Is “reconnecting with your roots” offensive?

Before I begin, I want to state that I do not have any answers. I know this is a hard topic to write about, and talk about. So please, I don’t mean to offend anyone. However, this is something that has gnawed on my insides for years and I would love to get it out there, and see what others think.

I would request that you first listen to this radio lab episode.

I want to talk about culture and race. Wow, I know right? Now I am specifically going to talk about these questions in the context of Native Americans, but I think the ideas can be applied beyond my specific example. I want to start with some context for my struggle with the following question:

What makes someone “Native American” and when is it ok to practice the culture? ┬áIn the context of cultural entitlement, cultural misappropriation and white guilt.

I am sure I have already offended some of you. But that is exactly why I wanted to bring it up. It is a loaded question steeped in a painful history. So, my specific context. At some point in my early life I became aware/was told that I had a small bit of native american in me. I thought this was AWESOME! I wanted to be an Indian Princess for Halloween and put feathers in my hair and run around outside and get dirty (my kind of princess). I know all of that is totally offensive, but kids don’t always know what is, and what isn’t. Later in life I had a tribe name, and hints that I have native heritage from both sides of my family and possibly the same tribe (still more like 1/16th (~6%) max and more likely 1/32nd (~3%)).

Lets stop there. Remember, I grew up in the 90’s in Seattle. White liberal guilt was the thing. Everyone was “Rediscovering their native roots”. Therefore the white girl “getting in touch with her native roots” was a cliche. It felt cheap to me, and somehow offensive although I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was raised as a white hippy/new age kid. I went to alternative schools, and we celebrated solstices, had home remedy books , and even though we sometimes went to church on Christmas were not very religious. Not a HINT of native culture (unless you count the Native American units in school but those were of the local culture).

Whatever family connection there had been to our native ancestors and culture had been cut before I was born. The knowledge that we were part Native was it, how much is even still a question. Now we get into the question of entitlement and cultural misappropriation. I saw growing up, people around me that seemed to feel entitled to their native heritage. They had grown up white, middle class and privileged and yet THEY WERE NATIVE AMERICAN! The joke was if someone said they were part native, you said “Oh Cherokee?” and then they would tell you about the trail of tears and how horrible it was. To me it always seemed sort of like trying to find some sort of way that you were the victim and not the privileged class. We learned about the trail of tears, and the taking of children in history class, and suddenly it was their PERSONAL tragedy. The “well I’m part Native so…” at some point became so cliche that I didn’t want to tell anyone I was. I am not saying this was everyone, but this is how it started to feel. I don’t think I met someone who was actually what I would consider culturally native until I went to college.

In high school and college I began to feel like, someone who was raised with all the privileges of being white and middle class, and didn’t have any of the disadvantages or have to deal with the prejudices of being a non white, was not entitled to that culture. I began to feel that adopting bits and pieces of that culture, was rude and disrespectful. These feelings lead me to resist researching my own roots. If I started, I would stop. I could find out that there is an alphabet, download it, and the delete it. I felt like a fraud, like I was an outsider trying to take what I wanted from the culture and use it, all the while not suffering any disadvantage. I nailed down my tribe and percentage in high school thinking this would help. Nope. I was outsider and I felt like I always would be.

Recently, I began thinking about this again. I thought about the stories of children taken away and stripped of their culture. I thought about their children and their children. Are they any less native, if their culture was forcibly removed from their life? Do their children become less native if they were denied being raised in their culture because it was taken away from their parents? How do we classify these white washed children?

This came up again while listening to this radio lab episode. The father is a proud Cherokee Culturally while being racially 2%. Does that 2% make him less Cherokee than someone raised outside the culture but who is 50-100%? Obviously a child who is 100% native american but raised in another culture (like white middle class) is still native american. So too in my mind is the child that is 50%. What about a child that is 2% and raised white? What about a white child raised native? Does that make them not native, if the culture they know and grew up in is, even if racially they are not? There is obviously a tipping point in my thinking if at ~3% I don’t consider myself able to identify as native, and I think a child with the same upbringing as me who is 50% is. How much of being Native American is cultural, and how much is racial? For that matter how much of any identity is cultural or racial?

I am not going to talk about the Supreme Court case because honestly, I have NO IDEA where I stand on that. This is an ongoing personal struggle but one I have the feeling it might not be unique to me. I hope I have not offended too many people, and if I have, please accept my most humble apologies.

What do you think?

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