Conversing Identities

Cathing_RaysThe rains have finally returned, refreshing the Earth and spurring the trees into leaf change. Now, as seems to be the pattern following dry late summers, we carefully watch a hurricane as it moves close to the coast.

I awoke a little after 6 this morning; the world was still dark, and rain drummed lightly on the bedroom windows. It seems only a couple of weeks ago that it was light at 4:30!

Yesterday I joined Deb Reger and Dee Brightstar on Moccasin Tracks, for a conversation about Native identity. The radio hour danced joyfully by as we compared notes, listed to Native music, and laughed our way through a usually challenging conversation. Miraculously, the conversation remained playful, up-beat, and Coyote infused. I am grateful for being invited back!

Issues of identity are inevitably hot topics in Indian country, a painful legacy of ongoing colonial rule. This legacy remains all too alive in mass media, where images of Native identity are woefully limited. Although a rich array of Native cultures remain in the Americas, this diversity is largely invisible to most people. Being asked to speak for all Indians, or mixed race people, is an everyday experience for many of us. A trip to a bookstore quickly reveals many books that purport to do just that; there is money to be made! Of course, such claims are necessarily malarkey. We are too diverse to be spoken of in unitary language.

I imagine there are as many understandings of Native identity as there are Natives. This is a good thing! Imagine there was just one way of being Italian American, Catholic, or Hispanic. What a dull world this would be! (Of course, consumer culture would like us to believe there are limited ways to identify ourselves, just as we are encouraged to believe fifteen brands of toilet paper constitute meaningful choice.)

Interestingly, Columbus Day came up in the conversation, even though it’s a couple of weeks away. Columbus is celebrated in settler culture even though he was probably completely lost when he “discovered” the Americas, was a ruthless enslaver of Indigenous people, and tortured, raped, and murdered with gusto. I like the idea of doing away with his name day, maybe replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day, and mandating that schools teach students our histories, cultures, and continuity. We are, after all, still here.

Beyond Indigenous People’s Day, we might create other holidays to honor the many peoples who have found their way to Turtle Island. Maybe we could begin with Italian American Day. We could teach about the immense suffering faced by each immigrant community, and the ways xenophobia remains at the very heart of the colonial enterprise. Perhaps we could also have an Indochinese Day and explore the remarkable cultures of Southeast Asia, as well as our role in displacing so many millions of people.

Central to any such project must be a Latina/o Day to make visible the amazing variety of cultures and lifeways that abide in our Latin American communities. Maybe such a celebration would also be an opportunity to teach our students about the Indigenous, and other poverty driven, folks who gather at, and often try to cross, our southern borders, and the ways North American governments and their corporate allies profit from both the theft of Indigenous and subsistence lands, and the desperation of the displaced.

Identity is so simple and so complex! We are each whomever we are, and so much more! Let’s create deep structures for sharing the stories and cultures of the Americas. Let’s celebrate identity as Spirit stuff, and resistance to tyranny. Perhaps we could begin here.

Who do you understand yourself to be? What do you want us to know about your life, your sense of self and belonging? Your Ancestors and heritage?



20 thoughts on “Conversing Identities

  1. Hi Michael. In Canaada we celebrate an annual National Aboriginal Day. You bring up some difficult questions in your post. The brutal truths of history and even present day wide spread racism will never be completely erased in any one generation. We can only fight it where we can and love ourselves and our families. Bob

    1. Hi Bob, Canada has a leg up on the States for sure.

      Yes, racism seems slow to abate. I’m rather disappointed, even as I remind my students that the quest for a just and compassionate world is always a work in progress. Still, it is so important to expect, and demand, better.

  2. Hi Michael… I had written a very heartfelt, yet a bit fiery, response to this article of yours….and then my connection went kapooey and when it finally came back my response had disappeared in the ether! So I can surmise that those words were not meant to be seen. And what I will say now is I pray everyday for every soul to connect as one and enjoy the magnificence of creation! Much peace to you…I hope the storm continues to stay off the coast.

      1. I so wished I could remember what I wrote!! But I knew that in trying to recreate it it would not seem as authentic…sorry!! Suffice it to say that your article evokes strong emotions in me…and that is always a very good thing 😉

  3. There are so many important thoughts and insights in your essay, Michael. Let me just comment on the one that it so crucial for education – telling the stories of all people who are here. As you mention, many have suffered the trauma of dislocation and discrimination. Perhaps by sharing stories, people would realize their shared humanity.

    1. Carol, WE don’t do a very good job of telling those crucial stories, but we could get better. It would be so good to find ways to make all the stories visible, to show them as immensely valuable. Maybe we are collectively hesitant to do this as the history of North America is not pretty. Slavery and other nightmares were widespread, and seemingly all parties had some role in the evil. Yet to own our histories is to save our cultures, humanity, and our souls. Big stakes here!

  4. Hi Michael, thank you for sharing a very thought-provoking piece. I was so glad when Seattle officially did away with Columbus Day and now celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day.

    1. Naomi, I am hopeful other communities will follow Seattle’s example. Sadly, other places, like North Dakota, are removing Native history from their awareness and their school curricula.

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