November 30, 2014
Driving down the Columbia Gorge, Belinda and I searched for a radio to pass time. We came upon an interview with an American Indian woman. She was in the middle of making a point that Native Americans know their heritage better than non-Indians, and this has a lot to do with traditional story telling practices. In making her point, she said that while Native Americans could go back generations, Americans can seldom tell a story beyond that of their grandparents.
I turned to Belinda and commented she had missed on this one. Not on the idea that many Americans can no longer tell a story beyond their grandparents—I think that is true enough, but in saying “Americans,” she included folk she did not intend. As she went on, it was clear her comment was focused on white folk of European heritage. However, in saying “Americans” she includes all folk of the America’s: American Indians, First Nation peoples of Canada, Indigenous of Mexico and Central America and South America, Greenlandic Inuit, and Alaska Natives. Belinda pushed back saying well you know what she meant. Yes, true enough, however, we need to claim inclusive language that honors both heritage and the reality of the landscape. With neither of us backing down, we had just enough to drive a conversation for the rest of the journey.
This last Sunday of Native American Heritage month I am thinking to honor heritage, place of birth and/or place of adoption must be distinguish and honored as well. At the same time I think of how many white folk have visited Belinda and I who argue, “It is unfair to use the term Native American only for Indians. I was born in America and therefore I too am Native American.” When I hear this comment two things come to mind, one the speaker is oversimplifying a truth and two, they believe American Indians have much more structural power than they do. But let’s say this is not the case, and what they are really after is good conversation.
If we were in Alaska, the answer is easier. There, if your ancient heritage is one of the Alaskan landscape, you are an Alaskan Native. If it is not, but you were birthed into or have adopted the Alaskan landscape, you are native Alaskan. We of the lower forty-eight do well to give some thought to how we identify ourselves.
Landscape defines folk as much as folk define the landscape. Similar to Alaskans, I figure if one is born in the America’s or born somewhere else and have adopted the American landscape, they are American. Ones heritage may be Haitian, Chickasaw, Scottish, Vietnamese, Yakama, Inuit, Mexican, Lebanese, or Suquamish, and yet they are American. To know people of the America’s are American is not to buy into the Doctrine of Discovery or Manifest Destiny mindset of melting pot. Rather to know an American is to know one whose life is embedded into the landscapes story. Such singularity does not remove or hide identity, heritage, or family story. Instead, it is landscapes ability to lightly hold the uniqueness of every person while also knowing them as one of the whole—one of the family.
Belinda and I soon reached our destination. After a while, I had the chance to sit down with a new book Blue Eagle gifted to me. As I began to read, the landscape laughed. I came across Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “Authors Notes” in her book An Indigenous History of the United States. I pulled Belinda aside and said, “Look, look at this!”
I don’t use the term “tribe.” “Community,” “people,” and “nation” are used instead and interchangeably. I also refrain from using “America” and “American” when referring only to the United States and its citizens. Those blatantly imperialistic terms annoy people in the rest of the Western Hemisphere, who are, after all, also Americans. I use “United States” as a noun and “US” as an adjective to refer to the country and “US Americans” for its citizens.
Belinda rolled her eyes and went back to the conversation I had pulled her from.
Oh, well. I may think that to honor heritage, is to know how to speak of our family, our neighbors, our community, and ourselves. I may think knowing how to speak of place leads us to better honor the heritage of one another; to better know our community, and ourselves; to better recognize the landscape as our mother; and to better cherish created family.
Belinda thinks you best get over it Dave.