“But how Indian are you?”: notes on being a mixed-race Indigenous person.

I am mixed. It’s not like it’s a secret. I am a mixed-race, mixed-blood, hybrid, mud blood, halfbreed; these things I know to be true. The thing is, I know my identity. I am accepted by my community, yet when I tell folks, especially non-Native folks, I get one of two reactions:

  1. “Really? But like, how much Indian are you? Like what fraction of your blood is Native?”
  2. They lean in really close, like they’re going to tell me a secret. They cock their head to the left and squint their eyes like they’re searching each line in my face, each pore, each chicken pox scar for some trace of their cigar shop Indian. It’s like, somewhere hidden in my features their untamed savage is hiding: maybe it’s behind my eyes, or maybe its somewhere in the space between my cheek bone and my jawline. When they’re done searching for hidden Indigenous clues, they always pull back, smile, and say, “yeah I can kind of see it! Look at your cheeks!”

It’s not the act itself that bothers me, as a light skinned, white passing, Indigenous individual, I get it. But it’s the fact that people assume that because I am mixed that I am less of an individual, that now, my parts don’t make a whole and each aspect of my identity is up for scrutiny. Automatically, I lose sovereignty over my identity and my body because I become a subject to be “made sense of.” Invasive questions about blood and family are deemed okay, because I have become the embodiment of anti-dichotomous reasonings of identity: “but how can you be more than one thing!”

I am not simply Native or White, I am both and I am neither and these aspects of myself and identity are not up for discussion. If my identity is confusing, complicated, or too difficult for you to understand, that is your issue. Try living in the body of a mixed person, when was the last time you heard someone go: “oh you’re German? but how German are you? Like a quarter right?” They say this as they lean in, searching your body for clues of an Oktober Fest beer maiden.

The thing is, our mixed identity is not up for discussion. Full stop. No matter how hard you try and search our faces for the tomahawk wielding Native peoples of your social studies textbook, you still won’t find your answers. Our identities are negotiated between ourselves and our communities, be they urban or traditional. No aspect of our mixedness negates or is evidence of our Indigenous ‘authenticity’, so stop asking if my grandmother is a “full blooded Indian.” Because the Indian you’re searching for doesn’t exist, it isn’t hidden in my DNA or in the epicanthical fold of my eyelid. That embodiment of Western propaganda of how the nation was won isn’t hidden in my body, or any Indigenous person’s body, because the Native person you imagine and want me to be isn’t a person at all: just colonial discourse applied to nameless brown faces in a John Wayne movie.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. rednig says:

    Niio. Like my nick-name? Too white for some, not white enough for others and have the scars to prove it. We’re ani Suso Kanona, People of the corn Moon, Susquehanock. Most of the family thinks I’m nuts, and maybe I am. Cousins down South, in N. Carolina, have it better, but most hill folks there are mischlung, mixed. I was raised in Penna, land of taxes and kidz for kash scam. Here, you’re guilty while driving Injun. Both grandfathers were blues, both nanas mixed. One grandfather was declared Colored when politicians changed the race laws (AKA Klan laws, to stop making payments for lands stolen) in the 20s. Because Nana became legally white, he nearly went to prison for ‘raping’ a white girl. The other grandparents paid the ‘gratuities’ and became white by stroke of the pen. “Better to die of laughter than drown on tears.” Pappy and Nana used to joke about it, but they had to run to Penna to get away from the law. I travel to Mexico on occasion and there, I’m mestizo. It’s safer that way, because my wife’s people, the Tarahumara, lost 9,000 in a planned famine in the 90s, and it was ignored here by the news media. I am currently working with an anti-slavery group, trying to stop people from hauling kids and women over the border. Many don’t like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, but he did us a lot of good in Arizona, halting many of the deaths of slaves dragged over the border. BTW, if you ever laughed at My Heroes Have Always Killed Cowboys, you’re nuts. The original cattlemen in the Americas were mestizo and full bloods. Most of the Nations probably owned far more cattle than they ever did horses. Why do you think so much a cowboy carries is Native? Designs, chaps (leggings), riatas, and so on. In the East and south, and Southwest, we once had huge herds of cattle and few horses. Maria and me, we need to head to Arizona. I do not want to live in Mexico, and she wants back in the hills where she’s from (Sierra Madre). From Arizona, we can be in both places thru the year. And, Arizona is more home than Penna ever was, where you still have to be wary of being guilty while Injun. We got voted out the Babbitt klan, and life is much easier/safer there than here.
    Walk in Beauty, and God’s peace to you.

  2. richardzanesmith says:

    Well written! well said! Tižamęh ,(thanks!) As a Wyandot tribal member i have to say, it shouldn’t be about “pedigree” anyway…its your family, your clan and your nation…its the songs you sing, your own particular language, dances, stories, histories and ceremonies, these are what define us. Ok, If we don’t know these? then one might simply be left looking for surface evidence in the mirror and wondering.

  3. Anonynomous says:

    As a Black American, it’s interesting to see the contrast. If you’re Black, you’re Black. If you’re half, 1/16 or whatever drop of blood is Black, you’re considered Black, but it not universally applied for all races. Thanks for your thoughts, very poetic writing.

  4. Aurah Ward says:

    I am half Native and half Japanese. I’m always impressed with how everyone assumes that if I am half Native that the other half must be white.

  5. James Steele says:

    I have no idea what percentage of me is Native American…If someone presses me for an answer, I would say: “If you must know, I have determined that my head is English, my neck is Scottish, my right arm and hand are Dutch, my left arm and hand are French, my right leg and foot are Danish, and my left leg and foot are Norwegen; but what part of me is Native American? The part of me that is Native American, is in a very special place, it is my heart that is Native American…

  6. Susan says:

    I had a woman on a plane ask me what nationality I was and I told her I was half native and she wanted to know which half of me was the Indian. she said you are either Native or White and I have never said half again I always refer to myself as Native. She was Native.

  7. Oh my god thank you so much for this. I’m Métis and I actually look very much like you. I get dumb questions and doubters ALL the time.

  8. anon says:

    It happens with mixed European heritage too, people really do try to decipher how German or other heritage we are!! Some people have so much trouble thinking beyond just black or white, the most simplistic minds. We can also choose define ourselves however we want though in the end!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I think in a (hopefully) mostly non-discriminatory way, people are genuinely curious about others’ backgrounds. A lot of time in conversation amongst friends, the concept of heritage arises. It’s just interesting – we’re all part of this continent that is a huge mixture, and there is nothing wrong with genuine curiosity (when posed respectfully) about another’s heritage, especially when different from one’s own. And besides, blood is only a part of one’s identity.

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