Sunday, October 12, 2008


"Are you a skin?" My friends have asked.

I don't know how to answer.

If you ask the women of the Mohawk nation, they'll say that no one can tell you what you are. That you are what you are, even if the state of New York never opens your adoption records, even if you never get a card.

If you ask the men, they will say that they're sick of the wanna-be's. People with a smattering of Indian blood coming back and snapping up government entitlements because they think it's cool to be Indian, to be involved in the dancing and the pow-wows and expecting to have visions.

I agree with the women. I don't think the White government should be able to label Skins... to issue them identification so they can prove what they are, something no other ethnicity in this country has to do. In fact, I can think of only one other culture in history that's been required its ethnicity, and as of yet, we don't have to sew little golden medicine wheels on the breasts of all our clothing.

I agree with the men. What do I know about our culture other than what I've learned from White men in universities? I've never lived on the rez, never had a stake in the community. Never lived in a world seen through the eyes of my own blood.

My mother was born on the rez. My grandmother was a blue eyed Indian. Back before Christopher Columbus landed on an island near Central America and taken the first indigenous slaves back to Isabella as a gift, the Vikings had hit the shores of North America. On the rez, there were many blue eyed, blonde skins. Is it their blood or their upbringing that makes them Skins?

My mother and her brothers left the rez back in the day when the best way to get a job is to move off the rez and pretend to be Italian. Their name was already common and British sounding, having been attached to the family in the time of the American Revolution. My mother hated her skin, and eventually joined a church that believed that darkness of skin was the Mark of Cain: A sign of irrevocable evil.

She married a white man who was often drunk and spent most of his time in the VA. If she gave birth while he was in the hospital, my mother gave up the children to adoption. If he were home, she'd keep them. My family had been scattered.

My other mother, the woman who raised me, was White as the driven snow. She had been upset all her life by her own upbringing, having been told that with her dark hair and eyes that she looked like a "squaw" and probably wasn't my grandfather's child after-all. It's likely she wasn't, but more likely the dark hair and eyes came from her mother's Italian lover than any indigenous blood. The other mother turned the years of name calling into a hatred of Indian peoples, and growing up I often heard tales of how blessed she'd been to get some good White babies when she went to the adoption agency, because so may "filthy squaw babies were being passed off on innocent White women."

What do I know about being Mohawk?

When I finally met the mother who gave birth to me, she told me a little about our heritage. She told me how my brother once traced our family to Chief Joseph Brant, and how the names of his relatives are kept somewhere in Canada, but she couldn't remember where. She told us of how grandma beaded, until she escaped the rez, and became a hula dancer in Hawaii, because it was more profitable to be Polynesian than Indian, and how she made crafts with shells. When I finally met my grandmother, she gifted me with a box covered in shells, and wore a long beaded choker she herself had made to cover the hole in her throat she breathed through after they took out the cancer. She had no stories she could tell, and even when she did speak, I couldn't understand her words.

What do I know about being Mohawk?

My mother once told me we were of the Turtle Clan. I remember I was insulted. Why weren't we Wolf? Why weren't we Bear? I had no idea what Turtle means. Only that it was slow, stupid, and retreated into it's shell. I had no idea that Turtle holds the whole world on it's back. I had no idea that the Tree of Life grew on Turtle's shell. I wanted a strong animal, a powerful animal... by White standards.

I decided to learn about being Mohawk.

I went to my university, and studied the stories of the Mohawk people, past and present. I remember one day sitting in the classroom with our new books of contemporary Native writing, and flipping the pages to the next author. The rest of the class was silent. Several were staring at me.

"Is this you?" One student asked. "This woman looks like you."

I look at the woman in the photo. She did look like me. Her name, Beth Brant.

"Are you related?" Someone asks.

"I don't know."

Perhaps she's a cousin. Perhaps more distant.

Once I went to a pow wow and asked about my relatives.

"Who are your people, what are their names?" One of the elder men asked.

"Brant" I replied.

He laughed. "You can't swing a cat without hitting a Brant around here," he said. "I can't help you."

In school there was an organization for Indian students. One of my friends was a member, and I told him my story. The woman who ran the group was involved in Indian education in our school district. My children began receiving Indian Education. One day my friend asked me to go to the Strawberry festival with him. In the world I was raised in, it sounded like a date. I knew he was engaged to a woman back on the rez, so I said 'no'. Later, I learned that it was more of a test. I was supposed to go to have the clan mothers look me over. My friend was not asking me out. He was inviting me to be part of my culture. I'd missed my chance because of my White assumptions.

I taught my daughter the little bit I'd learned. I taught her how to bead, but she preferred to weave. I wanted my daughters to bead like my grandmother did, like I could no longer because of the arthritis in my hands.

As I grew older I began to see the value in the things I never knew. To feel the line of my ancestors reaching back in one direction, and my descendants in the other... to have roots firm and wide in the soil of the past. My middle age crazy was my acceptance of Turtle. I had him tattooed into my skin over my ankle.

Last year for my birthday, my daughter bought me a fancy dancing shawl. I sometimes imagine dancing in it. Sometimes imagine the sound of the drums and my feet on the dusty ground. On the back of my shawl are three turtles. I don't think my daughter noticed, but the turtles are my daughters. One larger, two identical. My elder daughter and the twins. The shawl has more meaning to me than I think my daughter intended. I see it and I want to dance all the way back to St Regis rez, demand my blood and my status card, and give my daughters roots and myself wings.

My mother's people are the Haudenosaunee (people of the long house). In every 'Indian' language I know, the name the White's attribute to the tribe in the indigenous language means "people" Just people, or "people who live in"... Ethnicity in the White world is determined by imaginary lines on the Earth. People are Polish, German, Hungarian... even though the lines have shifted and moved and disappeared within generations. They are English and French and Italian. Skins are "People"... always "People".

It's a nice thought, that the unity of being "people" is greater than the land we live in, some artificial boarders, some governments, and the cultures which differ. It's the difference, I think, between being White and being a Skin: that the unity is more prevalent in our minds than the divisions, although some divisions do exist.

My friends ask me "Are you a Skin?"

I have to answer, "I'm People."