It is important to talk about family history, for our families shape us. Yet, it is difficult to talk about family history in this country where identity politics are so painful. Perhaps the task has now grown even more difficult, risky, and fraught with challenge.
I grew up in a violent working class family, seemingly firmly European-American, except for those inexplicable times when I was called an Indian. Both of my parents feared and loathed alcohol, even as they flew into what I now see to have been dry alcoholic rages, but that was just life in our family and seemed to us kids normal enough.
On his deathbed my very coherent father told my sister and I that we are “Native American on both sides,” that we have both European and Native heritage. My mother’s family identified as hailing from the British Isles, while my father’s family identified as Native. I do not have tribal affiliation, and grew up without a Native identity.
Today my work draws from that of my teachers, rather than a singular tradition. It is also informed by the teachings passed on by my father’s family, teachings that reflect their life experiences and circumstances. As far as I know, my elders, mostly Pentecostal Christians, did not practice shamanism.
I speak about my family’s stories and history as I have come to understand them. My parents grew up in hard, dark times; as a result, as I grew up they strongly encouraged me not to draw attention to myself, to be self-sufficient, and never to trust governments. The lives of people of Native ancestry in Indiana have historically been difficult, filled with anti-Indian racism and laws, and fair-skinned families frequently chose to pass as European.
My grandmother seldom spoke, except to say, “The children! We must protect the children!” I grew up in a family that hid and passed; not surprisingly, our birth certificates and military records have for generations listed us as Caucasian, even as our elders identified as Native.
Then there were the stories of hiding, danger, and fitting in, and those that suggested a longing for a more normal life. There were hushed adult conversations about “Indian things”, discussions that stopped when we kids came into the room. There was also constant paradoxical encouragement to refuse to draw attention to ourselves or the family, yet to excel in work and school.
It seems telling that only on his death-bed did my father finally, proudly, say outright that we are Native, Still, his siblings, our aunts and uncles, continued to refuse to speak further about our identity other than to say my grandmother and grandfather were Native. They passed without helping us to understand who we are. They also did what they felt they had to in order to protect my generation. I look on their efforts and sacrifices with gratitude, even as I wish it had been different.
It seems likely we will never know the true story of our heritage. I have decided to accept my father’s statement, and our family stories, as true even as they are incomplete. There is no doubt my father and grandmother understood themselves, and me, to be Native. It is also true that appearing European and growing up outside Native culture has allowed me to avoid much of the racism my family so feared. It has also meant that I have often found myself at the cultural margins.
I’m sure my Polio added much suffering to the lives of my parents, and fueled their rage. As a Polio survivor I was encouraged to pass as non-disabled, although passing for me proved to be an impossible task. From an early age I faced ridicule, bullying, and prejudice as both a disabled boy and as someone, although I am light-skinned, others sometimes perceived as Native. From such experiences I developed a firm commitment to stand for civil rights for all people.
Growing up in this family launched me on a lifetime of learning. I have been graced with teachers of diverse ethnicity and from many traditions. I am also grateful to have met other individuals with similar family stories and histories along the way.