At 14 years old my mom secured a scholarship for me to attend a private school in an affluent neighborhood. Being Alaska Native probably helped secure that opportunity. Whatever it was, it was also an opportunity I would have never have had otherwise; we certainly couldn’t afford it. Tuition for my 8th grade year cost the same as a UW undergraduate’s tuition for that same year. Other kids were driven to school in BMW’s and Mercedes.
It took 2 buses and over an hour each way to get there. I had always had free lunch before that, because we had qualified for state assistance programs. When I got through the lunch line the first day and they asked for money I didn’t have any and the lunch lady quickly said “it’s ok, we’ll put it on your account”… only when I got home my mom explained that an account was still something she had to pay for and we couldn’t afford it.
That first day I didn’t know they had a mid-morning break about 10:15am. They all ran out of class, dumped their bags in a pile on the lawn and grabbed a snack in the cafeteria. I looked around and asked who was watching their bags and they looked at me funny. Half-way through saying it I trailed off as I asked “you’re not worried that someone will steal your bag?”. Who would steal bags at a private school filled with kids who had never known want? It never occurred to them because no one they knew had ever been remotely close to poor.
People asked me why I had a bad attitude, but I couldn’t relate with them. I didn’t have a dad, we didn’t own a house, and we rode public transportation. I had never felt as safe and secure as these people did everyday. I had grown up in a world where nothing was like this, and even that place was a cake walk compared to metropolitan inner cities. But it wasn’t just poverty that separated me from them, it was my cultural heritage.
Sometimes I really hated being Alaskan Native. It is such a pain in the ass to explain. As much as I deeply and fully respect that being black is something no one can hide or take off, looking white can make things very difficult for me. I’ve been told I am not Native because I don’t look brown, but I’ve come to expect that over the years. The aggravating part is explaining myself every time my cultural heritage comes up. A black person doesn’t have to explain blackness to the outsider, and if they’re light skinned enough they may have to say they’re black, but that definition itself is typically good enough.
When I say I’m Native it gets confusing right off the bat. I’ve tried starting with “Alaskan Native” but it doesn’t register and they ask me to repeat myself. I start with Native American and they immediately assume they know what I mean, and for them that includes buffalo and tipis. So then I have to explain my people came from Alaska, and now they’re sure they’ve got it. Igloos and dog sleds and snow as far as the eye can see! Then I explain no, my tribe’s not from there either, we’re from the coast and our land overlooks the sea.
So then they realize they don’t know much about me, and are by then either fascinated or bored stiff. At bored stiff I’m relieved because now I can stop talking, but not so much with the other way around. When they’re fascinated I must then go on to give them some context to the people I’ve named and attempted to describe. Luckily I live in a place quite similar in terms of environment, enough to draw some comparisons.
But then I have to battle the age-old examples of persistent stereotypes. The fact that I’m Native does not give me any more connection to Mother Earth than white people should feel. Even if it did, they all seem to think that I worship the Earth as a personified deity. Just because I have Native ancestry does not mean I can see spirits in trees. The image people have doesn’t add up and I hate to be the one to disillusion them. But it comes with the territory of having informed them of my cultural identity.
They sometimes think I have access to mysterious sources of income, which is based on rumors of a stipend provided by the state of Alaska, which is partially true, but other residents also get compensated because it’s not easy to make money in the state, there is almost no business development all told there. In both cases it is more of a token as it is not enough to really supplement living costs. My tribe has no casinos, and largely our holdings make no money; we are trying to maintain our ancestral lands which costs more than earning the tribe any income.
Some people assume that I know everything about every tribe in all of North America. And that we’re all related, which I just can’t fathom. Because my family wanted me to be a world citizen they taught me about many other cultures – including those of other continents as well as the denizens of our own. So although I know more than most, its just as feasible, likely, and reasonable that whites or blacks or latinos or asians would know as much as I would about tribes in the southwest, or the northeast, or anywhere else. They are nothing like my tribe, any more than any other cultural group is.
Invariably, teachers found out that I’m Native and that’s when it really got hairy. I knew that look when their eyes lit up, almost like seeing dollar signs. But it wasn’t greed that motivated them, they just wanted a free lesson for the class. They would ask me to make some sort of presentation or answer questions or get interviewed. At quite a young age I was asked my take on race relations and modernization. How crazy is it to be asked your opinion when you’re still too young to have formed one? They seemed to want some social treatise like I knew politics and current events at 12 years old. I sat on panels next to black and brown kids looking just as uncomfortable as they were.
And yet we actually had stored up a fair amount of experiences at our tender young age. Many times over I did have something to say in interviews, on panels, with group discussions or in presentations. Because I wasn’t “normal”, I was Native American. I got used to working with adults at an early age, helping develop material for curricula and rehearsing speeches or demonstrations. I was placed in front of classes or a whole school sometimes, or mixed audiences at public events.
The visions of hippies and freedom seekers of the ’60’s and 70’s was refined as they matured, had children to raise and wanted a lasting way to make the world the beautifully free and fair world they dreamed of. They pumped their dreams and hopes into their offspring, reshaping the world in a peaceful, respectful vision. It was great to be a part of these monumental changes to society and social interactions. But we had never experienced much real racism or bigotry in my little bubble and all of my experience and opinions were theoretical; it was in principle. I understood these things as they had been taught to me and my experience was limited to a layer away from the social ills my elders wished to combat.
I had essentially grown up in the world my elders had dreamed of for me, and as such participating in a change that had been made before my time was a little confusing. I hadn’t done any real combat; I was the product of those who had. My struggle was being dragged from meeting to event to convention to retreat, workshops and panels and meet-and-greets.
As the model of the evolved Native American, I am urban, know my heritage, and have participated in what feels like everything. I showed wisdom, moderation and poise on my public face before I hit puberty. I was an educator and facilitator, a volunteer coordinator.
It’s great that I learned all kinds of skills and had all kinds of experiences. It’s been a difficult journey to realize that this kaleidoscopic world I walked in was one made from combined efforts. Stepping outside of that climate and culture is a shift that bears no mention. The rest of the world lives in a dream of its own creation. If you don’t go to those seminars, panels, conventions, or meetings you don’t necessarily see the world of multi-cultural harmony.
This planet is full of people who float on the currents of popular culture, ancient culture, and everything in-between. Living life in the slivers where the circles in venn diagrams meet, walking in two worlds or three… it may seem to be a boon to me, but it turns out to be too much to ask of most anybody.