An Undocumented, Unofficial Indian

An Undocumented, Unofficial Indian

Indian Country Today Media Network

Chris Bethmann

I remember a friend saying to me once, “Chris, you’re not a real Indian. And if you are, you’re the whitest Indian I know.”

At the time, I shrugged it off, thinking to myself that he just didn’t understand the complex world of Native American identity. Hell, I didn’t even understand it myself then, and I still don’t. It’s a topic that keeps coming up again and again throughout my life in conversations with random people, with friends, and with myself. I know that I’m not alone among Native people in feeling like I have one foot in each canoe—the “red” and the “white”—but at points in my life, the feeling has been undeniable.

Ever since I can remember I have been an Indian. I was raised in a normal American suburban community outside of Rochester, New York, a city that lies in the heart of Indian country even though most people who live there don’t know it. New York State is home to the Haudenosaunee, the great People of the Longhouse who played an essential role in 18th Century diplomacy and are even said to have inspired American democracy just as much as the Greeks, Romans, and the Enlightenment thinkers—at least, that’s what my grandparents told me…

… My grandmother and her siblings weren’t raised as Indians. They were raised as normal American children who were baptized, went to school, and grew up during the heyday of post-war America. They knew very little about being Mohawk, but were still on the receiving end of racial slurs every now and then. They were all “half-breed” children who were taught to never acknowledge the Indian half. My grandmother went on to marry into a German family and had six of her own children who were baptized, went to school, and grew up as typical American children. The boarding school had accomplished its goal for two generations…

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