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 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 tribal 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 did not practice shamanism.
I speak about, and understand, my family’s stories and history as I 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. 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.
Only on his death-bed did my father finally, proudly, say outright that we are Native, insisting both his parents were Native. Still, 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.
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.
As a Polio survivor I was also encouraged to pass as non-disabled. 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 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 from many traditions. I am grateful to have met other individuals with similar family stories and histories along the way.