By Joseph Bruchac
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
You don’t look like an Indian.
Ever heard anyone say that? It’s a safe bet that you have if you’re a contemporary Native American. Or, as my friends in Canada put it, a member of a First Nation.
And those were the exact words that I heard this past Saturday. Standing in front of a group of fifty sixth and seventh graders at Henry Hudson Middle School (And no, I shall not go into a rant about its namesake right now) in the Bronx.
I’d just finished doing my presentation to that very polite audience. Great kids. The very fact that they were here spending a sunny Saturday morning in school spoke volumes about their motivation. I’d been introduced as an American Indian author.
And as I told a story and then talked a little about my two YA novels—Wolf Mark (Lee & Low, 2011) and Killer of Enemies (Lee & Low/Tu, 2013)–which had just been given to each of those young men and women, they’d listened attentively.
“So,” I said, “any questions?”
And that was when, in the second row, the young woman wearing a scarf had raised her hand and made that comment.
“You don’t look like an Indian.”
Okay, time to explain–for anyone reading this who is not of aboriginal American ancestry—just why those six words went off in my brain like a shot from a starter’s pistol.
Native people have had to deal for decades with stereotyping. Thanks to mass media, it seems as if every non-Native person from the 19th century to today has an idea of what a “real” Indian looks like.
It’s an image involving feathers, beads, tipis, bows and arrows, hunting buffalo on horseback, long black hair and a deeply tanned skin. Lacking those accouterments may result in one’s authenticity being questioned. Or lead to the question which frequently follows such an observation: “How much Indian blood do you have?”
(Alas, I had not brought along the dipstick I sometimes have thrust into my belt which enables me to respond to that latter query by pulling said dipstick out and saying “I seem to be down by a quart.”)
My friend Drew Hayden Taylor, Canada’s most prolific (and one of its funniest) indigenous writers has responded to such comments in a highly readable collection of essay series entitled Advenures of a Blue-Eyed Ojibwa, Funny You Don’t Look Like One (Theytus, 1999-2004).
My sister Marge, currently heading the Native Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, has a routine that she used to do when she made school visits. She’d arrive in her everyday clothing with a large trunk.
“Do I look like an Indian?” she’d ask.
And the answer (despite her tanned face and long black hair), was usually “No.” Then she would reach into the trunk and pull out a necklace and put it on. “How about now?”
Following which she would extract more items of her regalia until she was finally clothed as a Native woman might be when going to a powwow, or enacting a past era. “And now?” she’d ask. And when the reply was “Yes, you look like an Indian,” she would ask them, “What was I before I was dressed this way?”
Any question, even one that seems to come from a place informed by misinformation, can provide a teachable moment.
So my reply to that young woman was careful and measured. I pointed out that Native Americans today often dress and look like other Americans of various ancestries. I talked about the cultural differences from one Native nation to another. I mentioned the fact that many of us are of mixed ancestry but are accepted by our tribal nations and identify ourselves first and foremost as members of that nation. Nationhood, in fact, is an important part of being Native, knowing our Native languages, practicing and honoring our cultures.
As I talked the image came to me of one of my favorite paintings. “Done” by Rick Hill, the Tuscarora artist and educator, I first saw it thirty years ago in the Akwesasne Cultural Center. It showed an Iroquois man from around the 17th century. Dressed in full regalia, his face was traditionally painted, his hair cut in the classic Mohawk roach. His yellow hair. The title was “The First Blonde-Haired Mohawk.”
“You can’t judge a person by their looks,” I said. “How a person appears on the outside doesn’t tell you what is in that person’s mind and heart.”
At that point one of the teachers sitting in the back chipped in. “People think I’m black,” she said. “But I belong to the Cherokee Nation. I’m listed with the tribe.”
Which led to a discussion of just how many African slaves who found their way to freedom in the American South were taken in by various Native nations, adopted, married in and lived out their lives as American Indians. Look at almost any African American whose ancestry on this continent goes back to the time of slavery and you’ll find there are American Indians in that person’s family tree. Strong roots woven together.
When I finished, that young woman had a smile on her face. Other eager hands were being raised. And I spent another half hour answering questions before moving on to signing everyone’s books. It was a great session. As I shook the hands of the students many of them asked if I’d be coming back again next year, including the young women who made that initial comment.
“I very much enjoyed all that you shared with us,” she said, adjusting her sari back over her shoulder as she spoke. “It was very interesting.”
Nice job, Bruchac. Well done. Right? Ah. . .
Rerun that comment. Consider the context. I was on the train halfway to Albany when it hit me like a dope slap.
A third of the young men and women in the class I’d just visited were typical of the demographic shift that is taking place in the American population. They were from South Asia. And that was why there was a mischievous twinkle in that young woman’s eye when she made that initial remark.
Dang you, Critoforo Colombo!
Yet another misunderstanding stemming from the Genoan navigator’s assumption that the girth of the earth was half its actual size. And that his first landfall in the Bahamas was the East Indies. What was then called India. And thus our many nations ended up being labeled as “Indians.”
That mistaken (some would say misbegotten) arrival of old Chris’s has caused a lot of confusion over the years. Which brings to mind a joke that I believe I first heard from Charlie Hill, the Oneida comedian. “It could have been worse. Columbus could have thought he’d arrived in Turkey.
Getting back to Henry Hudson Junior High and the remark that started this whole text. I really should have guessed the actual gist of her observation. After all, in the last decade I’d heard more and more often from Indian Americans, asking me what the deal was about indigenous Americans referring to themselves as Indians.
“Don’t you have any pride in your own culture?” a young man from Orissa asked me in an e-mail two years ago.
The thing is, as I explained it to him, that the word “Indian” has been part of the common parlance for so long that it’s been accepted by Native Americans. “Indian” is written into the American Constitution and found in the language of all the treaties and the legal dealings with our various tribal nations.
And it is not just in the past. The most widely distributed Native American publication is called “Indian Country News.” When the new museum reflecting the cultures or the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere was created on the National Mall in Washington D.C. it was designated as the National Museum of the American Indian—a name chosen with the input of countless tribal advisers.
Should we prefer, nay, insist upon the term “Native American?” Consider the fact that it could (and once did) refer to anyone born in the United States. In fact there was a “Native American” movement a century ago or so that emphasized the legitimacy of “Native Americans” of white English and Northern European and demonized immigrants.
Plus, as with “American Indian,” the accepted etymology of “American” stems from the moniker of that other Italian dude, old Amerigo Vespucci. (The “feminized Latin version of his first name”—or so sayeth Wikipedia.)
(There are other theories, I must hasten to add. Such as that the name ‘Indian” came from an observation made by Columbus that the native people he encountered were living in such a state of blessedness that they were people who were In Deo, living “in God.” And that “America” stems from the supposedly native word—some say Carib—of Amerikkua, meaning something like “the Land of the Winds.” There used to be a publication named “AMERIKKUA”.)
Canada, as I mentioned at the start, officially avoids both the “American Indian” and the “Native American” label. Our neighbors to the North go with First Nations, Aboriginal Nations, and so on. Though an awful lot of my First Nations friends seem comfortable with calling themselves Indian when they’re with a group of other Native people. (The name “Canada,” by the way, does come from a Native word. “Kenata” means “village” in one of the Iroquoian dialects of the St. Lawrence region.”)
What I usually suggest is to let folks tell you what they prefer in terms of the term that refers to their indigenous identity. Start first with one’s individual tribal nation before moving on to one of those blanket designations draped around the unwitting shoulders of all our nations. (Go back before going back to the blanket? Never mind.)
Anyhow, yet again, I have been reminded that there are there are so many ways one can be wrong about being right. And thus I must end this rambling discourse with the simple admission that insofar as resembling someone from the great subcontinent goes, my seventh grade friend was indeed correct when she said:
“You don’t look like an Indian.”
Joe originally published this essay to his facebook page. It is reproduced here with permission.