When you imagine a Native girl, what do you see?
Does she have pale skin, caramel-colored brown skin, or dark chocolate brown skin? Is her hair long, dark and straight with feathers in it?
I ask this as a genuine reflection of where your mind goes first when thinking of Native women so you can support efforts of acknowledging Native women today.
What I have learned over the recent years from sharing my story of being multi-racial with Native roots, is that so many Native people share a similar story to mine. A story of lost tradition, language, culture, and assimilation to whiteness. A deep desire to know this part of me and connect to it authentically. The hurt of not being seen as Native enough because I don’t fit what society has decided is Native. The more I share this story, the more stories reflecting it are shared back with me. This comes from White passing, Black passing, racially ambiguous, and Latinx Natives. Some have been told by others they have no right to claim their nativeness. It is a painful truth.
I recently was accepted to Native Action Network’s Legacy of Leadership program and welcomed into a new sisterhood of all Native women. At our first gathering, my heart was so connected as I learned of our shared history, past, and journeys. I anticipated my nativeness being questioned at some point or that I would at least feel it in some way. The expectation was my own error and more of a reckoning that I myself question my validity as Native. Because I have grown up my entire life away from our people, our reservation, and absent of our traditions, I have limited knowledge of what it really means to be Native, specifically Osage. That is actually an experience common to many other Native people and understandably so. Today, I don’t want to dive into those reasons but mostly make what is invisible, visible.
There are people you interact with every day that are Native and you may not even know it. The 2020 census reports “5.9 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native and another race group in 2020, such as White or Black or African American. Together, the American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination population comprised 9.7 million people (2.9% of the total population) in 2020, up from 5.2 million (1.7%) in 2010.” Have you noticed, asked, or created a culturally inviting space to know this about the people you interact with daily? I have started to notice how many meetings begin now with an Indigenous land acknowledgment without ever asking if there are Native people in the room that may want to lead it or be acknowledged.
I was unexpectedly asked to lead a land acknowledgment at a training I was attending about 3 years ago at my previous job. I was so moved by this request that I was crying and felt the floor move beneath me. I was moved because I was acknowledging my identity as a Native, being seen by my colleagues as a Native, and honoring my Native family and tribe. This was something I realized I rarely had the opportunity to do.
With those of us mixed with Native, our Nativeness may be hidden by physical attributes perceived by others as more White, Black, Latinx, Asian, and more. A tip recently shared with me by way of a young Native girl, is to wear your Native identity so that others will know you are Native. This can be a pair of beaded jewelry or a graphic T-shirt. I truly had not thought of this before. Just this past weekend I was in a meeting and recognized the woman next to me had Native earrings. Something I didn’t really pay much attention to before as a means to get to know someone’s identity. I would have presumed she was a White woman. Through a creative activity using a poem to share where we come from, she did share with me her Native identity from the Aleut people of Alaska. I think we both were pleasantly surprised to connect in this way. I recently was gifted my first pair of beaded Native earrings just a couple of months ago from one of my NAN sisters who makes them. I often wanted to buy a pair at the local pow-wow, but always felt it needed to be a more significant transaction. I apparently was waiting for this moment. I do find myself feeling more prideful in my Nativeness when I wear them, so I wear them often.
There is great complexity in being White passing as a Native. It is to have a history of genocide and oppression while facing the privileges of lighter skin and appearing to the world as White. It also means a deep connection to Native traditions, while expected to walk through spaces White. If you resonate with this, you may enjoy this video capturing a talk I had with two Native women and dear friends, ones that have supported the strengthening of my Native identity, Amanda and Carrie. You can check out the video below. They share the ways they have fought back against people questioning their identities and have continued to nurture their Native identity and communities.
The final note I would like to bring forth into the light is to call out the anti-blackness in Native communities. My tribe, the Osage, enslaved Black people. This was not something that I was taught. However, I knew my grandmother who was raised on that reservation indeed used the N-word when she spoke to me about choices that I had made. It shocked me and has been something I have never forgotten. When I see Native people gathered, depicted in media, it is rarely Black Natives. When I meet Native leaders, they are not Black Natives. When I learn about the histories of Native people, it leaves out Black Natives. What also saddens me, is when I hear Native people deny or reject Black Lives Matter, Black pride, and efforts to focus racial justice for Black people. When people do this, it is simply colluding with White Supremacy and promoting anti-Blackness. I hope this is something Native people can make visible more and ensure our Black Natives feel seen, valued, and a part of the Native community.
So this hidden Native girl has been through some learning, self-exploration, community building, and healing to no longer be invisible, but to be strengthened and seen as a proud Native woman. I hope you are called to connect with a part of your identity that has been hidden.