking about a couple of things.

One is work by scholars like Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain and Christine Yano on Japanese American Cherry Blossom pageants. Over the years, mixed race has been a controversial issue–what percentage of Japanese heritage qualifies someone to compete? Seventy-five “percent”? Fifty? Twenty-five? Does a person need to belong, at all, to a certain racial group to know, appreciate, represent a culture? Interestingly, Honolulu took the longest to reduce its “blood quantum” rules from 100% to 50%; that only happened in 1999. Contrastingly, in Seattle, the rule on racial eligibility is vague and relaxed. (See Dr. King-O’Riain’s book, Pure Beauty.)

One is work by scholars like Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain and Christine Yano on Japanese American Cherry Blossom pageants. Over the years, mixed race has been a controversial issue–what percentage of Japanese heritage qualifies someone to compete? Seventy-five “percent”? Fifty? Twenty-five? Does a person need to belong, at all, to a certain racial group to know, appreciate, represent a culture? Interestingly, Honolulu took the longest to reduce its “blood quantum” rules from 100% to 50%; that only happened in 1999. Contrastingly, in Seattle, the rule on racial eligibility is vague and relaxed. (See Dr. King-O’Riain’s book, Pure Beauty.)

The second thing the Torika Watters story brought up is this study on television and eating disorders in Fiji. In the ’90s a Harvard anthropologist found that the arrival of TV–and Western programming with Western standards of beauty–increased the number of eating disorders among Fijian women. The study seems to address only weight issues, but of course race is a big part of body image, too. With Western TV comes the beauty ideal of whiteness.

Let’s give the last word to Petoskey, an Odawa elder whom I have lately come to admire deeply. In a piece entitled, Enforced Blood Quantum,” he writes:

A long time ago I quit allowing other people or foreign influences define who I am. This morning I was told I was an “American” because I was born in America. I was reminded that I was forgetting half of who my relatives are being Europeans, but I can say with conviction that I have never been identified as Scot or Irish.

So I wonder why when I attempt to affirm my personal convictions regarding who I am why there are those influences foreign and domesticated, who decide for me regardless of my continuing affirmation, calling me “American.”

I share with all my blood bought relatives that if you have one drop of Indian blood you have a right to be called “Indian.”

As psychotherapists we routinely delve into issues of Identity, frequently aiding patients as they move from one identity to another as  they grow and navigate their way through their lives. As shamanic and traditional healers, we are often asked to aid patients to recall and recollect aspects of themselves, including connections to their ancestors,  that have been lost to Trauma. These two paths meet in the territories of Deep Story and Narrative, colonialism and racism, and in all places where Identity is negotiated and contested, where Self is lost and found. To ignore the politics of Identity is to risk further injuring those who turn to us for aid.

What is your experience with deep stories, and with contested places and Selves?

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