Today, for whatever reason, I stopped in a downtown Seattle coffee shop I’d never been to before. Immediately, in the corner, I saw an intelligent, strong, sleeves-rolled-up, almost professor or writer-looking kind of Indian man. Dang, I thought; Maybe I was supposed to come in here because of him?
I’ve been in Seattle for a year and a half now and I still haven’t gotten to have a single hugely satisfying multi-hour long conversation with another Native person. Partly, I guess I don’t know what’s wrong with me; partly, though, it’s just like What the fuck (read that however you’d liked to)?! My life is strange. Indians’ lives are strange. We are a continent of consciousness intersecting with a country-sized energy conglomeration posing as a culture that wants to colonize us and repurpose us and eat us. It’s weird times. It’s a weird time to be an indian.
Will I end up going over and introducing myself to this slightly older professional, laptop-working brother two tables down from me before I leave here? Maybe? Probably not? A few minutes ago he was joined by a white hip teenage girl in a dress and leggings who seems very familiar with him, like a daughter? We made eye contact as she passed by and I looked in her eyes for a recognition of my Indianness, some registering of awareness of the Native she’s with and me. There seemed to be something there but who knows? Like this Vietnam Vet used to always tell me at the golf course we both worked at, “It’s hard to say…”
A few weeks ago my brother told me, “Indians are afraid to talk. They’re afraid of being judged, of saying the wrong thing. We’re all so afraid.” This is true. Let’s establish this: Indians are forested with fear, with fears. It’s like some growth and it’s inside all of us. But you know what, to some extent, fuck it. I remember writing this essay on being Indian in my mid-twenties. I saw Indianness as like a radiant, emanating orb floating at the top of this hill. All Indians were positioned in different degrees of closeness to this orb, and their closeness described the depth to which the quality that was emanating out of that orb was inside their person and being. We were all trying to get close to that orb once again because it was our ancestors’ soul, the software that the hardware of us was built for, the software without which we were lost, weakened, deaf, offline, empty, fractured, sad, unhappy, incomplete. Learning the language, Sundance, hanging out with your people, knowing how to sing and pray, learning some of the endless stories; all of this pulled one closer to that orb on the hill, drew in more of that Indian quality, saturated one’s person and being more with real Indianness and your ancestors’ soul/consciousness. This was the image that came to me then. I understood/still understand so little. This Native brother came into my gas station, Ben Wounded Arrow, and I told him about it. “You know,” he told me, “for the longest time I wasn’t even sure you were Indian, kola. I kind of thought that maybe you were just a real tanned hippie.” My feelings got hurt and then they got unhurt. What the fuck, you know?
I think the point I’m getting to is that there are a lot of different kinds of Indians; so many that maybe we should let go of the idea that we personally can ever know who’s Indian or who’s Indian enough right away or even just from the get-go at all. Identity is a big issue. That essay from my mid-twenties was about me trying to figure out Indian identity. It was made up of our closeness or lack thereof, to the so-called orb, to that ancestral essence, and all of the stories in our personal biography were basically from one perspective a description of our relationship to that orb, to that essence, and therein lied the complicated story of our Native identity, a thing that more often than not is a bundle with many layers and secondary bundles inside of it that we are missing parts of or have never figured out how to open or keep hidden or are still learning how to touch or handle or share or speak of; that bundle, our identity, has the DNA of our whole people inside of it; it’s big, alive, complicated, coursing with both the ancient and recent history of our people, steaming constantly with the sacred life that our ancestors spent their whole lives loving and caring for and serving and praying to and feeding and peering into the mystery of; and it’s in every Indian alive, every one you’ve ever met, that you can imagine, whether they’re slurring, drunk, and dark-skinned on the street, shy and half white in the city, adopted and Christian, spiritual or not, long haired or short haired, mute or long-winded, informed or not so much, angry and exclusive or humble and inclusive, a Sundancer or someone who’s never ever prayed before; this Indian identity bundle with the DNA of our entire people’s being is inside of every Indian, no matter how they look or what they do or what they know or what they don’t; we’re forested by fear, yes, but lets also establish this: the bundle of everything is inside of every last one of us; and that’s nothing to sneeze at! Haha? Haha.
We don’t want to say the wrong thing or write the wrong thing because we’re afraid of making a mistake that would put us on the wrong side of the line of what’s currently being held up by any number of variously influential people as the body of stuff that defines whether you’re really Indian or not. I think I kind of want to say fuck that too. “Don’t be afraid to be a different kind of Indian,” Sitting Bull said in ceremony. Where did this situation come from where we’re all judging each other on whether we’re Indian enough or not? What are the benefits of this project? Are there better projects or at least a better version of this project? I think our identities were stolen from us like our land was stolen from us and the trauma of that has us somewhat stuck in a cycle-repeating scenario of critically accusing others of being less authentic than ourselves because the grief of what we’ve lost is so immense that in this day and age one of the greatest offenses out there is for someone to lay claim to being Indian when they’re really not because they don’t live with the soul/family/community/tribe/people-killing grief that is now the true identifying source of this iteration of our Indian identity; “HOW DARE THEY?” I hear inside this situation of out-of-control, dark side (I’m talking the fucked up side of this issue specifically) identity policing; “How dare they do this to us? How dare they do this to me? How dare they?”; the trauma of what was taken from us echoes into the present and screams its pain into this form of seeing the great soul-killing THIEF everywhere, including in our brothers and sisters who don’t measure up or match up to the tiny, shifting little body of stuff we carry in our minds and hearts and use to define who really is and who really isn’t Indian; we forget that there are more variations on the authentic Indian than we know, that that sacred bundle within has its own mysterious ways to it that we should learn to honor and read rather than misapprehend or not see at all; we miss the whole point of how tearing each other down because we’re not appropriately Indian like so and so tells us Indians should be is actually a virus set into motion by colonization to program us into picking at each other, remaining divided, staying clouded, buying into bullshit non-Indian-in-origin measurement systems, rather than slowly, steadily, thoughtfully, prayerfully learning to culture within ourselves that sense and deep unifying vision that allows us to see that common bundle buried in all regardless of their appearance or background, that common bundle that is always accompanied by ancestors, who are the real authorities on such matters, who, as Grampa Sammy has told us, recognize and love their descendants as much as any grandparent loves their dearest grandchild whether they are full-blooded or whether they just got a single tiny dew drop of that blood; Grampa Sammy says the ancestors love us dearly, regardless of blood-quantum, regardless of how successful or unsuccessful we are at ‘being Indian’; we all got that bundle inside of us and the ancestors, blood-tied to us, the blood of their bodies and souls running in our bodies and souls, love us all, fiercely and dearly and forever-
My brother encourages me to write even though I too worry half the time about how some of my stuff will be perceived or received. When texting about this, he said, “We need to write our own story, brother. We can’t just live in the story shaped by the forces that have hurt us. We need to generate the story we want to live from deep within, from that place that’s so deep within that the forces against us could never touch it. We need to go there, get the story of things, and then reemerge and live that story, share that story. A story of our own. Not of their making. But of ours. A new story of our own making that can decisively change everything.” (My brother’s a lot smarter than me so that’s my Robin to his Batman paraphrase.) I worry about being Indian enough to write about our people and our stuff and then my brother tells me to keep going so I keep writing. I believe in the story he speaks of, the story that comes from a realm deeper than any of colonization’s technologies have the capacity or reach to penetrate, from the realm our ancestors dwell in, from a time beyond that the right kind of pulsing, deep-seeing, remembrance-filled story could powerfully, inspiringly guide us to as a people and even, mysteriously, as a species. I feel the fear but I also feel the bundle. The story we’ve been told and the story that the deepest part of us is dancing and praying to tell. Maybe that city Indian two tables down knows what’s up. Maybe his light-skinned daughter does. There’s only one way to find out: I guess I’m going to have to let go of my nervousness about making a mistake in my initial presentation of myself as one Native seeing another Native across the coffee shop and just wanting to come over and say hey and maybe talk some. I guess I’m just going to have to err on the side of the goodness and respect and hospitality that all Natives have coloring their fundamental soul parts and go over there and trust that it’ll be cool and that he’s probably been noticing me this whole time and curious and wondering what’s up with me and what’s my story too. I guess I’m just going to have to set aside my issues and go say hi.
Cliff Taylor is a writer, a poet, a speaker, and an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a non-fiction book about the little people and recently completed a memoir, Special Dogs, about coming-of-age in Nebraska. A year ago he moved to Seattle. He’s waiting to see what happens next. Contact Cliff @ firstname.lastname@example.org