I’m fully aware of the fact that if it weren’t for intermarriage between Natives and non-Natives, I wouldn’t exist. I’m proud of all of my heritages, and proud that I can be unique in my Cherokee/Armenian/Irish/Welsh/German-ness (though, apparently Cher is Cherokee/White/Armenian, so maybe not so unique). I love that my family traditions and holidays are imbued with Armenian food and traditions, but that I can go to stomp dances in Oklahoma and feel equally connected. But when I think about my future, and my future children, the whole thing gets complicated.
I’ve written before about blood quantum, and some of the issues surrounding tribal membership and identifying as Native. I also allude, often, to my own identity struggles of being really mixed and coming from a suburban environment. Recently, since the 2010 Census data has started to trickle out, there has been some discussion about the interracial marriage rates among various ethnic groups. The NYtimes has a chart that shows Native have the highest rate of intermarriage, and they also recently published an article that quoted statistics showing Natives as most likely to identify as more than one race.
Debbie Reese over at American Indians in Children’s Literature looked more closely at the idea of a “multi-racial” identity presented in the Times article. She says that when people identify as simply “multi-racial” and claim that individual races don’t matter, they obscure what it really means to be an American Indian in today’s society. She says:
The students interviewed for that Times article mean no harm when they say their Indian identity doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter—to them. But it does to me, and it does to Native Nations. The students’ well-meaning embrace of a mixed identity, in effect, obscures a lot, and in that obscurity, it does do harm. It contributes to the lack of understanding of who American Indians are… And it takes the US down a merry melting pod road where we all hold hands and smile in ignorance.
In addition to Professor Reese’s breakdown of the issue, NPR had a segment on intermarriage in Native communities, and they bring in the blood quantum issue. The piece focuses on a woman from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and her fiance, a Mexican-American. In her community, members must possess 1/4 blood quantum for tribal enrollment, and while her children would make the cut, if they then choose to marry non-Indians, their children (her grandchildren) would no longer be tribal members.
NPR kinda misses the point, and focuses on “benefits” her children could miss out on (the article is called “Native American Intermarriage Puts Benefits at Risk”). They quote a professor of American Indian law who says:
“This becomes significant because it can affect child custody cases, access to free health care, education and land ownership. For many tribes, continuing high rates of intermarriage could become a huge issue in the future, since to remain as fully functioning nations, with governments, they need to have a population.”
Of course, there are MANY issues with this quote, and the article does point out that some tribes don’t have a blood quantum requirement for enrollment, but the bottom line is they make it seem like tribal membership is about having “benefits” from the federal government, not about culture, community, or anything else. The article also doesn’t really problematize the notion of blood quantum at all, it’s just taken as a given.
So, I say all this as a Native woman in her mid-20′s, who is thinking about (at some point) settling down, having a family, raising kids, etc. I think about these issues constantly. I am lucky that my children will be able to enroll in the Cherokee Nation no matter what, since we don’t use blood quantum for membership, but I worry about how they will be perceived if they want to be involved in Native community activities if they are even more mixed than me. I get crap constantly for the way I look and not being “Native enough”–even when the work I do is completely for Native communities and all about giving back. I think I’ve cried more tears in graduate school over identity politics than anything else, and I can’t bear the thought of my future (albeit fictional at this point) children dealing with that pain. I know they will be culturally connected no matter what, but what does that mean for my future mate?
I joke that I look at potential partners as a series of punnett squares, those genetic calculator grids you used in high school biology to determine whether your fruit flies would have messed up wings or something. But I wonder if my light eyes would be dominant or recessive, if my light skin would make it through the maze of alleles to end up on my child. I realize it’s sad, but I just want my kids to be able to be ethnically ambiguous enough to “pass” as Native. Is this internalized colonialism and bowing to stereotypes and misconceptions about Natives? Maybe. But it’s reality.
I would absolutely love to end up with a Native man. But you need to find me one first. My friends and I joke that educated, motivated Native men are like unicorns…magical, mystical creatures that you’ve heard of, and special enough that if someone gets one, they’re holding on and not letting go. This is not to seem like I’m hating on the Native men of the world. I just don’t come into contact with them that often in my whitewashed East Coast world. The draw of a Native guy is simple: I don’t want to have to explain everything all the time. I want someone who “gets it.” I want to make cultural references and jokes, I want someone who understands what it feels like to be invisible, marginalized, and silenced, I want someone who supports my activism and social justice work. Can I find that in a non-Native guy? Yes, and I have. Though they tend to be other people of color.
These discussions also made me think of Lisa Charleyboy’s post about dating over at Urban Native Girl Stuff. She breaks down the types of non-Native guys she’s encountered into three categories:
1) “Inattentive Skeptics” who are uninformed about Natives
2) “Cultural Romantics” who appreciate native art and culture, but are unlikely to know any actual aboriginals (usually found in Toronto)
3) “Connected Advocates,” on the other hand, are most likely to support the achievements of Aboriginals, and to understand the role discrimination plays
I think those categories pretty much cover it all. Lisa says she’s had some success dating the “inattentive skeptics,” but personally I find it really, really tiring to constantly explain everything. My preference is definitely for the third category (duh). She also dealt with many of these same struggles I have, and decided to only date Native men for a period of time.
Add all of these layers of complication surrounding identity to the fact that I’m almost 5’10, in a PhD program at an elite institution, and am kinda loud and opinionated…I don’t date much. ha. This is not to be a woe-is-me-I’m-so-lonely-and-oppressed post, but more of a personal reflection to bring to light some of the issues that 500+ years of colonialism have added onto an already complicated world of dating and courtship. I know that my non-Native friends don’t have to think about blood percentage or tribal identification when they’re out at a bar scoping out attractive coeds, and sometimes I wish I didn’t have to either. But as Debbie Reese says in her post:
Identity matters for those of us who are raised Indian. We work very hard at maintaining our nationhood and our sovereignty, and, we work to protect the integrity of our traditions from being exploited by people who don’t understand them.
I’m working my butt off here, and is it selfish that I don’t want it to be for nothing?
Feel free to disagree with me in the comments, and if you know of any attractive, tall, educated, single Native guys who want a date, let me know (I’m only half kidding…).
NYTimes: Who is Marrying Whom
NYTimes: Census Shows Rise in Number of Multiracial Children
American Indians in Children’s Literature: “Multiracial” Identity and American Indians
Urban Native Girl Stuff: I am Not Your Pocahontas
Urban Native Girl Stuff: Bloodlines
NPR: Native American Intermarriage Puts Benefits at Risk