I remember a friend saying to me once, “Chris, you’re not a real Indian. And if you are, you’re the whitest Indian I know.”
At the time, I shrugged it off, thinking to myself that he just didn’t understand the complex world of Native American identity. Hell, I didn’t even understand it myself then, and I still don’t. It’s a topic that keeps coming up again and again throughout my life in conversations with random people, with friends, and with myself. I know that I’m not alone among Native people in feeling like I have one foot in each canoe—the “red” and the “white”—but at points in my life, the feeling has been undeniable.
Ever since I can remember I have been an Indian. I was raised in a normal American suburban community outside of Rochester, New York, a city that lies in the heart of Indian country even though most people who live there don’t know it. New York State is home to the Haudenosaunee, the great People of the Longhouse who played an essential role in 18th Century diplomacy and are even said to have inspired American democracy just as much as the Greeks, Romans, and the Enlightenment thinkers—at least, that’s what my grandparents told me.
“The American Constitution is really an Indian constitution,” my grandma always used to say. “Every good idea the white man ever had, he took from us Indians,” she would say smiling.
As of 2013, there are about 196,500 Native people living in New York State, spread out over many cities and reservations; a little less than the population of Rochester (U.S. Census data).
My grandparents on both sides of my family were Native. On my father’s side, my grandmother, Barbara Bethmann-Mahooty, is a proud member of the Mohawk Nation, community leader, advocate, and storyteller. She was a founding member of both the Native American Community Center in Rochester as well as an after school cultural program for Native Americans in the Rush-Henrietta Central School District that no longer runs. She devoted many years to the education of Native children and community members and continues to share her traditional Haudenosaunee stories to anyone willing or unwilling to listen. Late in her life, she married a medicine man and silversmith from the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico who I grew up knowing as my grandfather.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather, Keith Reitz, was a member of the Oneida Nation. He was an educator and advocate for Native American civil rights. After returning from two tours of duty in Vietnam, he worked for the Rochester City School District reviewing history textbooks for historical accuracy and frequently gave guest presentations in classrooms dressed in full regalia and speaking only Mohawk to the students.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents going to social dances and pow-wows and even attended the after school cultural program founded by my grandmother. I remember sitting in my grandparents’ tent while they sold my grandfather’s jewelry and I remember learning the names of all six Haudenosaunee nations, our history, our stories and our traditions. In the after school program that my family referred to as “Indian School”, we learned traditional crafts, played traditional games, and learned to say basic greetings in Seneca and Mohawk. When I was a teenager, a Mohawk language class was started and I began going to classes once a week. As I got better, I learned to recite the Ohentenkariwatekwa—Words Before All Others—the most important prayer in Haudenosaunee culture that is recited whenever our people gather. Things like pow-wows, socials, lacrosse, fry bread, turquoise jewelry, dancing, drumming, head dresses (called gustoweh), ribbon shirts, and even dream catchers were all very normal to me when I was growing up.
At the same time, I lived a very normal American life. I had friends from Rush-Henrietta, played on different sports teams, learned to play the guitar, went to the movies with my friends, and read “classic literature” and other mainstream books. I never felt any different from anybody else until one day another kid from school asked me why I didn’t raise my hand when the teacher asked who in class went to church.
“I’m an Indian,” I said. “We don’t go to church.”
When I look back now, I know that lots of Native people today go to church, and lots of Native people don’t. But when you’re only nine or ten years old, you only know what’s familiar, and church definitely wasn’t familiar to me.
“That’s weird,” the kid said. “Pretty much everyone goes to church.”
The church comment is what started my continuous questioning of identity. It was the first time in my life that I was made to feel different from all of my friends from school and it puzzled me, almost as much as I was puzzled by how the kid who asked me whether or not I went to Church could believe that he was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a 2,000 year old person every time he went to church. I just didn’t get it.
When I went home that day, I remember asking my parents why we never went to church and the answer they gave me was a resounding, “We just don’t.” Unsatisfied, I asked my grandfather, who gave me a long explanation about the relationship between the church and the Indians that I didn’t understand either and I was left confused and tried to forget the whole thing after that. I kept leading my double life, spending time with my Indian grandparents and spending time with my “normal” friends. But the incidents of being made to feel different kept happening.
Fast forward a few years to when I was around 13 or 14. I played in a rock band with a couple of friends from school, was in a bowling league once a week, and continued my Mohawk languages classes. That year, I also joined an after school youth group for Native teenagers called UNITY that was sponsored by members of the Native American Cultural Center of Rochester. The group’s purpose was to help ground Native youth from urban communities in their identity and to promote Native culture to the community through service activities and cultural outreach. Strangely enough, I didn’t have a lot of interaction with other Native kids my own age growing up, and the reason for it was strictly geography. I attended school in a district where my sister and I were the only Native kids. There may have been more, but I never met them among the 2000 other students at my school. Out of all of our family friends who were Native, there weren’t many who had kids around my age and even if they did, they went to school somewhere else. We lived 45 minutes from the closest reservation.
The meetings started off well, but were slowly eroded by poor organization and an absence of strong leadership; all of the committees and councils that we formed accomplished very little, and I don’t remember us ever seeing an idea all the way through. The group quickly lost its appeal to me, and I started looking for excuses not to go. What made me stop going completely, however, was the shocking realization that I was nothing like any of the other kids there.
A few weeks after the program started, we had a group conversation where we shared the histories of our families. After the meeting was over, another kid told me I wasn’t a “real Indian” because I lived in the suburbs and my parents weren’t from the reservation and I had never been to one. He said I could never understand what it meant to be an Indian because I wasn’t like him. We had an unrelated exchange a week later and keeping the unproductivity of the group in mind, I decided to stop going entirely.
How could I not be a “real Indian” with my history? How could I not be a “real Indian” if I went to Mohawk language classes every week, knew so much about the history of my people, and felt so invested in my identity? What was a “real Indian” anyway? These questions weren’t that jarring at the time. I thought about them, but in the end they had more of a delayed impact on me.
Nothing changed in the next year or two. When I was sixteen, I spent the summer working as a cultural interpreter at Ganondagan State Historic Site, the site of a 300-year-old Seneca village. I was asked multiple times to open events by reciting the Ohentonkariwatekwen and was starting to think about college. The rock band was doing well, I had a girlfriend, and was living a very full life overall. Senior year, I was admitted to college on a full scholarship that in part recognized my identity and celebrated my community contributions, and I proudly displayed my heritage at graduation to the dismay of one teacher who attempted to cover the bolo tie my grandfather had made for me.
College, however, is where the questions came back. I noticed that as I met and got to know new people, I had to justify my identity, which was a new concept to me. In high school, when I told people I was Native or when people asked me about it, my answers were normally met with nods of “cool” or people just asked about my tribe and moved on. Occasionally people would crack a joke about teepees, tomahawks, or my inherit relationship with the Earth that I would laugh along with and later rebut, but in college I actually had to explain myself. People would ask,
“What are you?” and after telling them I was Oneida, they’d say,
“Well how much?”
“Do you have a card?” They’d say. “Why should I believe you?”
“How do you feel about casinos?”
“You don’t look like an Indian”
“You don’t do Indian things.”
“Are you from a reserve?”
And the most frequent and most uncomfortable of them all,
“I bet you got to come here for free, huh?”
Comments like these, though at times annoying, I expected. Most people in this country know very little about Native people and have never met a Native person. What knowledge they do have is usually drawn from the media, films, books, and memories from 4th and 7th grade social studies classes that discuss and portray Native people as relics of the past. I tended to treat these encounters as educational opportunities and tried to lead people to a soft truth about the consequences of years and years of government policy that meant to dismantle Native cultures overtime. To me, it was never their fault that they had this knowledge and I never thought these comments had malicious intent. The biggest difference from how people reacted in high school though, was that the people I met in college actually believed what they said was true. They weren’t joking around.
During the spring of my sophomore year, I started working as the Native American Recruitment and Cultural Outreach Intern in the Admissions Office. I was helping the university implement an initiative to increase its enrollment of Native students. I researched what high schools in New York had large numbers of Native students, helped develop scholarships, planned cultural outreach events, and acted as a liaison between the Native community that I was apart of and the University of Rochester. I presented workshops on Native stereotypes to the admissions staff and tried to enlist the help of other offices on campus in supporting the new Native students once they arrived. I had flags that represented the nations of the Native students on campus hung along side the flags of other international students in the student union, and successfully brought tribal, community, and university leaders together to discuss the state of Native American Higher Education. It was a position that catered to my sense of civic duty and to my passion for my heritage, but what I didn’t expect was that the nature of my work would lead me to question my own identity.
This job brought me into more and more contact with Native people where, more often then not, I was met with skepticism that I was even Native myself. I was even asked some of the same questions that the other students at Rochester asked me when I first met them.
“Do you have a enrollment number?” they’d ask. “It’s on your tribal card.”
“How much blood do you have?”
“I thought you’d look more Native when I talked to you on phone.”
“Your whiter than I thought you’d be.”
To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement. I could accept this happening to me occasionally and deflect the harshness of the words on the character of the people who said them, but these were not isolated incidents; they became the norm. I often had to legitimize myself by speaking Mohawk or by dropping the names of my family members or other Native friends I had. It was easy not to be bothered by these kinds of comments made by strangers and other non-native people, but it really stung when they came from other Native people. The questions that I first had when I was 14 suddenly came flooding back into my head in full force and tortured me to the point of briefly rejecting my Native identity. Despite the good that I was doing, despite all of the hard work and the strides I that I made at Rochester, despite my knowledge, my history, and my investment, I was brushed off and dismissed for not being Native enough.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that these comments are grounded in historical trauma that has crippled Native people over the past 300 years. Logic tells me that all native people have an interest in embracing any advocate—native or not—of indigenous rights. We’re too few in number to be pushing each other away and letting the politics of authenticity blind us from the bigger issue: that Native culture is in serious danger of disappearing altogether within the next one hundred years. What I didn’t realize is that there is no one “Native culture.” There is no one, shared experience.
The Mohawk side of my family came from Akwesasne, a reservation in Upstate New York that is split by the border of the United States and Canada. When she was just a young girl, my great-grandmother, Mary Mitchell, was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Hogansburg, NY for Indian children where she endured physical, mental, and sexual abuse. She was deterred from speaking Mohawk with the threat of a needle being stuck in her tongue if she did, and was forced to give up her Mohawk name for a Christian one, Mary. She was taught the responsibilities of being a housewife and, when she was old enough, she came to live with her sister who had been sent by the boarding school to the Rochester area. When she arrived, her Mohawk identity had been stripped from her. She was made to believe that she was only a Catholic American. Eventually, she married an American man and moved to a farm outside of Rochester where she remained.
My grandmother and her siblings weren’t raised as Indians. They were raised as normal American children who were baptized, went to school, and grew up during the heyday of post-war America. They knew very little about being Mohawk, but were still on the receiving end of racial slurs every now and then. They were all “half-breed” children who were taught to never acknowledge the Indian half. My grandmother went on to marry into a German family and had six of her own children who were baptized, went to school, and grew up as typical American children. The boarding school had accomplished its goal for two generations.
The Oneida side of my family tells a different story. My great-great grandfather was Marshall John, a condoled Oneida chief. In 1911, a woman named Boylan claimed she had a mortgage on the original 32 acres of Oneida land in New York. Local authorities removed the Oneida people from the land, and the Johns went to Rochester hoping to find a lawyer to fight the dispute. A Rochester lawyer named Charles P. Decker took the case, resulting in the United States v. Boylan. Since the case took years to argue, the Johns remained in Rochester. My grandfather and all of his siblings were raised with a sense of Native identity; they maintained connections with the Oneida Nation of Indians throughout their lives and if asked they would say that they were “Indian” before American.
It should stand to reason that this affiliation alone should settle my identity debate, if only Native issues were that simple. The citizenship requirements of the Oneida Indian Nation, like other tribes, are subject to will of tribal governments and tribal leaders. Since my grandfather married an Irish-American, my mother and her siblings are not considered eligible for citizenship even though my grandfather was a member. Even though they were raised as Native people and have Native blood, the strict interpretation of identity that the Oneidas use prevents them from obtaining citizenship. The requirements of other Haudenosaunee nations aren’t as strict, but traditionally your mother’s family determines your nation and clan.
My history is similar to that of many other Native people across the country who have forceful assimilation, tribal politics, and legal disputes in the pasts of their families. Thousands of Native people can’t show a tribal enrollment card. Thousands of Native people live removed from reservations. Thousands of native people don’t resemble the stereotypical “Native” phenotype. With 566 “officially recognized” and many more “unrecognized” tribes spread out over the United States, there is no one Native experience. Tribal citizenship, reservation residency, and stereotypical characteristics cannot be the defining factors of Native identity.
What then are the defining factors of Native identity? Blood quantum is a big one with the government and many tribes use it as a way to measure eligibility for tribal membership. Some tribes, like the Cherokee, allow people with as little as one thirty-second to enroll. The Mohawks set theirs at one-quarter. Many argue that if someone has no Native blood, they cannot claim to be a Native person and therefore cannot enroll in a tribe.
Using blood quantum as a defining factor, however, is problematic. Since tribes can determine the blood quantum that makes someone eligible to enroll, politics can influence identity. Tribes that generate a lot of revenue through casinos and gaming are sometimes guilty of amending their blood requirements in an effort to increase profits by disenrolling members, making them ineligible for the financial benefits of being an enrolled member of the tribe. The people who are no longer enrolled are still Native people. Even people with no Native blood can still be Native people. Many tribes historically have practiced adoption. Haudenosaunee people in particular have a long history of adoption, sometimes even adopting entire tribes.
As I write this, I’m realizing that the possibility exists that my children won’t be eligible to enroll in any tribe. Depending on whom I choose to marry, and whom my children one day choose to marry, the blood quantum of my own family could slowly dwindle to trace amounts. Even though my children will inherit a cultural legacy, they will have to trace and prove their lineage as a way to prove their identity just as I have to do today.
Since I don’t have a tribal enrollment number, I can apply to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood as a way to prove that I am, indeed, a Native person. It’s a document that would be signed by the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs that essentially certifies that I am a “genuine Indian.” The fact that this even exists makes my stomach churn. Human beings shouldn’t have to prove their pedigree to any government, let along anyone, like some thoroughbred horse; nor am I an object for sale that requires a certificate of authenticity to prove that I am what I say I am.
Native people are the only people with the problem of having to prove their authenticity to not only each other, but to other people, and to the government. Other marginalized groups face similar struggles against politics of authenticity, but they don’t face as many documents as Native people do. College applications ask you to mark your ethnicity, but the American Indian/Alaska Native box is the only box that then asks you list your tribal enrollment number or to upload a copy of your Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. I have a piece of paper from the Oneida Indian Nation that says that I am the grandson of an enrolled member. Regardless of whether or not I can prove my lineage, I don’t have the “proper” documentation to prove my identity according to guidelines of existing institutions.
It’s true that being a Native person makes you eligible for monetary benefits that other marginalized groups don’t receive. Being an enrolled member of many tribes makes you eligible for monthly assistance, it makes you eligible for scholarships, and even for health care coverage from the Indian Health Service. In some states, Native people get to go to college tuition-free as long as they can prove it. Tribes, colleges, the federal government and state governments have to worry about non-native people claiming Native blood in order to receive these benefits, but these benefits are too often linked with Native identity.
The current makers of identity and citizenship that many tribes and the government use are inadequate. By abiding by the existing institutions that create divisiveness among the Native community, Native people are actively playing into a system that seeks to ultimately assimilate Native people into the greater American culture. Native identity today should be measured by someone’s participation in the particular culture of their Native community. It should be measured by their knowledge and understanding of the history and customs of their people. What’s more important in the long run is instilling knowledge in future generations of Native youth and empowering them to embrace their identity and heritage regardless of where they come from, undocumented or not.
Christopher Bethmann (Oneida, Wolf Clan) is a graduate student in Adolescence Education at the University of Rochester. He is an advocate for indigenous rights and issues. He resides in Rochester, NY.