October 14 is Indigenous People’s Day, a commemoration of native people pushed and publicized by those who would replace the celebration of noted genocide-enthusiast Christopher Columbus with an appreciation of the cultures that flourished on this continent before smallpox and conquest. And this year, when Indigenous People’s Day arrives, for the first time in my life I will not celebrate as a Native American. Because, for the first time, I’m not one.
To be fair, I never was. But that’s not what I was told as a child and that’s not what I came to believe as an adult. The story passed around at nearly every family gathering was that my great grandmother was half Native American. She married a white man and gave birth to my grandfather in Leadville, Colorado. He was later adopted by another man with the last name of Coleman. This turns out to be not-quite-right.
The circumstances of my grandfather’s birth are murky at best, which always made my family’s purported native heritage plausible — and lent it a certain gravitas. It was a romantic story made doubly so by the colonial notion that American Indians were somehow mysterious as well. When members of my family told the tale, there was a sense of exotic mystery around my great grandmother and the men she was caught between. We did not know her tribe, we assumed because she’s been torn from it. All we had was a 100-year-old sepia stained photograph of my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandmother. One-sits, the other stands. They wear Victorian garb. Their hair is jet black and their faces are tanned. They wear inscrutable, patient expressions.
“She just looks like an Indian,” my father would say. He’d say the same thing about my grandfather. “Put a head-dress on him and he’d look like a chief.”
That was, apparently, all the proof we needed. Hearsay, some faded photographs, and racist observations about the size and shape of my grandfather’s nose. As a child, it was the only proof I demanded. And I internalized the story, at least in part because it made me feel special.
Then, late in 2018, my cousin bought a DNA home testing kit. You know where this is going. The results showed no Native American ancestry. None. Zip. Tests performed on other family members confirmed the result. It seems the story we’d passed around was just that, a story.
I’m sure for many of my family members this revelation was little more than an interesting bit of trivia. But the news hit me hard. I cascaded through a series of emotions: incredulity, sadness, anger and finally, shame. Because I had lived my life attached to a heritage that wasn’t mine. And I’d given that same story to my kids. It’s not that I was going to pow wows, or trying to affiliate myself with a tribe for a break in tuition or casino money. I just liked having Native American heritage.
When I was a child, it suited me because it was cool. When I got older, it suited my sense of otherness.
When I was in my twenties, I was young, angry and cynical, particularly when it came to the government and the American dream. In reality, I had no reason to be angry. I was a young white dude from whom doors would open whether I wanted them to or not. But through the belief that I was part of a Native American lineage, I had an excuse to be angry for what the government had done to my people. I could get pissed for the opportunities that my great-grandmother lost and the racism she surely endured. I would read books by Native author Sherman Alexie and feel a sense of connection in his tales about kids on the reservation. I would watch Robert Redford’s documentary Incident at Oglala about the American Indian Movement and the conviction of Leonard Peltier, and I would steam at the injustice of the government — not because it was injustice, but because I believed I had a stake in it.
It’s easy to be an angry young man if you have Native blood. I borrowed that anger like a cup of sugar.
As I grew older and my anger subsided, I liked the story of my heritage because it gave me a connection to a culture. Not any real Native culture, but one of my own fantastical imaginings, full of great spirits and nature fetishism. I could be an environmentalist because it was easier when my concern was over the land of my ancestors. I had agency over the woods. I could walk on a trail and thrill at my ancestors whispering in my ears.
I wanted to be a storyteller. And if I knew anything for sure it was that Native Americans were great storytellers. It was all in my blood. It was part of my heritage.
And when my children were born, I liked the story because, through my side of the family, it gave them roots. In reality, the documented and irrefutable truth of my heritage is that I am mostly Swedish. My grandmother was full Swede and she carried that legacy with her. But that didn’t mean anything to my children. How could I teach them about Sweden, a place I’d never been and too far away for us to visit? It was easier and better to tell them about a heritage that led them directly back to the soil on which they were born — a place they had ties to before any settlers arrived.
Here in my forties with half of my life already lived, I’m not particularly proud of any of this. And I’m deeply aware of the hypocrisy of the whole thing. I fed off a story that wasn’t mine — and, frankly, wouldn’t have really been mine even if there was a drop of blood. I colonized a heritage. What’s particularly silly is that I lost sight of the documented tales of hardship, daring and survival that were actually true. My family lived on the ragged edge of civilization at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. There was plenty to celebrate and understand. Thankfully, there still is.
But maybe it’s best not to mythologize at all. Those people are me, but they also aren’t. In many senses, the people I am related to are just a bunch of dead strangers. Some with good and mysterious stories, and some with run-of-the-mill human stories of growth, work, decline, and death.
Yes, that’s a less appealing narrative, but maybe “my people” aren’t really my people at all. What if I’m just American — with all the ugliness and hope and confusion that identity carries. All the more reason to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. All the more reason to talk to my boys about it. It’s not my role to bemoan the tragedies of the past, but to ensure that the next generation does better.