Who We Are

Last month’s post “Anglo Sisters” brought a comment I was not expecting.  After taking liberties with women from Texas, I was sure I would get a response or two from that corner, but not a one. Instead I received a thought provoking message from a cousin. She and I share a great great grandmother who was Dakota and Ojibway, and she began with a question: How do you think your ancestors would feel if they knew that you were totally denying your Indian heritage?

I was stunned. I would never deny that heritage. I honor and treasure it, and share it when appropriate. Did it occur to me to mention it in “Anglo Sisters”? No. That was a story about identifying with a culture that is not yours, and learning to identify with the one you were born into. I identify myself as Anglo, I was raised Anglo, I am seen as Anglo, I have had all the advantages of being Anglo. I am not hiding all the other ancestors that contributed to my particular being; they are making themselves known in ways I cannot imagine.  But most of the time the fact that I have an Indian great great grandmother is not relevant. And especially here in the southwest I am hypersensitive to the danger of appearing to be part of the “wannabe” tribe, those who have a trace (or not even) of Indian blood but who “wannabe” native and masquerade as a tribal person.

So, end of subject? Of course not. I continue to muse on this question of who we are, who we appear to be, and how to be honest with ourselves and others. Why did it not occur to me to mention my Indian ancestor in “Anglo Sisters”? Was I really in denial? Did I sacrifice the truth of my identity for the sake of a good story? I can defend myself on all these points, but still the questions are worth asking.

I also muse on, and am amused by, the way people pick and choose their ancestors. When I was a teenager a relative told me that “we” were related to Charlemagne. I was studying world history at the time and thought that connection was pretty cool. And then I got to thinking about the enormous number of ancestors I must have – really countless if you go back 1200 years to the time of Charlemagne. How curious that one out of that multitude survives in my family lore. What about the pickpockets and the murderers, the poor and the hardworking, the ordinary and the boring? I know they are there in the thousands.

And then, to further complicate things, along comes Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has been passing as Black. She has chosen to be Black, and her commitment and passion are not to be argued with. But I can understand how offensive this is to African Americans. As a mediator working in all kinds of cross-cultural contexts, I have learned that what people want most is to be heard. They want to know that the listener cares, respects what they are saying, and maybe even empathizes. They don’t want you to become them, they want you to understand them. If you try to understand another culture by taking on the trappings – wearing the headband and beads, curling the hair and darkening the skin – it is trivializing that history and legacy, tossing aside what it really means to live that life, to carry that identity through generations.

I am reminded of other wannabes, like those my husband encounters from time to time. He is a Vietnam combat vet and occasionally runs into someone of the same age group who is posing as a brother in arms. A few key questions and the person is outted as a pretender.  This is very hurtful to those who earned their membership in that group legitimately and with great sacrifice.

I’m sure there are many more examples, but I will let you ponder them yourself. At this point all I can say is that neither hiding your identity nor taking on that of another is a healthy option. And one more thing: we are all – or at least most of us – completely mixed up biologically, and in some cases psychologically as well.

And back to my cousin. We had a dialogue on the subject and this was her conclusion in her last email.

I do think that discussions are needed, about race, and racial identity. And ethnic identity, too. But I cannot bring myself to comment on anyone else’s self-identification. The world is made up of lots of “quirky” people. Some are pretty odd. And I think that kindness is the best way to approach our differences.

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, cousin.

bouley photo, nels middle agedAnd, here is my much-loved grandpa, Nelson Honoré Boulet, whose mother was part Objibwe and Dakota and whose father was a French Canadian lumberjack. He had to drop out of school in the 6th grade but loved learning, spoke French and Norwegian, and was teaching himself Spanish when he died at 102.

10 thoughts on “Who We Are

  1. Lucy is right to not parade her Native ancestry when, as she says, she identifies as and is seen as white, pure and simple. A friend of mine found out in her mid 30s that her real father was an enrolled Cherokee student who had lived with the family. (And she looks like him.) She wondered what she should do with this new-found knowledge (aside from establishing a fond relationship with him, which she did); I asked a Cherokee friend who said that if she had not been raised with the culture she should stick with who she had been all along. That seems to be a good way to go, never denying but never boasting….

    1. That makes a lot of sense to me about how to handle yourself in the outside world — thanks. But what you do and how you feel about that part of you that is not evident to others is a very personal thing. I am always aware of the multitude within me and try to include them all as I move through life — can be tricky!

  2. I see the resemblance.
    Some of my ancestors were slaveholders. !?

  3. I have had identity issues on my mind a lot lately. In addition to Rachel Dolezal, take note of Andrea Smith, an academic who stated that she was Cherokee, and became a director of a Native American Studies program. Unlike Rachel Dolezal, however, that situation has not been much in the news.

    1. Very interesting. I googled her and yes indeed she is unable to prove any Cherokee ancestry. The university where she teaches says they can’t comment or take any action because of laws against discrimination according to race, ethnicity, etc. It’s a complex world.

  4. [An email from Araceli Domingo]

    Speaking for myself, I believe that the curiosity to know one’s ancestry is a natural thing, but does it define “who we are” ?

    I am a product of my own personal journey searching and establishing who I am, if you will. It starts from early childhood as I became aware of my surroundings and developed perceptions of the world I live in. I knew who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do in this tremendous world that I share with a vast majority of “others.” That was the start. My list was ambitious and quite long. Every decision of mine was fueled by that list of dreams and desires. Looking back as I’m now in my early old age, I believe that I know who I am. I have established my own identity and found my place, so to speak. And it had nothing to do with race, culture and all the other nebulous elements that most people think determine who we are. Who we are and who we become comes from our own dreams…desires…struggles…what interests and inspires us…what we love to do…where we want to be…causes that are dear to us that we devote our time and effort to pursue…ideas and principles that make sense to hold on to…the list goes on. And we wish these will bring us with others with like dreams, ideas, and purpose. There is no need for artificial trappings to identify and belong to establish who we are. All is from within.

    1. Araceli — If I didn’t want to encourage more comments, I would say that you have had the last word on the subject, or at least a very profound word on the subject. Thank you so much.

  5. Lucy – I’ve enjoyed your blog but the last one really resonated. One one side of my family, I descend from a Mayflower passenger and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. On the other, from a guy who was shot to death while leading a lynching party, and also from a deserter from the Confederate army. This last is my favorite as he was in charge of making whiskey and the still disappeared with him!
    Best, Lee

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