I Became Native
“Each man is good in his sight, it is not necessary for eagles to be crows.” —Sitting Bull, Teton Sioux Chief
You’ve sat alone in a room full of people you think you know, people who think they know you. You’ve felt stares, judgements, as you sit quietly wishing you were anywhere but there. What is it that made you different? What sets you apart? We are all related in our diversity, in that each of us has something that separates us from the herd; it’s in these differences that we are all related. The following is a human story
I don’t know what the foregoing words mean to you. I hardly know what they mean to me . . . Who are these words? Is their spirit in them? What defines these words? Can these words aptly embody the ethnicity, the relevance to historical significance they epitomize? Can these words delineate the intensity of a people, so thoroughly hell-bent on existence, that the culture these words exemplifies refuses to breathe its last breath, enjoy its last ride, or walk silently on its death trail, alone in a world so against its very survival?
Why so meaningless, these two words depicting the narrative of my existence, such a compelling, prevailing force that the very idea they suggest, the mere mention of this politically correct tagline is able to conjure a depiction of something so distant from who I felt I am—and yet leave me unable to escape the pressure or obligation of fulfilling the stereotype I should be?
Two words that have defined my life, my personality, my view of the world. Two words that have followed . . . haunted me my whole life.
You know the stories—Thanksgiving, Custer, and Wounded Knee—names like Geronimo, Pocahontas, and Sitting Bull. You have a dreamcatcher proudly displayed in your living room, or perhaps above your kitchen sink. You own a picture of a noble Indian, a majestic illustration of a long-ago era, a warrior clad in leather, abs, and hostility, mounted upon an astonishing black horse, silhouetted by a contrasting plains sundown, purple-and-yellow-ish hues, never-ending skies, a fantasy long ago abandoned into childish textbooks and Hollywood movies.
Is this me, a stereotype, perpetually categorized into a landscape of mythical make-believe I never knew, a culture long ago vanished into baron wastelands, devoid of spirit, heart, and the facade of natural essence?
Perhaps . . .
My first day of school, I was not yet Indian. My white grandmother, a nice lady, devoutly Christian, determined and refined, dressed me and my twin sister in our best clothes. Grandpa took our picture with an old Polaroid camera. To this day I still have the archaic photo my grandmother took. I remember Grandma telling me to put my arm around my sister, to hold her close and smile when I heard “cheese.” The Polaroid, and early ‘80s relic, captured my best smile, all teeth, huge glasses, tan skin, black hair. I held my sister protectively to my hip. I had a striped shirt, blue jeans, and I wasn’t yet Indian.
My world was small then, small-town Iowa, small house, small backyard, and small family. My grandmother was an English teacher for troubled youth. She took care of my sister and me. I remember going to Grandma’s classroom to decorate, set books in their proper place, and align desks in their correct order. Grandmother taught my sister and I from a very young age how to read, write, and do math. We took piano lessons, karate, gymnastics and every other class, seminar, tutorial, or lecture an English teacher for “at risk” youth could conjure up for her beloved grandchildren. I had a definite leg up on the other kids at school, until I became Indian.
I don’t remember how I got to school my first day, most likely the bus. I remember posing for the Polaroid picture, and I remember the moment I became Indian.
My first day of school, I was introduced to the world, a large, demanding expanse of sociological struggle, far beyond the grasp of my minute comprehension. I remember being brought to the front of the classroom, the teacher announced to the other students that my sister and I were different, that the other children were able to see our differences . . . Our tan skin, our black hair, we were Native Americans. My sister and I were presented to humanity, not as human, but as a spectacle to behold, a lesson in the immense, noble history of these blessed United States.
I didn’t feel that I was different, I didn’t think I looked different. I didn’t think my sister looked different.
My sister and I were asked if we spoke “Indian,” if we had ever seen a teepee. We stood apart from the other students. We were an attraction. As our differences were announced to the class, even at that young of an age, I had a feeling of discomfort. I didn’t want to be different. I felt a driving need to be a part of the herd, rather than apart from it. I don’t believe the teacher’s intention was to exploit, or be cruel to a couple of little kids; however, this narrative would follow me my whole life. That day, I was Indian for the first time.
I grew up in a sea of Caucasians. I think I was twenty years old before I saw an African American in person—Hispanics and Asians were also few and far between. My sister and I were the only brown-skinned kids in town, the only Native Americans for miles. I was raised by my white grandmother, in a white world, where outsiders were not welcome, and my differences seemed to define who I was.
I could not hide my disparities. They were apparent. Although I’m only half Native American, my tan skin, dark hair, and facial features existed as a relentless proclamation of my underlying blemish. I could not detach myself from my distinction.
I was good at school. I was the brightest and fastest-learning child in my grade. With my grandmother’s help, I became advanced, so advanced that I either knew the curriculum, or had the cognitive ability to teach myself the content of the lessons, far faster than the rest of the kids in my class.
My intelligence was first tested in second grade. I remember taking tests, solving puzzles, and talking to a psychologist about my interests: what I like to read, if I go on walks, do I like dinosaurs, or do spacecraft interest me, these sorts of questions. I learned later that the school was attempting to jump me ahead a grade, or offer advanced classes where I could work at a much faster pace than the other students. I remember being excited. The school counselor informed me that I would be one of five students to participate in a program designed for “smart kids.” I waited and waited for the classes to start. After a while, it became apparent that I had not been chosen to participate in the special program. It had hurt. In tears, I asked my grandmother why I hadn’t been chosen. I could tell it was hard for her to explain that sometimes it didn’t matter how hard I worked, or how much I knew, that sometimes I would be looked over for things that I couldn’t control. I had been passed over for a white student. There were only five spots available. The parents with the most clout were able to get their children in. My grandmother didn’t have much of a case; I was a biracial kid with no father and a missing mother. I stood apart, not a part of. I became Indian for the second time.
I made friends in school. I was popular; my life was good. However, I was always Indian, I couldn’t escape this. I tried, however: I tried to be the best, young, white kid I could be. I became good at sports. Sports were a way for me to belong. It didn’t matter what color my skin was, or how dark my hair was. If I was good at sports, if I was a winner, all else could be overlooked.
I played football, baseball, kickball—anything that involved a winner. I played football almost constantly. I was faster, more agile, and able to catch a football better than any other kid in my grade. I was always picked first. It didn’t matter what sport the other kids and I were playing. I was a winner, on top of the world.
I remember catching a pass one day while playing football, scoring a touchdown, and rubbing it in the face of the kid who was attempting to defend me. This was the wrong kid to gloat on, he knew two words that would change everything . . . “Prairie nigger.” The child called me this epithet, the other kids began to laugh, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the child meant by this name. It didn’t make sense to me. I had heard the “N” word before, and I knew what this meant, but to call me one just wasn’t logical. I wasn’t African American. I stood dumbfounded. The kids laughed because they knew what this name meant. I asked the kid, “What does this mean?” He responded, “It means you’re a dirty Indian.” Nothing had ever made me feel dirtier. I became Indian once again.
Going to school, being raised in a small Iowa town, I was constantly berated for my ethnicity. The abuse was never-ending. I learned to bury who I was deep down. I buried what I was. This cruelty defined my personality; I became numb to the mistreatment. I was persistently confronted with imprudent questions, to the point where I would gloss over my answers with, “Yeah, I’m Indian, but it’s not really a big deal. I was raised white.” Although I took most of the mistreatment, my sister also faced the same type of racism. This angered me the most. I was always protective of my sister, and I hated to see her harmed in any way. I was powerless to stop it, however. I couldn’t challenge the majority, and watching my sister suffer this sort of mistreatment was the hardest part of growing up.
I did grow up, however, and that’s when my life in prison began.
Prison is what you think it is. You’ve seen the movies, read the books, perhaps heard the stories firsthand. There are fights, stabbings, gangs, drugs, and there are also caring people willing to help inmates get their lives back on track.
My first day at prison, I won’t lie and say I wasn’t frightened, I was terrified. I was young. I was Indian. In prison, that’s all I was. I didn’t have any friends, there weren't a whole lot of people like me around. I was young, and smart. I liked sports and books, not crime and violence. Although I had broken the law, I was not a criminal, and the real criminals could tell I did not belong. My first day of prison was tough.
My second day of prison, I was no longer Indian.
It didn’t take long for a Native American to approach me in the penitentiary yard. I stood out, and people tend to gravitate to their own races when incarcerated. Before I had even arrived at the prison, the Native American inmates knew who I was.
The man who approached me was the quintessential Native—long, black hair, braids, tan skin, hostility that seemed to emanate from his aura like heat from a radiator. He was the personification of the stereotypical Indian, straight out of a Dances with Wolves casting call. His shoulders were wide. His physique showed the world that he regularly worked out. This man was all spirit, culture, and he was proud of who he was. Talking to him, I was intimidated. He was the very embodiment of the heritage I tried to eradicate from my own individuality. Standing next to him, I was not Indian, not even close, and he knew it. He could see it on my face, he could distinguish it in my spirit, he saw through me. And I was powerless to halt the character assault, the spiritual battering, the toll this man’s cultural inquisition was having on me.
The man asked me, “What kind of Indian are you?” I couldn’t answer. Up until this point, I had killed every semblance of Native American I had to offer the world. I couldn’t answer any of his questions; however, he invited me to participate in a “sweat lodge” ceremony, a Native American ritual of prayer, sacrifice, cleansing, and revitalization. I accepted the invitation apprehensively.
The day of the sweat lodge, I walked alone to the ceremonial grounds, designated to a secluded part of the prison. The Native inmates were already there, and I was late. I walked to my first “lodge,” under the gazes of some of the most judgmental looks I had ever received. The silence was heavy, the only sound being the crackling of the wood burning in the sacred fire. This was the heaviest scrutiny I had ever endured in my life. I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. These men made my small Iowa town’s judgement look insignificant, inconsequential. It didn’t take long for one of them to utter two words that would change everything: “White boy.” This time, I knew what this meant. In that environment, at that time, I was no longer Indian.
The fact that I could be anything but Indian never occurred to me. My whole life I attempted to be white; the moment that I actually became white, all I wanted was to be Indian. When one of the Natives called me “white boy,” the others laughed, and my fate was sealed. I wouldn’t fit in with these people either.
Although I was around ten other prisoners, all Native American, I stood alone. I stared into the fire, hands in my pockets, wishing that I could be anywhere else in the world. I couldn’t.
What could I do, what could I say? I belonged to a culture these men despised, a culture that celebrated the deaths of these men’s forefathers, a culture of pride, industrialization, and capitalism. A culture of greed, broken promises, and lies. My upbringing left me devoid of heritage, of pride in who I was. They knew me, the oppressor, the victimizing machine, greased with the blood of history, built on the sorrow of a people I did not know, but stood amongst. I was not Indian.
Despite the impediments of my cultural disposition, I was invited to participate in the sweat lodge. I was hesitant; I didn’t know what this was or what it would entail.
I was told to undress and wrap myself in a towel. All of us stood outside the lodge while an elder Native American filled the sacred pipe with tobacco we would smoke during the ceremony. I could hear him quietly singing a song, a remorseful toned prayer; I had no idea what the words meant, but they sounded beautiful. The old man’s song, mixed with the sweet smell of burning sage, sweetgrass, and pine needles had a calming effect on me. Although I was still nervous, the spiritual atmosphere of the sweat lodge was affecting me, and I could sense the purity, the natural, yet divine sacredness of the ceremony that was about to be performed.
I entered the lodge as humble as I had ever been. I sat next to people I did not know, who had judged me harshly minutes before. I stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact. I did not belong.
Herbs and sage were passed around the circle, acknowledging the four directions, the relationship . . . the fundamental, vital connections humans share with the North, South, East, and West.
Rocks that had cooked in the sacred fire were brought into the lodge and placed in a pit in the center. It was explained to me that the rocks were our “grandfathers,” that they were to be respected, as they would soon breathe the breath of life onto us.
The door to the sweat lodge was shut. My eyes adjusted to the flourishing darkness. The rocks' red radiance blanketed the interior of a scorching, searing heat, a soft red glaze that illuminated the pitch-black backdrop of the lodge.
Then, drum beat. Thwoosh, thwoosh, thwoosh. I felt this rudimentary pulse deep, deep down, in a place inside not often seen or heard. The rhythm awoke a feeling, a passionate sentiment I was not prepared to handle.
The old Native man started to sing. This was not the quiet, reserved reverberation that he sung before. This was a loud wail sung from his stomach. The man sang his passion, his voice dancing mightily in sync with the drum. Others joined in, making the lodge a cacophony of beautiful disharmony, men at their most primal state, in the sacred womb of their Mother, screeching their prayers exuberantly at their Creator.
The old Man splashed water onto the hot rocks, and a surge of hot steam astounded my senses. I panicked. The steam, the sacred breath of the Grandfathers was unbearable, unbreathable.
I couldn’t look weak. I endured, against all instinctual warning, screaming, pleading to seek refuge from the blistering heat.
I couldn’t open my eyes, it was too hot. I couldn’t focus on anything but the heat, overwhelming, overpowering. The old man sporadically splashed rounds of water onto the hot rocks, each time a searing blast of steam detonated throughout the lodge, engulfing my face, chest, and nose.
As the heat persisted, the song continued, the singing louder, more pronounced, the drum continued setting the beat of the prayer. Thwoosh, thwoosh, thwoosh.
After four songs were sung, the door to the lodge was opened for a breather. Three more rounds, four in all, were performed before the ceremony ended.
I had lasted, I endured. In the face of excruciating adversity, persistent peril, against my better discernment. I withstood dangerous heat and the judgement of my peers. I had taken a lifetime, but I had finally taken the first step in making peace with the person I thought I should be.
In a world determined to define me, it took years to find out who I was. In the Caucasian life I grew up in, I would always be a dirty Indian. In the Indian world I was placed in, I would always be a white boy. These taglines and cultural barriers would no longer stop me from being the man I knew myself to be.
I don’t know what the foregoing words mean to you. I know what they mean to me; I found the spirit these words signify. I define these words. These words delineate the intensity I have for survival in a world hell-bent against my existence. I am not a stereotype, although I am aptly able to embody the ethnicity, the relevance to historical significance these words epitomize.
In the years that followed my first sweat lodge, I became an advocate for all things Native American in the prisons I’ve been housed at. I enrolled in the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma, a tribe consisting of two tribes, The Otoe and The Missouria. I am Otoe, a tribe that is native to the land of present-day Iowa. I learned my culture, my heritage. I have never forgotten who I am, or how I was raised. I earned the respect of both Caucasian and Native people simply being myself, and knowing who I am. Although I still straddle both cultures, I prefer to think of myself more as a bridge, linking two sets of people together for a common good.
My struggles make me unique, and it’s my uniqueness that makes it easy to address the same types of issues young Native men face when entering the prison system.
It’s my culture these words exemplify, I refuse to breathe their last breath, enjoy their last ride, or walk silently on their death trail, alone in a world so against their very survival.
It’s this tenacity that makes us all human.