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Danielle Romero, M.Ed,

Natchitoches Tribe of Louisiana

Ever heard of an un-enrolled Indian?

Choosing not to enroll in my matrilineal tribe is something I sometimes wrestle with on a weekly basis. At the age of 35, I have yet to meet another Indian who felt the same way.

What does it mean to be an unenrolled Indian? With or without my card, I know that my ancestors are the same. My history is the same. But the world does not see me the same way.

My ancestors came from modern Texas and Louisiana — back when it was still Natchitoches and Caddo land. The external influence caused territories to change hands often between Spain, France, and eventually, the United States of America during the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The land was the same. The rivers were the same. But we did not see it the same way.

My great uncle Dan told me that when he gets a $20 bill, he puts it in his wallet upside down because of what Andrew Jackson did to the Indians. Because of what he did to our family.

In 1830, my family was living in the same place they had for centuries, although now under President Andrew Jackson, it was called Louisiana. And all the Indians were told to go to Oklahoma. They were told, ‘walk out west, leave your homes, leave forever.’

Uncle Dan told me that some family did go — we don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they survived. Even if they did — what kind of survival awaited them?

Unbelievably, most of my family stayed in Louisiana — hiding in plain sight. They refused to leave. They remained on their land. They remained quiet. Did anyone know that there were Indians hiding in Louisiana all those years? On their own land?

It was another way to be Indian. An Indian without government identification.

In the mid-1930s, my great-grandmother Lola left Louisiana and moved to New York with her Irish husband. He died soon after, leaving her a widow with eight children in a strange new culture.

When Lola appealed to her in-laws for assistance, she was turned away — her father-in-law said he would never help any Indian kids. My grandmother (infrequently) whispered stories to us of how she foraged for food in neighbors’ gardens just to survive. Her brothers were forced to sleep in the attic so Lola could rent out their rooms for money. People would gossip and point at them in the grocery store — and neighborhood children were told not to play with my grandmother and her siblings.

Grandma Lola knew what had happened before, and she knew what could happen again. She didn’t teach her children about their culture, and so we never learned from our grandparents.

The closest thing to physical identification that exists is a brass Indian head bolero that Grandma Lola kept in the family. It’s been in Uncle Dan’s dresser drawer for years. I didn’t ask him why. I knew, and sometimes, it just feels safer to stay out of sight.

Why don’t I just enroll? Because even today, I don’t want to be on a government list of Indians.

I know what happened to the list they had of us before.

Want my proof of how Indian I am? Check out how I keep the $20 bill in my wallet.

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