This morning we listened to a repeat broadcast of an On Point program about Native America and the myriad ways mainstream culture misunderstands the diversity of Native Experience. One of the themes that arose was that of danger and passing. The central theme of that segment was simple: Native families who could frequently passed as European. Often enough they told their children they were Native but also emphasized that being Native was dangerous and it was best to assimilate.
This brief segment caught my attention because, as long-time readers of this blog may remember, it fit my experience. Until they died, my parents and grandparents reminded us to be proud of being Native and refused to give us any details about our tribal heritage. They, like many Native families in the East, encouraged their young to pass, even going so far as to put “Caucasian” on everyone’s birth certificate for at least three generations.
Today being Memorial Day my thoughts turned to my father who fought in three wars, and my favorite cousin who served in the Marines in more peaceful times. They were fiercely proud of their service, even as they, and especially my father, did their best to hide their Indian identities. This was because, although Native people have served the United States with honor for many generations, it has traditionally been problematic to be identified as Native. My father often emphasized that it was best to be quiet about our Indian identity, going so far as to decline opportunities to attend officers’ training school least the secret get out. I doubt anyone sin the military knew that our family is Native.
For a short while in the last decade it increasingly seemed that one’s willingness to serve was what really mattered in the military. Now the politics of identity have returned, age-old prejudices reignited by politicians whose hero is Andrew Jackson, that great American perpetrator of genocide on Indian people. My dad was hopeful for our country, even as he warned us kids that racism always seems to return. On this Memorial day, even as I miss him, I am glad he is not here to witness the ascendance of so much he risked his life to eradicate.