My father died a few years ago. A day or two before he died, My sister asked him whether we are Native American. My father sat up in bed, smiled, and said with great pride that, yes, we were, and on both sides. Stunned to have our question answered, we did not ask about tribal identity. A few months later I asked my last surviving aunt about our tribal affiliation. She would not acknowledge the question.
These two events mark the arc of identity politics in my family. Throughout my life, my mother denied persistent rumors that she was of mixed Cherokee and mixed British ancestry. My father simply refused to talk about heritage.
My mother was born and raised in Texas, in what was termed,”The Cherokee Territory”. My father hailed from southeastern Indiana. In Texas, the depression and drought drove the people from their poor farms to the cities. In Indiana, as in Maine and many other states, legislation and predation made it very difficult for First Nations people to keep their farms. My mother and her sisters moved to the city. My father and his siblings moved, with their mother, to a hard scrabble farm high in the hills overlooking the Ohio river, far from anywhere.
My father’s father hailed from the Black Hills. Pop had hoped to travel to the Dakotas the summer he died. His mother could have come from any of the displaced nations of the Eastern U.S., as most tribes at least stopped over in Indiana on their forced path west. All my relatives will say is she looked “full blood”. My mother’s kin are likely British and, perhaps more distantly, Cherokee; if family whisperings are correct, some survived the Trail of Tears. One of my cousins on my father’s side, a genealogist, tried unsuccessfully to reconstruct the last two hundred years of our lineage. Throughout the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries new English names simply appeared on the record, as if drawn from the air, people without history.
I understand my parents’ desire to have normal lives, to pass. I appreciate their efforts to protect us from the ravages of racism and genocide. I also understand hiding brings its own costs and losses. In many ways we were raised outside both our Native American and European American cultures.
A couple of summers ago, a noted professor of Native American History told me he knew of only one other family story like ours. I imagine there are a great many such families, closet Natives. Once, in a dream, several generations of grandmothers came to visit me. I asked them why they had pretended to be European. They looked directly at me and said, “We did what we had to in order to survive. You are here, after all.”
It’s hard to argue with that.