Indigenous Peoples’ Day, what do those words conjure up for you? For myself, it’s a sensitive subject of my questionable origin. It’s a strange sad question I’m asked, without fail, any time I mention being Native American.

“What percentage are you?”

If you were to ask anyone else how white or black they were you would justifiably be called out for racism. Yet what a dubious honor in the eyes of a racist society to have proof of your lineage and how shameful to some if you do. I still remember explaining that to a guy I was dating who asked me that question.

“Why do I need to prove to you who I am?”
He laughed and said, “Everybody thinks they’re Indian!”
“Why do you think that?!”
“Because of the government benefits and casinos and stuff.”
Yes, I dumped him.

The messages were clear about “Indians” when I was growing up. Beautiful but unwanted. Loved for what they represented but shameful to claim your identity. “Passable but barely.” I remember a teacher mumbling those words about me. She had heard that my father was Native. I was naive to the vitrole racism of where I was being raised at the time but not for long after that. I stopped braiding my hair. I didn’t react when people made slurs against Natives. The adults in the room wouldn’t protect me. I was in the second grade.

Kids I grew up with bullied me for being poor, for being awkward, dared each other to touch me, terrorized me into hiding in the bathroom to eat my lunch so they wouldn’t humiliate or hit me. That was the seventh grade. Things improved once I made different friends and stopped trying to pass as popular and embraced being a nerdy stoner. (It suited me and I felt at home in that label.) The trouble started again in high school when I stopped trying to pass as white.

A wonderful teacher, Mrs. Vandervert, encouraged me to apply for scholarships after I mentioned I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to attend college. She took me aside and said out of earshot of others, “Check for the Indian scholarships.” She was right, they existed but it was tough competition and stirred up conversations at home. I wrote to my grandmother, Eddie Mae, a true spitfire, and she helped me apply with letters for proof of my heritage. I couldn’t believe it when I won a full-ride scholarship to University of Oregon. It was my ticket out of poverty. What I didn’t anticipate? The backlash.

I was in class, counting the minutes of every day to end like most high school seniors, when they announced scholarship recipients over the intercom. When they came to me, my heart leapt and my smile froze on my face as faces turned to sneer at me. I felt my stomach drop and my cheeks burn. I immediately understood what was going to happen. I raised my hand to use the restroom but the coach serving as our substitute teacher turned his back to me as he began writing on the chalkboard.

There was blood in the water and the adolescent sharks circled me.
“”Underrepresented Minority”? What does that mean?”
“What are you black or something?”
“She’s something alright.”
The laughter started, the teacher didn’t stop them.

There was no turning back. I kept my voice level, “My father’s Native American.”
“WHAT?! I thought he was Mexican.”
“Same difference.”
“Your a dirty Indian?!
“Do you live in a teepee?”
“Is he a drunk like the rest of them?”
“I bet you give it out for smokes.”
“No wonder he’s in jail all the time.”

After that, I really hated high school. I hated it before but not like this. Boys started grabbing me when I walked down the hall, leaving hateful notes in my locker or on the windshield of my car, taunting me as I walked past with whispers and snide remarks. I tried to rise above it, I tried to ignore them, but it wore me down.

I stopped eating to avoid the cafeteria and others, stopped using my locker, and started using more drugs every day to escape the bullying and the stifling boredom. Those years taught me a valuable lesson. All those white, devout self-proclaimed Christians are far more dangerous and full of hate than any person of minority I’ve ever met since because of how they were raised. That their hatred of me had little to do with me and more to do with the fear their parents instilled in them about “otherness” and that their racial privilege over others was never to be questioned.

Now, as a mother, I walk my, admittedly, very Caucasian looking children to school and feel relieved that they see so many cultures and ethnicities around them in our city and that we can discuss their questions without fearing bigotry as I did as a child. We talk about race and privilege in terms they can understand and I’ll continue the discourse with them the rest of their lives; because when we talk about ending racism this is where it starts, at home. It starts with raising kids to support one another not bully. To accept others and be intolerant of abuse. Yet every day the news of our government makes me question those thoughts and the safety of all children.

Is it safe to discuss such topics any longer? How bad will it get before our country unifies as a democracy once again? Do I need to fear for my children the treatment I once received? What does this mean for our friends and neighbors who seem to be targeted by the hateful outpouring on the news and social media? What will it mean to be a minority for their generation?

By all means enjoy and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day by educating yourself or others about a culture largely unknown by most. Better yet, take a moment to think about our current events and why, in our society, we need a day or month labeled for an ethnic minority so that people can be reminded to consider respecting them and their past. For those that believe it isn’t necessary just Google “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” and see how many angry articles pop up lamenting the loss of their beloved Columbus Day or just check the POTUS Twitter feed to be reminded how dangerous our world is becoming once again.

“Teach Your Children”
Crosby, Stills & Nash

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.”

Songwriters: Graham Nash

Teach Your Children lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Spirit Music Group

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