Identity Politics

Spring_RiverThis morning I awoke to an email comment on our office website. The writer sharply attacked me for saying in my bio that my father’s parents may have been Shawnee and Lakota, stating, that in her view, I am not an Indian. She accused me of being a New Age fraud, seeing as how neither tribe practices shamanism. She threatened to report me to the Lakota, then noted that as the Lakota don’t practice shamanism, she could not accuse me of appropriation.  I found this note very troubling.

On the positive side, it reminded me that of late I have become increasingly uncomfortable in making public guesses about my tribal heritage. While such reconstructions of the little we know help me feel somewhat more grounded in my heritage, they are really not of use in public discourse. 

Clearly, my explicit statement that I do not really know my heritage is inadequate for some persons. I have tried to make my mixed heritage clear, as well as my lack of tribal affiliation. (Heaven knows I meet many people here in the eastern U.S. who have this same problem.) I have always explicitly said, “We do not have tribal affiliation”. Well, I looked over my bio section in our website and discovered that, in spite of endless proofreading, there was a glaring error left over from the last revision. The site, to my horror, now read, “We have tribal affiliation”!

Well, I corrected that, and removed any mention of specific tribes. I also apologized to the writer for any offense I may have caused. Both make sense.

There is much to be discouraged by in all this. I have always tried to be excruciatingly careful in stating that my family has no tribal affiliation, and that we can only make educated guesses about our tribal heritage, even though we are speaking about my father and grandparents. I find it immensely frustrating that, although we know we are Native, those of us of my generation cannot know for certain what our heritage is.

As an elder, I do my best to share what I have been given. As a healer and a clinician I do what I can to address the needs of those who ask me for aid. I am saddened that there are folks who assume the worst, without asking, and are so disrespectful to elders. Sadly, the truth is that if I were New Age, pretending to share tribal knowledge, I would make a lot more money.

I have changed the way I understand, and speak about, myself as I have grown. Now, as an elder, I’m less likely to feel shame at being Native, or of not knowing  my heritage with certainty. Nor am I given to insisting on some politically correct standards in regards to healers. For me, the world is increasingly complex, and people, and Mother Earth, need all the aid we can offer.

I find it maddening that I will never be Native enough for some folks, and will always be too Native for others. I’m tired of the elitism and racism from both sides. I grew up with it, and I still face it. Sometimes the combination of being disabled and mixed blood is just too painful. That said, I refuse to be erased.

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29 thoughts on “Identity Politics

  1. Although I’ve never met you, I like you for who you are in print. I discover your identity in what you say, how you say it, and what you say in reaction to others. I have read your wisdom, your considered thoughts, your stated feelings. I appreciate all that I’ve read and imagine a complete person with enigmatic history attached to it. As we all make decisions based on incomplete information and understanding, I have decided that you’re a wonderful person. For what it’s worth. 🙂

  2. I concur completely with Scilagrace. In spite of your internal struggles, you have integrity – a personality quality that I highly admire. A well-written post, Michael.

  3. I think apologizing for potentially offending someone makes sense, but it seems inconsiderate to attack someone so harshly on their part. Being completely unsure of your heritage doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think your final paragraph summed it up well. You are caring, and you are intelligent, and you try your best to honor your heritage.

    • Thank you. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who pretend to be Native and aren’t, and who make a lot of money from selling Native culture. They do much harm. At the same time, a lot of us in east have very confusing and convoluted heritages and are trying to hold on to what we can. It makes things dicey sometimes.I’m afraid I do not do well with threat and intimidation. I, and my family, have faced too much of that. Then again, we can often pass which can feel like a godsend and adds to the chaos. Hard stuff.

  4. Perhaps the error in writing was not an error after all, and it’s the Universe, the Elders who are watching over from the other side, and the tribe(s) themselves who are giving you clear signs that indeed you do have a tribal affiliations.
    Sending Love and gratitude for the influence both of you and in my life.
    ~ Kassia

  5. Don’t feel hurt. Feel for the person who left the email. She may be part of the Shawnee or Lakota tribe, who have seen so much stolen or destroyed. Language, history, people and land taken. She may have a reason to not trust people whose intentions are friendly. She may have reasons to not trust brothers and sisters. It has nothing to do with you. Don’t feel hurt. Reach out to her. True healers can never chose who they help. Take care Michael, I am still looking forward to our walk through the bush. Bob

    • Thanks, Bob. I did reach out, although not as effectively as I would like. And I do understand something of her concerns and motivations. I do not do well with bullying and racial judgements. I’ve endured way to much of that. So here my very real personal journey becomes part of the story….. Yes, a walk would be lovely.

  6. Michael:
    I really don’t know what to say but feel that you have been an honest, compassionate human being and healer. In all the tribal stories the clans are simply the people. It is sad but understandable that a “true Indian” should feel fiercely slighted in modern times. So much has been taken but the people are still here. How many of us feel a “quantum” of that loss. Trust is hard-won. And with tribes perhaps the only way is to live among each other t

    • Yes. And there is so much appropriation. I think it is difficult for many people, regardless of heritage, to understand the millions of people from many lineages, whose families went underground. It does not help that a lot of hucksters have used that motif to make money.

  7. Gosh what a troubling post to read. Why should it be so hard to be yourself….who has the right to say what and who you are other than yourself. It makes me wonder why the person was so harsh and judgemental….says more about them than you my friend💕😊

  8. I’m saddened by the harsh judgement of this person who has no right to question who you are, but as others have said, your integrity comes across in all you write and I can only feel sorry for what has made this person react the way they do.

    • Andrea, I guess identity questions touch such painful places that sometimes the pain just spills over into harshness. I find I have to work hard not to lash out at others at times. Still, I do wish we were all more kind to one another, not knowing the histories of those we meet.

  9. You are not mixed blood your heritage is of mixed paths like every other being on this planet. Create your own trajectory, if others are to afraid to fly and tether you to their ground,my advise is to fly, fly away ,see the world the way you want to. 🙂

  10. I’m sorry to hear about your run in with that writer. It was unkind of them to be so harsh. Modern industrial civilisation has thrived on the destruction of ancestral roots, I think almost all of us are touched by this on some level. It’s a shame that we can’t all recognise this shared journey together.

  11. This is such an important reflection, Michael. I have often wondered what it means to “be” Ojibwe. Is it solely an issue of one’s biological heritage? the place where one was born and raised? the community that nurtures and protects us and gives our life meaning? the worldview and values one was socialized to follow?

    In the grander scheme of things, knowing in our deepest being that labels divide us, perhaps we need to learn to let them go and simply learn to see all as our relations, knowing in our hearts we are all connected.

    • Carol, thank you. I guess my struggle is teasing apart identity from labels. I often wish folks would understand that most of us are just trying to sort things out. Of course, history does confound things. All that aside, I guess we are by nature going to ask “what it means to be…..”. I imagine that is a fundamental human task.

  12. Oh, Michael, I am so sorry you had to go through all of this pain. It reminds me of a really nasty comment I received when I went public with one of my retreats on Facebook. This first comment was from a woman who I didn’t even know in person but had just “friended” on FB based on an interesting dialog we’d had on a common friend’s post. Everybody else was extremely supportive, but this one comment hurt deeply. And I see so many hurtful comments on well-researched and well-argued essays by people who seem to be so angry and hateful that they lash out at anything that gives them an opportunity to do so anonymously.
    But for you, I can understand that it tore open old wounds which requires re-visiting of that old stuff and looking at it again, perhaps in a new way, with a bit more elder or sage-ing perspective than before. The scars we carry may have healed but they don’t disappear and start itching again at times like these….
    May this comment, as painful as it may have been, lead you to a more compassionate and peaceful place within your own heart. Blessings.

    • Thank you! Yes, there are those who seem very skilled at touching the painful places in us. I am so often reminded that fear and shame lie just below the surface of my life. Such reminders are indeed invitsagtions to compassion, for self and others. Yet, in the moment the unresolved trauma can be overwhelming. I’m still, as I approach 70, trying to navigate all this.

  13. Michael, I have known you for many many moons. You are a true Native,warrior human being. Once again I reiterate to you and the world how you saved my life and helped me fulfill my Medicine woman path, The Lakota Nations all have medicine people, many that have left their moccasin tracks on this very sick Mother Earth. I have never finished my geneology search….I do know I have Native American blood through my grandmother who I believe was a victim of the horrific Eugenics that Vermont carried out with Hitler’s assistance! We as Human Beings so very connected to our Ancestors here and in the spirit world do not deserve to be constantly berated about our connection to them…..we, in our hearts know!!!!! We do not go around asking proof from the colonists here or anywhere who they are and proof…..Creator, we do not care…we love all people as equal here on Mother Earth. I feel very sorry that you go through this modern tragedy as most of us have–myself included. You must stand tall (even taller then you are!) and keep doing the awesome work that you do and say a prayer for the insecure and sad people that delight in hurting others…..they are harming themselves for we are all EQUAL. and related. They only harm themselves with this verbage, they should try to use their energy helping the two leggeds and the four leggeds that suffer so terribly NOW. Love you Michael..Bright Star

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