Indian or Native American or What?
This page is strictly the opinion of the author. It does necessarily reflect the views of anyone else on this continent. It is not intended to create or foment dissention among the People. Simply an opinion.
(This one is going to be a little long. I'm combining a couple of different subjects.)
I have been asked, "Are you an Indian?" I have been asked, "Are you Native American?" I'll address the second question first.
"Are you Native American?"
Depending on who is asking, I usually reply with, "Well, let me ask you, where were you born?" If I read my questioner correctly, I'll get an answer like, "Here in California" or maybe something a little more specific like a city in the United States. To which I always say, "That means you're an American and since you were born in America, you're a Native American!" This response often garners a puzzled look. Before they can find a way to confuse themselves further, I'll say, "You see, it's like asking someone who speaks French if they are a Native Frenchman." So the term "Native American" applies to probably hundreds of millions of people.
"Are you an Indian?"
This one is more fun. "No, I was born right here in Fresno!" Or when I was traveling, "No, I was born in the United States." Quite often I get that same puzzled look. "Indians are born in India." That gets them to the "Aha!" moment of what the word means.
Most of the time, after getting my rather confusing, cryptic or thought-provoking replies, the next question is, "So what should you be called?" If I'm in a playful mood, "Mark!" If I'm in an instructional mood, I launch into my soapbox speech, as follows.
Indian is a label. It does have a proper usage. It describes people from India. That label was placed on the aboriginal peoples of this continent by an Italian explorer who was lost. He thought he had found a new trade route to India in order to procure the riches of that wonderful land. So calling us "Indians" is to fail geography, and to many, it's insulting.
Native American applies to anybody born in this hemisphere since the name was applied to the two continents. How did that happen? Another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, drew maps. I'll admit that's quite a feat for coastlines as convoluted and extensive as North and South America. It's also presumptuous. Europe, Asia, Africa, for whom were they named?
As to what to call us, each of the aboriginal peoples, often referred to as tribes, have a name they call themselves. Sometimes, the name you hear is not the name the people use. The story goes that a Settler (borrowing a term from someone I recently debated) asked some people in the Arizona area, "Who are those people over there?" indicating to the east. The reply was, "Apache." Now, that was most likely not the name those people called themselves for in the language of the responder the word means "enemy." But it stuck! I can't say if the responder was Navajo, Hopi or Pueblo. It's a legend after all.
While we're at it, Navajo is not the name those people call themselves. Their name for themselves is Din´e;. That name does have a translation to English. It means "the people." In fact, many tribes simply call themselves "The People". Some are a little more detailed. "The People by the Swift Water", "The People near the Red Rock", and so on. You get the idea.
"Native American" became popular when this country decided to become "politically correct". Don't offend someone by calling them a name they don't like. Did anybody ask the aboriginal population what they wanted to be called? No. Why would they? "Those" people have been shuffled off to their reservations, which resemble little more than interrment camps, and left to fend for themselves. The Canadian goverment uses the term "First Nations" to refer to their aboriginal population. I can get behind that. It at least acknowledges that we were here first.
Now, if after this discourse, I am again asked what to be called, I gently prompt, "Try asking if we're of a First Nation, then ask which one." A wry smile accompanies this advice and a grin of appreciation usually appears.
Why is any of this important to me? Those who know me a bit understand. For those who don't, here's the story.
(If you have read the About page, and found yourself curious, this section expands a bit on the "soap opera" mentioned there.)
I grew up in the Los Angeles area. L.A. is without a doubt one of the melting pot communities of the U.S. There are communities within communities of as many different ethnicities as you can count. On a side note, I think this is a good thing. It makes it easier to develop a sense of acceptance for those different from oneself. Growing up, my sister and I were told, or at least I was, that we had Apache and French Canadian blood. I never really thought a whole lot about it. I was raised Catholic and attended thirteen years of Catholic schools. I married into a non-denominational Protestant church. I learned more about the Bible and Christianity. I moved to Georgia and experienced racism that I thought was dead and gone in this country. I moved to Texas and saw less of it, but it still existed. I moved to Rhode Island and began a work experience that was literally to change my life.
My work made it necessary for me to travel. Extensively and often. The existence of aboriginal people is much more noticeable in Rhode Island than anywhere else I had lived. I had been thinking about my spiritual future for a few years. As I traveled and saw more of the world, my curiosity grew. I began to wonder what the spiritual beliefs of the First Nations were. It seemed logical that I should explore my own heritage. Going on what I had been told, I started researching Apache culture and beliefs. Using only the Internet, the Apache are an elusive people! I was making little progress. I looked in the direction of the French Canadian my mother had mentioned. There I found the Ojibwe. While there is a fair amount of information about the people and their travels and travails, there is little about their spiritual beliefs.
There is, in fact, a surprisingly (at first) small amount of information about the spiritual belief systems of the First Nations. Surprising at first because eventually I learned that First Nations people are not disposed to share their beliefs, their rituals, their ceremonies, with outsiders. They are not given the "directive" to go out and convert people. In addition, what little information I could gather seemed to indicate that there are great similarities and few differences from one Nation to the next.
I'm not one to give up easily. But I won't pursue something to the point of obssession. I continued with my life and let my spirit sit in the back seat, going along for the ride. I continued to travel, of course, and see more of the wondrous differences in culture and similarities in people. Whenever possible, I would try to learn a little of the local language. I had to at least be able to say, "Excuse me. I'm an American. I don't speak your language well." I have found that this simple phrase can alleviate much of the distaste other people seem to have for Americans. I digress. During what was I believe my second trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, I felt the urge to renew my search. I found a marvelous bookstore. I love books. I love bookstores. I would thoroughly enjoy spending a month exploring the Library of Congress. In this Canadian bookstore, I found a book that triggered my metamorphosis.
I began a journey into the "weird," the "spooky," and all those other words that most Americans would associate with spiritual connection to the world around them. The more I learned, the more I studied, for now I had found the way to discover information, the more I could feel something deep within me stirring. I was now hungry for more. I carried as many of my books with me as I could when I traveled. I bought new books. I could feel the "Indian" rising.
I knew I had no right to call myself an "Indian." I was raised by a couple of seriously white folks, in a Catholic household, in middle class suburbia. I knew of the hardships, on the surface, that were the norm for those who live on reservations. And yet, part of me kept saying, "Those are your people." My travels continued and I saw more of the world. I have been so blessed to have found my way to that situation. One of my trips took me to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Yep, it's a mouthful. Geographically, it's about like going to Kansas in the United States. It's really flat. There's a lot of farming. And some genuinely warm people.
By this time I had begun to display affectations of being "Indian." Since this wasn't my first trip to Saskatoon and the course I was presenting was less than a day, I asked the guys in the class what there was to do in the area. One, whom I call friend, looked at me and said, "You're into that Indian suff, right? There's a place just ouside town you might like. I can't pronounce the name though." I grinned to myself and we proceeded to look in the phone book. We found it. The Wanuskewin Heritage Park sounded like a great place for me to visit.
I went back to my hotel and changed my clothes. The drive was easy enough. The Park was easy to find. I won't go into details other than to say they have a museum, a gift shop and a lot of land. On that land are also archaeological sites. One of which is a living area and another is a medicine wheel. Both are dated at over 3000 years old. Of most importance for my story are the trails. Wanuskewin is owned and operated by the Cree. In order to preserve the site and any potential discoveries, they have laid out several trails, including distance and walking time markers. I chose to walk until closing. At times I would find myself in locations where no sign of "civilization" could be found. I would look around and see this land as a place where people lived, loved and survived. I felt an odd sense of home in this place. It was comfortable to be there. I took that feeling with me back to the hotel.
Not long after, I found myself in Phoenix, Arizona. This trip was for a week and a half, so I had a weekend to explore. I much preferred the trips that lasted at least that long. A single week trip afforded me no opportunity to explore wherever I found myself. With a weekend in Phoenix, I could take the rental car and head north. I-17 heads north from Phoenix to Flagstaff. I had driven through Flagstaff in the middle of the night on the way from California to Georgia. I also knew I could detour on the way back, to Sedona. I had heard so much about Sedona that I wanted to see it for myself.
On the drive north, I detoured. Off into the desert that sprawls around Arizona. I got out of the car and wandered among the scrub, finding wild sage here and there. The aroma of it filled the air and my spirit. Once more I got that feeling of home. It was peaceful, quiet, comforting. I got to Flagstaff, got gas and headed down 89A toward Flagstaff. What a beautiful drive! I never expected to find a mountain road, complete with accompanying river in Arizona! I arrived in Sedona, on a Saturday, and felt like I had rolled into an outdoor mall. There were too many people! They all looked like tourists looking for that special gift. I wasn't getting that "spiritual" vibe I had expected. (In retrospect, I probably should have stopped and walked around.) I continued through town and headed back toward I-17. Yet again, I was drawn to pull off the main road and explore. Of course, that sense of home and belonging overcame me once I did.
The following day, I decided to explore a little closer to Phoenix. In fact, there is a park just northeast of the airport. I went there. To most, it's nothing more than sand and a large rock formation. I climbed it. I'm an old fat guy and it was hot that day. I probably shouldn't have done it, but that would have been the logical white man thing to think. I was again drawn. It was like an oasis of nature in the middle of the concrete jungle. I found a ledge upon which to sit and reflect on the mountains I could see in the distance. Ok, you probably already guessed, and yes, I was home.
Returning to Rhode Island, I found myself needing to find out for sure who I am. We discovered there were powwows held in New England. We started attending. A flyer we saw told us of a place in Connecticut called the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. One of their events is the Winter Festival. At this festival was to be a performer named Robert Mirabal. His instrument of choice is the Native American Flute. I've heard them and thought the sounds enchanting. We went. Both days. After the concerts, we talked with Robert and I was then completely hooked on the flute. I had grand hopes that it would be part of my heritage.
I started scouring the Internet. I found a company that does DNA testing. They claim to be able to tell you where your ancestors have been. For a little more money, they'll run an extended series of tests and tell you not only if you have "Indian" ancestry, but also from which tribes. This seemed to be the solution! I sent for the kit. I sent in my swabs and waited. The results came back on a CD. The primary portion of the test held few surprises. I knew my dad's branch of the tree was Western European. This was confirmed. The surprise came when the results showed Australia as a "source" location. Ok, that actually makes some sense, too. If the Western European component of my ancestry had a slight "criminal" tinge to it, that could explain some of it ending up in Australia. After all, it was a penal colony at one time.
So here comes the "weird" and "spooky" part. My ancestry includes Cree and Navajo blood. The Cree operate Wanuskewin, remember? The Navajo covered Arizona and New Mexico at one point. Talk about an "Aha!" moment! No wonder I felt so comfortable in those places! And so began my journey.
I continue to learn and grow and expand. I no longer use the words weird or spooky or creepy. I have come to understand that these occurrences are simply my connection with Mother Earth becoming tighter and closer. All along my hunny had been telling me to stop using those words. She was convinced that I was a medicine man of some sort. I know I can't call myself a medicine man. There's a lot more involved in earning that title. I do, however, seem to possess a strong connection and keen sense of the Spirits that surround us.
You can find this same Are You Indian? article at the Laughing Bear Blog. You might find a few more things of interest while you're there!
This article, and the entire blogspot blog, have been moved to a self-hosted site here at Laughing Bear Ventures. As of March 2014 all new entries can be found at the LaughingBear Journal. This entry is at Are You an Indian?.