Because her skin is fair and slightly freckled, she’s used to people telling her she doesn’t look Native American. But at least in person she can buffer challenge with her darkly dyed hair and Native American jewelry. She can pull her tribal identification card from her wallet and hand it over for inspection. So the letter she receives, asking her to prove she’s a certain percentage Native American, seems to undo what progress she feels she’s made through her appearance. It hurts more than the typical eyebrow raise, guffaw, or laugh.
They want information from her Certificate Degree of Indian Blood—a card issued by the Federal Government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs showing what “percentage” Native American a person is. She does not have this; she’s never needed it. The Cherokee Nation issues only tribal identification cards. To them, if you have any Cherokee blood, if you have been granted citizenship status for several reasons, (the most politically complex being the tribal status of the Cherokee freemen—descendants of slaves Cherokee once owned), then you are Cherokee.
In drafting her fellowship application, she feels she’s being erased all over again, this time by the institution she hopes to make her home, a program she applied to, in part, because they have a Cherokee professor; for the first time in her academic career, she wouldn’t be the only Native American in the department.
She wants to write, you can’t imagine what it feels like to be doubly outsider, to be the only one, all the time, to answer for your entire culture because you’re the only one people can ask questions of. Instead, she writes what she thinks is a bold, but appropriate letter. She tells them that by qualifying someone based on “how Indian” they are, over time the action will erode the candidate base so that people like her—who are Native American—will not qualify for assistance at all. She also points out that the Certificate Degree of Indian Blood that determines blood quantum is calculated from the Dawes Rolls, which have not been changed since 1914. She tries to explain to them, as diplomatically as she can, that it was also common to lie when registering for the Dawes Rolls—to say you were less Native American than you were—because for those whose parents had to walk the Trail of Tears, they feared that if they were “too Indian” they would be forced onto a reservation.
So what is it? she wants to write. First, we were too Native American, and now I’m not Native American enough. When, and where, can I live and just be?
She writes this essay in third person because she hopes if she erases the author, what she says might be heard better by those who don’t understand—that the third person might make the essay palatable. She thinks nonfiction should make the writer identifiable and original, but because she does not look Native American, because she’s passed for so much of her life, she’s heard what people may not otherwise say around her: minorities are so angry.
She writes this essay in third person because saying she instead of I embodies some of the double-ness she feels. But there is also no double-ness, because to be both is to be neither.
She writes this essay in third person because in the act of writing, she remembers a troubling past when she was not both, but only one. She writes this essay in third person because it is a way of not just collapsing a gap between the content and the reader, who may not respond well to her minority anger, but also because she wishes to create a larger gap between her two selves.
She tells her friend, who is another minority writer, about her troublesome recovery of memory. She tells her friend about how she was once a Nez Perce Indian Princess. She tells her friend that she used to be without knowledge of individual tribes and culture. She tells her friend money is politics, and when you ask people for money, you don’t point out why you may not feel entitled to it.
As a child in Texas, she wanted to be an Indian; she did not know she shouldn’t this term, and no one told her not to.
The first Indian she met was Charlie Eagle Plume, who owned a “trading post” outside Estes Park, Colorado where her family vacationed every year. The store was filled with glass cases displaying silver, red, and blue jewelry. There were drawings and paintings—some framed and some not—of Indians—some stoic and others wild—in headdresses on horses. Braided baskets held arrowheads and she once convinced her mother to buy her a colorful beaded necklace with a small child wrapped in a felt cradleboard hanging like a charm. But her most prized possession was the eagle feather given to her by Charlie Eagle Plume himself.
She would tuck this eagle feather into the waistband of her pants when she and her brother played Cowboys and Indians with the other neighborhood kids, cap guns from the grocery store popping until they ran out of ammo. She was enamored with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a woman of European descendent kidnapped by Comanche, who refused to be “re-civilized” and ran back to her Indian family time and time again. She ogled the Kachina dolls in the jewelry store near her home: their dances caught mid-pose, elaborate headdresses and masks. She had a dreamcatcher in her bedroom window, three dark beads in the spider-web of its string.
She mixed up all the Indian cultures. She thought everyone scalped their enemies on the plains, that everyone wore headdresses and rode horses and worshipped the earth and lived in teepees, and that the Indian man made of wood and holding a cigar box outside the river-rafting office was an authentic representation. She did not know she was Indian already, Cherokee by blood, her family one of the founding families of the Cherokee Nation.
Her dad enrolled her and her brother in a YMCA youth program that promoted bonding between fathers and their children: the Indian Princes and Indian Princesses. Step one was choosing an Indian name. Her brother chose Bear Claw but would go down in the book as Bear Clam, the tiny leather disk he was supposed to print his name on reflecting a child’s misunderstanding of letters: W and M looking the same, just facing different directions. She swore at her first meeting, the naming ceremony, she wouldn’t make this mistake.
And when she got to that first meeting, all the girls and men gathered in the backyard around a pond. The girl whose family hosted this first meeting had a sprawling two-story house, a pond and a pool, and the girl didn’t hesitate to make it known that her father was the chief—the man in charge. At the meeting, this girl’s father beat a drum to quiet the rowdy princesses-to-be. The girls sat cross-legged in a circle and drew straws to determine the order they would pick their Indian names. Our main character got first choice, and chose Tiger Lily, the name everyone was gunning for, the Indian in Disney’s Peter Pan. Tiger Lily doesn’t remember what her father chose because the girl who owned the house was angry that she didn’t get to choose the name she wanted and rallied the other girls around her. For the rest of the night no one would talk to Tiger Lily.
She still doesn’t know what there is about children and meanness and why at times they are so eager to embrace it. Mayhap children are inclined to experiment with it: a lack of knowing social nuance, the desire to have what you want without understanding economics or even fairness, an immature narcissism. She thinks about this when she remembers how she cried that night after the first meeting. Her dad tried to make her feel better by explaining that some Indians were war-like people; the girls were really just being more Indian by being mean. And at six, she took what her dad said to heart; now, she feels (hopes?) it must have been a joke she didn’t catch.
As an adult she bristles at the memories of her youth: not just the meanness of children but the meanness of the Indian Princesses. Inadvertent or not, it set the girls up to think all Indians were the same; it erased and conflated entire cultures.
When she visits the program’s website now she reads that the program has been re-named Adventure Princesses. She scrolls the website’s page: “The YMCA’s commitment to being a caring, honest, respectful, and responsible organization, and an evolving cultural sensitivity of Native American history prompted YMCAs across the country to re-evaluate their parent/child programs.”
She thinks it would have been nice if things had changed before, or even when, she was little.
She also wishes her mom, from whom she gets her Cherokee heritage, had said something to her dad about how insensitive the program was. She wishes when she heard arguing in their bedroom at night that they were fighting about this: cultural appropriation (or mis-approproation). She wishes either of them had been willing to—instead of saying it’s a good way to bond—say that there are other ways to bond. Apparently, her life is made of wishes.
Every year there was a large campout where tribes from all over the surrounding areas gathered to have a powwow. Girls slept in one cabin, fathers another. They went to events like wild animal lectures, where Tiger Lily let a tarantula walk on her arm (she doesn’t remember this; now she is terrified of spiders). She also ran through meadows and over large, low rocks. She ate in a mess hall with all the other tribes and she wondered why everyone was getting along. Shouldn’t all the tribes be fighting?
She did Indian things like shoot bows and arrows, sew her own tan-colored open-front vest (they came in a bag, already with punched holes and virtually assembled), complete tasks for brightly dyed feathers, and attempt to prove her Indian prowess by getting patches for hiking, helping to prepare snacks, and memorizing the organization’s goals. She did cheap bead work activities and proudly wore her thunderbird necklace, even though she had no clue if the thunderbird was associated with the Nez Perce, her assigned tribe. She didn’t even know her tribe never lived in Texas.
One night everyone was gathered around the campfire and roasting marshmallows, waiting for the shaman to make his rounds. When he appeared, he was in full costume: suede-fringed pants, suede-fringed jerkin, a staff lined with feathers, a feathered headdress, and a book. When he opened it, the pages ignited into fire—he said it contained information about where gold was hidden, but that wasn’t for the girls to know. They’d have to find it themselves.
The fathers turned the girls loose with flashlights, little squaws in the dark, searching under leaves, in dirt, at the base of trees. When the chief’s daughter—the one who alienated the girl that first day—found gold, Tiger Lily wanted it. She remembered how the other girl had wronged her, and she hated her for it. The chief’s daughter showed Tiger Lily the gold, shining in a beam of light. In her hand it was heavy. It was unfair that the girl with the large house and all the things also now had gold. She didn’t deserve it.
Each of the other princesses hoped to find gold for herself, but none could be uncovered. Tiger Lily acted like everything was okay. She acted like she wasn’t angry. She said, let’s play Indians, even though she already was one.
She said, let’s catch a rabbit, and her and the other girls fashioned a useless snare out of branches. They waited for their rabbit and as they did Tiger Lily told stories she made up about Indians fighting: war stories full of horses and gun fights and tomahawks. When the rabbit never showed she blamed it on the rich girl—the girl with the gold—and said it was because she’d already killed it.
Sometimes it is easy for children to believe their own fantasies, and because of this, the other girls blamed the chief’s daughter too. Or perhaps it was because they were also jealous—either way, in the dark, the girls formed a circle around the chief’s daughter, their flashlights bright and pale on her face. They accused her of killing the rabbit without them, and then Tiger Lily accused her of not being Indian. They all yelled at the chief’s daughter, and then they chased her. She fled back to the safety of the fathers, crying, and when Tiger Lily arrived at the campfire she knew she’d be in trouble. And she was.
All the girls were appropriately chastised, but the lectures were not so much about being cruel, or where cruelness stems from, as they were about the foolishness of the particular brand of cruelness the girls exhibited. Even then their fathers got it wrong, misunderstood the lesson the girls should have learned. The fathers did not sit the girls down and talk about envy or bullying. They sat the girls down and explained that it wasn’t real gold anyway; it was fool’s gold: either a mineral that looked like gold or worse, some spray painted rock.
Tiger Lily didn’t know what was worse: that she had been tricked about the gold—the value worth nothing at all—or that she didn’t feel any shame in what she’d done, even after she knew someone had been hurt.
So she apologized—she was forced to—but she didn’t really mean it. Later, when the other girl’s father—the chief—lit a cigar, she told him smoking was bad. He told her that she was a child and to mind her own business. She hated him too then, and the next year she decided not to be an Indian Princess anymore.
But even after she quit the Indian Princesses, Tiger Lily wore her tribal headband—a thick band of leather across her forehead. She stuck Charlie Eagle Plume’s feather in it. She was still a princess, just not a Nez Perce princess. She played Indian for a few more months—had her one girl tribe, watched Peter Pan again and again, wore her beaded moccasins around the house, silently stalking invisible prey with her rubber tomahawk.
For a time this made her meaner—alone, fending for herself, having no one who was also Indian. She picked on the family Mastiff—pulled his tail and tried to ride him around the house like a horse. She threw her tomahawk at birds in the backyard. When her dad brought home doves from his hunting trip, she plucked out their feathers and kept them in a small, wooden box, pretending she had shot them herself.
Her mom would not let her keep the feathers, afraid they harbored microbes and mites. When she fought with her mom about it, stomping her feet and screaming about how she needed feathers for her headdress, her mother said, this is not how a princess would behave.
Now that she is older she is still angry. She is angry with herself for having taken so long to research her Cherokee heritage.
One day she calls her brother and asks if he’ll learn Cherokee with her. She tells him she’s writing an essay about the Indian Princesses, and the conversation leads to Charlie Eagle Plume. Her brother laughs and says, “Those eagle feathers he gave us were turkey feathers, remember?”
But she doesn’t remember. Of course, they weren’t real eagle feathers (now she knows about protective status and poaching), but what they really were didn’t matter as much as what she thought they were.
She thinks back to Charlie Eagle Plume and that feather she used to have. She remembers how he would show her clay pots and geode rocks. She remembers how he would tell her stories. She does not remember what these stories were, but she remembers the feeling of knowing they were hers too. She realizes she does not know what tribe Charlie Eagle Plume came from, and since this is the era of the internet, she searches for him.
She finds out that he died many years ago, and she uncovers a transcript of a speech commemorating him, from September 1992. In it, Hank Pederson says, “All the kids under eight got a feather, because everyone under eight was an Indian. Now if you happened to be an Indian child and came to see him, you were a double Indian. And if you were a boy or a girl over eight, you always get an arrowhead…. Charles, in traveling all over the United States from 1933 until 1981, had certain phrases that he constantly would weave into all of his talks. He didn’t talk about Indians. He talked about love. He didn’t talk about white people, red people, brown people. He talked about civilization of which we all are a part.”
She wishes she could remember these stories about love, about how colors don’t matter. Perhaps, if the stories had stuck, she wouldn’t have been so cruel to that girl with the gold. Perhaps if she had more lessons about love, she would have been nicer too.
This is pleasant to think about, but as an adult she also knows that colors do matter. They matter a lot to the people who are persecuted because of who they are, the color of their skin, and that to talk about one people united across color by love is to erase, or ignore, the trauma and hardships of marginalized groups.
And then she finds another article. In “Charlie Eagle Plume: Man of Mystery” she learns the following: “Charlie Eagle Plume liked to tell stories to tourists. In one of his tales, he claimed to have arrived in Estes Park by horseback, from a Blackfoot Indian reservation in Montana…. According to well-documented genealogical research, Eagle Plume wasn’t from Montana at all. Instead, he was born in Leadville with the name Charles F. Burkhardt. His father, Fred Burkhardt, was German and worked as a butcher. Eagle Plume acknowledged he was half-German but claimed Native American heritage through his mother, Ella May McGahren. Census records, however, reveal that Ella May’s father was Irish and her mother was born and raised in Illinois by parents from Ohio.”
She doesn’t know how to feel about this. She knows that blood ties are tenuous—records don’t necessarily reflect history’s truth—but she can’t help but feel she’s been duped, that Charlie Eagle Plume wasn’t Native American at all, and that he, like her as a child, masqueraded as an Indian.
The article says that he “established the Charles Eagle Plume Memorial Scholarship Fund to pay for the college education of Native American students. He also developed a nonprofit foundation for his art collection, stipulating that if it ever was sold, the proceeds would go toward the students’ educations.”
When she receives news that she has indeed been granted the minority fellowship, she doesn’t really feel anything at first—not even relief what with it, she will be financially independent for the first time in her life.
The next day, she feels angry. She put a great deal of thought and care into that letter she wrote to support her application, and though she didn’t know it at the time, she was hoping something would come of it: an admission that their evaluative criteria needed to be amended, a recognition that the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ CDIB card is terribly and unequivocally political for the wrong reasons, anything to signal to her that the content of the letter would change thinking, and therefore, might change action.
She knows social change is always a long time coming; still, she thinks this is a terrible way to come full circle.
She understands now that there were no Indian Princesses—that the word princess is European in origin and incapable of adequately representing a tribal structure. In her Cherokee dictionary she finds no word equivalent for princess. She finds four versions of the word chief, but even then she cannot differentiate between them. She is trying to learn the language, but she is used to alphabets, not syllabaries, and she cannot find anyone to help her navigate the nuance of language.
She speaks with her friend again, the one who is also a minority writer. They sit on her back porch in the Texas heat with iced coffee, listening to the cicadas drone, sweat trickling down their calves.
She asks her friend what the memory of blood means. How it implicates. She asks, can I write about this? She asks, should I write about this?
She is unsure of her exposure, making herself visible during the process of becoming, of unbecoming. She is worried about the many gazes through which she will be viewed, half-formed, on a cliff of understanding herself but not necessarily understanding her culture.
Am I ashamed? She asks, more to herself than her friend.
Ashamed of what?
She doesn’t want to say it, but she does because she knows she can’t have this conversation with her other friends, or if she does, it will be one in which she informs and does not explore, and so she says, ashamed of everything. Of not being Native enough. Of having a family who kind of ignores that we’re Native at all. Of this system, this country.
Oh, her friend says, you’re at that stage.
She does not know what her friend means.
Shame, the woman elaborates, for not being white. For being other. You’ve spent a whole life passing. Now you know.
She thinks. Rests her cigarette in the ashtray. She asks, what comes after shame?
Anger, sometimes. Or resignation.
Anger comes after. Anger comes before. Anger comes all times, she thinks, and the threat of it always being present, no matter what she does, or doesn’t do, disturbs her.
Later, she thinks about this word—anger. She dwells in it. She looks up this word in her Cherokee lexicon. She tries to sound the word out, uses the phonetics provided: u-ta-la-wo-s-gv. She tries to write the Unicode—ᎤᏔᎳᏬᏍᎬ—and her script is marred with hesitation marks.
She thinks about how anger can be tied to cruelty, and how they perpetuate each other.
She looks up cruel in her lexicon as well: ᎤᏲᎢᏯᏓᏛᏁᎯ. u-yo-i-ya-da-dv-ne-hi. She tries to match the rhythm of pronunciation, to find its scansion. It takes patience. It takes listening. It is not something she can rush, and it is not something a reader can either.
Listen: u-yo-i-ya-da-dv-ne-hi. Say it. Trip over the word.
u-yo-i-ya-da-dv-ne-hi. Find a new understanding for sound:
|˘ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘|
|oooh yo eh yev duh ney he|
Fall into it.
Gwendolyn Paradice’s nonfiction has earned nominations for both the Pushcart and Best American Essay. Her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Booth, and others. She retains a MA in Nonfiction from the University of North Texas, a MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri. She specializes in genre-bending and speculative writing.