Note 1: Authenticating Identity. 12/30/98

People involved in the field of native American studies, people who teach native American literature, are overly concerned, even obsessed, with the "problem" of authenticating native American texts. How can you be sure that someone who claims to be native American, especially if he/she is of mixed heritage, a kind of bastard-native, as it were, really is "qualified" to speak with authority about the issues of being native American. There is, apparently, a long line of people out there in the heartland of American culture who cannot wait any longer to join the classless society of oppressed people that Europeans routinely (dis)miss as sub-human savages without any right to exist in the pure white heartland of Eurocentric hegemony.

One cannot help but laugh a little at the absurdity of having to prove you own enough land to attract the notice of a thief who wants to steal it from you. Once you manage to convince the thief you own the land of your ancestral spirits, he/she approaches you with the inevitable deal, bargain, of giving you a pair of beads from a long forgotten New Orleans Mardi Gras parade in exchange for the right to forcibly remove you to a better place so he/she can clear cut the forest where you always believed your children and grandchildren would live and prosper for the better part of eternity and a day. What makes sense is that people who have nothing and no prospects for getting anything would be lining up to join the class that has it all, rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, if the only thing you do possess is your own sense of victimhood and someone shows up with a string of beads to talk you out of that as well, you might be perfectly justified in refusing to share your place with the oppressor who seems intent on masking him/herself as one of the people wronged and blighted by the very face he/she conceals beneath the mask of sameness that pair of beads wants to buy. Even the oppressed victims of Eurocentrism have to draw the line somewhere, have to protect whatever land has become theirs. This is true because the ancestral spirits come to occupy whatever land you inhabit. If you are nowhere anyone else wants to be, your spirits, at least, are there with you.

My own identity as native American is so conflicted by the circumstances of my life that I don't even believe in it without serious qualms and reservations myself. My maternal grandfather abandoned my mother's family before she was born. She did not know her own father. No one in her family, not my grandmother, not any of her five other children (my aunts and uncles), ever spoke his name or said a single word about him. He was, and is, a gap, a lack, an absence, in the family narrative of my very existence. Only two things were ever said about him in my hearing. My aunt, his oldest child, after pursuing genealogical research into the family's ancestry, looking, I suspect, for some sign of nobility on the Anglo-Irish side of my grandmother's origins, announced at a family gathering that "she" was an Indian princess. She was sharing the results of her genealogical research with the rest of her family when she said that.

Her announcement provoked an unforgettable scene. My grandmother began weeping and left the room. My uncle, his wife, my mother, and her two sisters, were rendered speechless with anger and outrage at their older sister's behavior. She was wearing a beaded, "buckskin" dress of the kind associated with, and sold by, roadside "Indian" curio shops that used to dot the highways and byways of America before the Interstate system obliterated such forms graceless exploitation and racism. Reading the text of my aunt's performance carries with it a certain risk of overdetermination. The response of grandmother, aunts and uncles, mother and father, to her announcement of native American "royalty" prevented any question a thirteen year old nephew, son might have wanted to ask about the claim she had made about her (and therefore my) genealogical heritage. The subject was never broached again in my hearing.

The only other statement about any of this "family" history occurred several years later when my mother told me that she, and therefore I, had another "family" of half-brothers and -sisters (hers not mine) who lived somewhere in Nebraska or South Dakota, a "family" of people she did not know, had never seen, and was not likely ever to meet.

The point in telling this story about the absence of any direct knowledge relating to my ancestry, its ambiguity, its lack of precision, the gap left in it by the namelessness of the tribe to which I might belong, is that I did not know I was, or might be, native American when I encountered the spirit-guide who appropriated my consciousness, singled me and it out of the vast desert of my profound not-knowing who I was when I reached my fifteenth year. When he materialized out of the thin air of his own spirit life and spoke to me, I had no clue who or what he was, where he had come from, what he could possibly want with me, why he was there at all. The only thing I did know in that bizarre moment of cross-temporal disjunction was that he was there in the exact and absolute presence of a radical and incomprehensible strike of not-being in the same world that I occupied. He was there and not-there simultaneously.

For the next fifteen years I heard and did not hear his voice. I both knew and did not know what he said to me. The bridge was the thing that confused my ability to comprehend his message. He told me that first time that I would build the bridge between his world and my world. During the time I did not know I was native American, I thought he meant I would build a bridge across the divide that separated European and native American consciousness. I was a project of the old man's, an experiment of his to see if it was possible for a whiteman to become "native" in his being, in his essence. Not whether it was possible to know or understand "native" philosophy, world view, cosmology, etc., but to actually become, be changed into, transformed in the bone and blood of my whole being, to be made over into that which I most certainly was not--to give up white and paint myself red.

So, I played at being Indian for fifteen years, never suspecting that I actually was one. The old man, my beloved spirit-guide, has a perverse sense of humor. I'm having more fun than a barrel of monkeys. And, by the way, I do most sincerely wish you were here in my place.

A final thought, as if there ever is one: when it comes to a demand for authenticating my identity, my right to speak as a native American--guess what--when you have been where I have walked, you gain the right to voice the demand.

Response welcome via e-mail.

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