I am a psychotherapist, consultant, educator, and visual and theater artist of European and Native American descent. For forty years I lived and worked in Burlington, Vermont, which is nestled snugly between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. Most days I could see the Adirondack Mountains across the lake. Now I live in Padanaram village in Massachusetts, a small community by the sea, and work in Burlington less frequently.
My family was complex. My mother’s family identified as hailing from the British Isles, while my father’s family identified as Native American, although our elders refused to speak with us about our tribal identity. I do not have tribal affiliation.
I try to honestly speak about, and understand, our family stories and history as we know them. The lives of people of Native ancestry in Indiana have historically been difficult, and fair-skinned families frequently chose to pass as European. I grew up in a family that hid and passed. Not surprisingly, our birth certificates and military records, list us as Caucasian, even as our elders identified as Native. That did not stop others from degrading us as Native.
I grew up confused about my heritage. 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 grandparents were Native; they passed without helping us to understand who we are. The events of the past few years have reminded me that, as my father, a career military man, insisted, there is still danger in being Native in the United States.
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. I never met my father’s father who abandoned the family.
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.
Growing up in this family launched me on a lifetime of learning. I am grateful to have met other individuals with similar family stories and histories along the way. As a result of my family experience, Polio, and my occupation as a psychotherapist, I think a good deal about identity, colonialism, inter-generational trauma, disability, and healing. I write about these topics frequently in this blog.
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