It is finally Indigenous Awareness Month! This is my absolute favorite month of the year, partly because of the weather but mostly because I thrive on bringing awareness to Native rights, culture, and simply creating exposure for an often forgotten people. This month started off with a bang for me, since I voted early today. As I was registering the woman helping me looked at my form smiling, she candidly told me “You are my first American Indian to register”. This simple statement created a wealth of pride inside me but also reinforced a loneliness that is always there.
Although I am half Ojibway from a First Nation tribe in Canada, there is often this disconnect between my Indigenous self and whom society perceives me to be. I used to hide that I was Native, because so many people tried to take away my Indigenous identity. People chose to shame me since I do not fit prettily into the “Pocahontas” stereotype people have for Indigenous women. I have pale skin. I have white privilege. By all accounts to society I am not what my paperwork or Indian status card says. There is also the reality that like many Natives, I do not live on or near my reserve.
Eventually I just stopped caring what box the rest of the country wanted to put me in. My father is a council member of our reserve. I can easily trace my direct ancestry to the chiefs of our tribe. I have status, with a laminated government identification to keep track of the First Nation people. I have a reserve. So much of my identity is tied into being Indigenous, why should I throw this away because American society tells me I do not look like a Disney character? Why should I have to explain myself and justify who I am? The truth is I do not and I will not.
I have devoted my entire Public Health education to tracking health disparities between Indigenous people and non-Hispanic white communities. From the lack of clean drinking water on too many reserves, to diseases like diabetes, and to the heinous crimes against our women. I want answers, I want solutions, but most of all I want to understand how such massive health disparities even began. I would never have had the confidence to devote my education to tribal health if I had discarded my identity because of what society said about me.
There is a big difference between a person claiming far of lineage who is 98% white, and a tribal member who has pale skin revealing their First Nation status. In recent years there has been a shift away from my grandparents’ generation, where you were lucky if you were passing. Today, having a great-great grandparent who was 1/4th an unknown Native tribe is “cool”. People claim this far off blood without understanding just how warped the American and Canadian treatment of Indigenous people truly is.
As much as I love being Indigenous, as proud as I am of being Ojibway, living in an area with little Natives and covering our health disparities is isolating. I am virtually alone in my quest for answers and keeping my Indigenous heritage alive. Nothing would make me want to change my journey or goals though. No matter what position I eventually hold in my career I will continue to study new journal articles devoted to Indigenous health. I will continue to be defiantly proud of who I know am, and I will never stop teaching my son about his Indigenous identity. I am Indigenous, no person or institution will ever change that.