When you think about Native Americans, what do you think about? Do you imagine an “Indians and cowboys” scene from the 1800s that involves a lot of shouting and gunfire? Maybe you think of broken English and peace pipes in a smoke filled tipi? Whatever comes to mind, it probably isn’t a modern people that contribute to almost every part of this country we live in.
The most knowledge a majority of Americans have about Native peoples today can be summed up in just a few words: reservations, casinos, and poverty.
As a proud member of the Seminole Nation, the widespread ignorance of not just my people, but all Native peoples, frustrates me beyond words. They are the original histories of our nation, but are always glossed over in textbooks and media as insignificant and inconsequential, if they’re mentioned at all.
I want to set that record straight.
The rich history and heritage of my tribe is incredible—I consider it an honor to call myself a Seminole. We call ourselves “unconquerable” for a reason: we were never defeated in war by any of the European invaders who claimed Native land and lives for their own. By the 1860s, the Seminoles of Florida had already fought and won two wars with the US, yet we had been ripped in two. More than 3000 Seminoles were forcibly removed from their homelands to “Indian Territory” on the Trail of Tears after the Second Seminole War, resulting in two fractured Seminole Nations: one in Florida and the other in Oklahoma.
That is just one of numerous histories, as diverse as the indigenous nations themselves, and are just as extraordinary and heart-wrenching. Most scholars estimate that at the beginning of the 16th century there were 50 million or more Native Americans in North America. Colonization and the accompanying disease, warfare, and enslavement dropped that population by 80% or more.
That, by any measure, is absolute genocide. If Native peoples didn’t agree to adopt the cultural and social practices of their European invaders, their mass graves were dug, burying the families and cultures of the original American people.
This erasure of Native American cultures was a crime in itself, and played a large part in the stereotyping of Native peoples and the racism we continue to experience in the 21st century. If you believe racism is a thing of the past, listen to a Native youth being called “plains-ni**er” by a white adult in his community.
That is just a symptom of the systematic repression and injustice that keeps so many Native peoples in a poverty trap today. Many Native American communities are faced with conditions similar to third world countries. Running, clean water has never been available on some reservations.
The problem is that Natives today don’t really exist to other people. They imagine us as buckskin-clad, war paint-wearing, savages living in tipis back when the Wild West was still dangerous territory. We’re romanticized images, backed by the portrayal of our cultures as one homogeneous glob of sports mascots and “Indian warrior” Halloween costumes.
Natives are still here, and we’re everywhere in society. We are contemporary, not historical.
As a child, I was very lucky to have grown up in a middle-class family that still took our heritage seriously. Raised by the powerful, strong women of the Seminole Nation, I listened to beautiful hymns they sang in the Muskogee-Creek language. I danced at powwows in traditional dress and fell in love with the heartbeat of our dances—the drum—and how the men sang to it.
Stories have been passed down to me on how many people only survived the Trail of Tears because of pure faith. Songs and hymns constantly reverberated down the miles-long lines of men, women, and children to keep them alive.
Yet, I have never really known what it is like living life daily as a minority. Like many Americans, I’m multi-racial. While my mother is Seminole, my father is Caucasian, and I ended up with skin as light as his. I honestly look like I’ve been adopted into the family, especially when I’m at a reunion with members of my extended family.
Most of the time, no one will believe I’m even related to my own sister. When someone abroad asked me, “what are you?”, I got so excited that I looked something other than just white to them. So even with the heritage of a minority, I’ve grown up with white privilege. It’s been a hard thing to reconcile because I feel like I have no right to my identity and heritage. I am so connected to it, but it’s like I’m almost not allowed to fully immerse myself in it. I constantly feel like I have to justify and prove it. To pass some kind of test that in reality I’ve set for myself.
From this identity struggle, however, comes my ability to use my privilege as a young, middle-class white woman to help my brothers and sisters of color. This is my personal crusade: to educate the population at large of the importance of the people this nation was built on.
My time in Ireland solidified this mission as well as helping to ease my struggle with my identity. Up until then, my experience with my heritage had been purely American.
Everything in the States is based on skin color, especially racism and how life is experienced. We put our heritage in front of the word “American” to differentiate ourselves—African American, Japanese-American, Mexican-American. Other cultures find it strange, and some languages don’t even have a way to translate the meaning of our dual identities.
Here I am Native American, but I believe I have no claim to that title because of my white privilege. In Ireland, I am just American.
From what I observed, most of Ireland’s prejudices are based on nationality. It’s teasing accusations and stereotypes that they’ve gotten from Hollywood—who among us hasn’t joined in a good roast of the US before?
When I bring up my Native heritage with a non-American friend, they automatically accept my identity and are incredibly curious about the histories of Native peoples. I felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life there. No one asked me to quantify my Indian blood for them, as if that was the qualifying factor of truly being Native. I embraced the experience of feeling like I was allowed to be Native by those who surrounded me.
Coming back to the States has been difficult because I was removed from that accepting environment, that “clean slate,” to return to one in which I still feel like I need to justify myself every day. Even though roughly half of America’s Native population are multi-racial like I am, it still feels like a contest. And if you don’t score high enough then you can’t even talk about participating.
This forces questions that are constantly in the back of my mind. How can I be an advocate for my people when I don’t feel like I can speak out about it? How can I tell my ancestors’ stories without feeling as though I’m appropriating something precious? Somehow I can’t merge my existence with the stories of my people in America like I can in Ireland.
Even so, spending those months away from the American approach to ethnicity was enough to reset some of my thoughts on it. It gave me solid ground to stand on as I shake up everything I believe about my identity and how I advocate for my people. It’ll be quite the process, but it’s one I’m ready to really work on now.
I want to feel that acceptance again, not only from other people but from myself. In order to make a difference in the lives of those who need it, I need to know myself completely. That involves walking that line between owning my privilege and my heritage, and doing so confidently.
I always thought that going abroad would help me “find” myself, like it was going to be as simple as having a glass of wine with a good friend over dinner.
I had no idea just how thoroughly it would deconstruct me and leave me to try and puzzle out how I fit together, and if certain pieces even belong there in the first place.
So here I am, standing in square one of the game I’ve played with myself since the beginning of my identity struggle. Ireland has changed the rules. And for the first time I’m ready to win, even if it’s for myself.
Cara Douthitt is a student at the University of Tulsa and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler in Ireland at…