“What Are You?” This is the question I’ve heard most of my adult life.
I will never forget it really sinking in when I was 22-years-old onsite doing a sales pitch with a local restaurant owner. After making my pitch, he asked, “So are you part Asian? What are you?” I sat for a moment and considered asking him if that would make him want to buy.
Instead, I explained that no, I’m actually a Native American, and a member of the Eastern Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma. I’ve got several other parts to my heritage too. But, I often find that folks wonder what box to put me into.
And, I’ve found it change over time to the most recent, “So, is it rude or can I ask you what you are?”
This most recent question came after a very busy four days chaperoning our son’s High School Music program trip to perform at Disneyland. The person asking was a student, and I didn’t mind his asking. Once I told him the my mix of heritage and the question not being that uncommon, we commiserated as he was part Filipino and often people didn’t recognize that in him, but wondered what he was too.
As we approach Indigenous People’s Day, I wanted to share a little of my own story. You see, this question of my race has inspired me to learn more about both my heritage and our tribal history.
While I cannot speak to the experience of others, I can share my own. My tribe survives and grows because we do not have something called a Blood Quantum. This is more of a controversial topic. Basically, it means that you have to have a certain amount of Native Blood to qualify as a member of a tribe. If we did have it, my children’s generation would be the last to qualify.
I’m grateful for my tribe and their leadership chose to not use this practice. From my perspective, this ensures our tribe and our traditions can live on - if we all got “too white” then it would die off and fade into the pages of history.
On the personal experience side, I have also been called, “too white” and “ugly” for not looking how someone else expects me to look. I don’t take any of these opinions to heart because I know who I am, and feel like the people who really matter in my life value me for me - not for how many people think I look pretty.
As I have been able to attend my tribal Pow-wow and learn more about my own tribe, I am grateful that a part of who I am, that who my ancestors were can live on. And that’s what I think Indigenous People’s Day is for - to recognize whose land we live on and appreciate rather than erase them.
My tribe continues to inspire me. One quote I saw during my visit to Pow-wow last month was hanging above a wall of ancestor photos. It was a project to display all those who were registered on the 1937-1938 Indian Census Roll. And, it was so powerful to see my Grandfather, his siblings and his Father’s portraits on display. Above them, this quote: “A Single Twig Breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong,” Tecumseh.
You can interpret this quote many ways. If you learn more about Tecumseh, and his work to unite tribes against colonization of the land, it makes a powerful stance. Today, I think it points to the importance of us being together, showing up and sharing how we are still here.
You may wonder: why has Holli taken the time to share this instead of focusing her post on business and branding photography?
My answer is because I continue to learn how important it is to share who we are, and not be afraid if people can’t fit us into a box. It also shares more than I do in my About/Info page of why I named this business, Native Light Photography.
Photo on this post was created while visiting the American Art Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. It shows our children looking onto a sculpture of Tecumseh, one of our most famous Eastern Shawnee ancestors.