In college, I struggled with many things, looking back I can see clearly that one of those things was the integration of my identity. When I started college, I spent my spare time with other Natives, preferring a shared language, traditions and being too timid & overwhelmed to break from the mold. Being with other Natives felt safe, it felt like home. It wasn’t a necessarily a conscious decision & it’s not like I spent nights awake thinking about the cultural identities of my friends, it just was. I questioned my choices of friends no more than I questioned the stars in the sky.
My first roommate was rambunctious, curvy, funny, attractive and blond-all the things I knew I couldn’t be. Or so I thought. Thankfully, she accepted me graciously and never questioned my culture or choice of friends. Amy was reliable, loyal and kind. She never pointed out my friends or said anything about us being similar or alike. She was pleasant and for the most part, didn’t butt in. She had her life, I had mine.
My second roommate was less forgiving and within three weeks of co-habitation she accused me of being a racist. She also very candidly accused my friends of being racist. She was raised by a pair of professors, ironically from the U of A where I’d later move to and graduate from. What strikes me now is that I can’t remember her name & I can’t remember much of what she looks like. I remember she liked the Grateful Dead, she wore white flip flops, she used an alarm to remind her to take her birth control pills and she cried a lot. Had I been more keen I’ve have called our RA and suggested they take her to student health to get her evaluated for depression.
Since she accused me of being racist-I did what I knew best, I ignored her. I ignored her so well, she convinced our suite mates, two black women that I was in fact, a racist. They formed an intervention and asked me point blank why I was a racist and why I didn’t want to get to know them. I didn’t hate them, I just didn’t notice them & I didn’t see why I was supposed to make everyone my best friend.
Moving from my reservation where I didn’t have to answer questions like, “do you worship clouds?” or my favorite, “are you rich? aren’t all Indians rich?” I wasn’t prepared for socialization where people assessed me based on my skin color. And I certainly wasn’t prepared to be called racist.
My definition of racist was slightly different. Racist to me was my parents being ignored at Denny’s or the roller blading girl at Sonic talking about how lazy Navajos are oblivious to my family and I sitting there eating our cheeseburgers minding our own business. Racist to me was being told by my freshman advisor that I shouldn’t take college algebra because didn’t I know that Navajo girls aren’t good at math? Racism to me was being asked to speak in front of the class about, “what it’s like” to be Navajo. Because the poor non-Native kids from the East coast had never seen an Indian before. Racism to me was being asked in a study group for poetry if I could say, the cat fell down the well-in Navajo to prove I was raised on the reservation.
After a couple of years in college at NAU, I decided to transfer. Most of my friends had dropped out, gotten pregnant, got busted for drugs, or decided they didn’t like college after all. The few friends I had left were forming other circles outside of the one we initially gravitated to. My boyfriend at the time also had enough of the town and it seemed like a great way to ruin our early adulthood-by moving to Tucson, together.
The move was a big one for me on multiple levels. I finally felt free. Leaving my first college I felt less burdened and I was still naive enough to believe that at another college, things would be different.
As my ideas broadened, I began to pay less attention to the people around me. I chose my friends based on general commonalties instead of historical likeness. I never surrendered my roots, but I wasn’t picky about the other fauna surrounding me. Good people, I figured, were good people.
Psychology speaks frequently of identity development and how we progress through stages until eventually we stop looking at differences so much and focus more on the self and connections with others.
I suspect in many ways, I was a slow bloomer, struggling to reconcile what it meant to be Native outside of my native home, land and away from my family of origin. In the beginning, there was a boom. Though I didn’t think of it consciously, there were things happening. I spend time with Natives. I read, ate and breathed Native events, art, literature and history.
I didn’t think too much about myself in terms of my Nativeness until a few years later. Although I moved to another urban area, I worked with the Native population, killing many birds with one stone.
I was placed under the microscope again when I went back to school. In graduate school I often wondered if I was the token Native, there weren’t any others in my department at the time. I always found it interesting that people seemed fascinated by the fact that the men I dated were shaded more pale than brown or red. Some people remarked what a “shame” it was that I wasn’t rushing off to marry and breed with a Native man. I must say, in the beginning, it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the end, happiness and my soul were more important than historical similarities.
In grad school, I had small strange incidences. In class once, my professor said the words, “Indian giver” and them mumbled, fumbled and ignored my area of the room, my presence created too much awareness. I adored her, but she ignored me unless there were others in the room. I suspect my Nativeness had something to do with it, but I was never certain and I never asked. Like other incidences before her, I seethed on my own, in my truck and wondered aloud when I would stop being the Native graduate student and get to just be me. Fortunately, I found friends and though intrigued by my history, as I was theirs, they weren’t befriending my Nativeness.
Though I eventually found some resolution to feeling like I was being watched or that I was different, I think my family on the reservation worried about me a great deal. Thankfully, my family through a process of trial, much error and massive amounts of love gave up on the idea that I’d find some nice Navajo boy to ride off into the sunset with as our sheep trailed behind us.
My grandmother, the strongest Native woman I know has said to me on several occasions, “you live your life, go out there and live.” For many years I didn’t quite understand as she pushed me to travel, seek education and work, always there has been work. I think in her infinite wisdom she felt my identity not only a Native person, but a Native woman would be better shaped if I experienced all there was available.
I’m pregnant now. My child’s father is not Native. He’s pretty dang White when it comes do to it. Ironically, since I’ve been pregnant, I haven’t thought too much about what that means. Maybe it’s because I’ve already come to some conclusions. 1. the kid will be much loved. 2. history is good for explaining the past, but it’s not an excuse to stay the same. 3. I’m native, the kid will be native, what is there to worry about? 4. life is a journey, the kid will have their own journey as I’m on mine.
When I think about what it means to be a Native Woman, it’s not something I think everyone can understand. There are plenty of useful saying and euphemisms but I think the core of it simply entails living. There is no recipe, you either are, or you aren’t, no amount of feathers in the hair, language classes or wearing of buckskin will do the trick. Native Women get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other, mindful of our history, present today and plotting towards that good future.
If ever asked to stand in front of a room of strangers and tell what it’s like to be Navajo, I think I’d laugh and ask if anyone knew the Gettysburg address, that would be just as relevant. It’s not my job to be the community education committee. And this sounds trite, but should I have a daughter, I will tell her this, “there are no hard fast definitions for being Native, it just is. When you are, you are and you know it.” Actually, I’d tell my son the same thing. Being Native is a way of life, not a label.