Ask and Listen: Identity in the Native Community

by Katie McCleary 

Where I grew up on the Crow Reservation in Montana our closest neighbors are the Northern Cheyenne. As is common for many neighbors, especially those competing for resources, Crows and Northern Cheyenne were enemies. The U.S. Government assumed this was a minor issue when they forced the communities into reservations next to each other. Today, as a result of being so geographically close, there are many people of mixed Northern Cheyenne and Crow ancestry. Although the hostility has subsided, many children of this mixed heritage continue to be teased by their peers from both communities.

Thankfully, at the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) the historical relations of student’s tribes have produced little more than lighthearted jokes. The NACC supports a diverse group of people who sometimes have nothing in common except the aboriginal continent of a variable number of their ancestors. Some students are closer related to those ancestors than others, some grew up in Native communities or on reservations, some have cultural knowledge, some have federal status—others do not. Our identities are inextricably intertwined by histories of colonialism but few recognize just how different.

Identity is an issue we shy away from at the NACC. Most of the time it is spoken amongst friends in hesitant tones during study breaks or it arises in late night conversations. We tell each other that we don’t want to discuss identity because we don’t want to offend each other. One of the most common fears is that one student will share something very deeply cultural, perhaps a tradition or belief, while another student will feel left out because they don’t understand or share in the experience. But by treading carefully around insecurities we are limiting ourselves.

If we don’t share our identities and histories, our peers are forced to rely on assumptions and information on paper. We use each other’s skin, hair, and eye color to gauge approximate distance from a Native ancestor. We rely upon information like blood quantum or enrollment to judge how culturally connected a person is or isn’t. We judge tribal affiliation based on whether we came from a Native community, city, rural area, reservation, or somewhere in between.

But as we’ve learned from the U.S. Government, assumptions don’t cut it. Assumptions are inaccurate and cause pain. They tell us as much about someone’s identity as a checked box on a Yale enrollment application.

Our identities are never what they at first may seem. But without healthy dialogue about identity no one would know this, at the NACC or on Yale campus more broadly. We must ask each other what our identity is and why. We must be unafraid to admit that our assumptions are most often wrong. It’s time to stop believing that identity is as simple as a percentage of blood that circulates within us or the shade of our skin. We can learn so much from each other if we’d only just ask and be willing to listen.

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