Thursday, October 23, 2008

A white mother's observations

Sometimes I remember what race I am.  Sometimes it is made very clear to me how white my skin is.  The National Congress of American Indians is holding their conferences here this week.  Last night we went to Wild Horse Pass at Gila River for native festivities and to meet up with Katie who is here visiting for the week.  I had a few observations while we were there. 

There were several booths set up representing the 22 tribes in Arizona.  Cooper, Beckham and I were wandering through them while Seneca and Dent were finishing their dinner.  As we approached the Navajo table, I said to Coop, "Look Cooper, this is your tribe."  That does not sound like such an idiotic statement to me, but if you are attending a native event and hear a white lady say to one of her seemingly white children, "this is your tribe," you might think otherwise.  I had a woman behind me say, "did she just say this is your tribe?"  She was completely baffled and quite obviously thought I was a little off my rocker.  It bugged me.  I know it shouldn't have, but it did.  I am not questioned when I have Seneca with me.  She helps me fit in and without her I feel strangely like an intruder.   This woman was not incorrect in questioning my judgement, but my children are indeed Navajo... registered members and all.  They have access to every right and privilege that a darker-skinner member does.  I think I could have tactfully explained myself to this woman, and the others around giving me weird looks if I had thought a little quicker, but I didn't and therefore simply smiled and moved along with my little light-haired children.  Denten gently reminded me that our boys will deal with that misunderstanding their entire lives and all it will take is a little explanation, which is true, but in that moment, I didn't like that I wasn't take seriously- it was like my glowing white skin gave me away as a fraud or something.  But I'm not.

Cooper's favorite part of the evening was the native dancing.  This is the case at most native events.  He is drawn to the colorful costumes and the rhythmic music.  Standing and visiting while watching is not acceptable to him, he needed to find a seat.  A good seat where he could see all the dancers.  This requirement meant him sitting next to complete strangers and often engaging in conversation with them about some aspect of the dance, but the strangers didn't mind.  The most entertaining was the White Mountain Apache dance, which was either a hunting or a war dance with faces covered, big stick headdresses and lots of bells.  Coop sat through these dances a long time, the people we were with were amazed a little boy with so much energy (previously displayed) could sit still for so long and be so captivated. 

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening.  Katie mentioned during our conversation that people often thought she was Mexican.  I guess I've never had the occasion to have someone mistake me for belonging to a race of people other than my own.  It will be interesting to see how my children face that as they grow.  If it is with any of the grace and dignity of their father, my worries are completely unfounded.

IMG_2882 dent's cousin olin at the bitsilly family reunion, july 2008


Joni said...

How cool. My Dad used to take us to events like these in Canada. We lived so close to the reservation and he was fascinated with Native American culture. It was a fun thing to see as a kid. I think it's great that this is always something that is going to be a part of your kids!

Leslie said...

Your post reminds me of a series I read when I was a little girl. My grandparents gave me a set of books called the Mandie Series. The main character is 1/4 Cherokee but no one believes her because she has blond hair and blue eyes. It's a fun little mystery series for kids.

The Hansen's said...

I think that situation would be frustrating for me as well. It is so wonderful though that they have such a rich culture that they can be a part of and I think it is so great that you and denton are so involved with that. I am actually kind of envious.

Sandi said...

First, what a cool event to attend. I, like Coop, could sit and watch the dances all night. I used to love going to Gallup to the big PowWow they had every year. Second, it is strange to be the minority, isn't it. I understand that and you frustration. Third, I am of the Sioux Indian tribe and I have wanted to get my proof in order and get registered since I found out when I was a teenager. Forth, when I first saw Denton's mom sitting with your family, I thought you were her daughter.

Croslands said...

That was so interesting to me. Strangely I don't think of your children or husband as "another race". (dumb of me I guess) Even when I see pictures of Seneca now I just notice how stinking cute she is. I guess I've never really thought about it and what conversations your kids will be having with others.

The Silly Witch said...

I remember sitting with my roommate from San Salvador, watching a movie, commenting that it was strange to see so many blonde, blue-eyed people in the Mexican village of the movie. My roommate turned to me, told me that that was an ignorant comment, and said that there were people of all hair colors in South America. It was a lesson to me not to make assumptions about the way people look related to where they belong.

I'm glad ALL your children get to participate in the richness of the Navajo culture.

Kari Ann said...

The picture of Dent's cousin is beautiful. Your family is fortunate to have such a strong culture to identify with. Your adventures provide quite a contrast to the melting-pot of gray that so many of us fall into.

321forme said...

What an amazing blessing to be part of such a rich culture. You're children are so lucky you are helping them embrace it. And you're kind of "adopted" into the tribe by marriage aren't you? ;-)

Nancy said...

interesting post, amberly. i'm anticipating dealing with similar issues with my children.

people (in my ward, especially) like to constantly point out that i'm not white, as if i were unaware of the fact.

"so, are you chinese or japanese?" (me: do i know you?)

"oh look, we have a korean person and a taiwanese person together here!" (me: congratulations, you identified two asians standing together!)

a few months ago i was on the train and some aging hippie leaned over and asked me if i were native american. that was a new one.

it's interesting when you have a heightened sense of your skin color and the way you are perceived by others, isn't it? some people would consider it just being over-sensitive, but when you're constantly being reminded about it, it's hard not to notice, and as you say, feel like an intruder. it'll be neat to learn how you deal with these conversations.