Something strange has been happening with me this year. I do not know why just this year. I am not doing anything differently than I have for fifty-three years. It is not something I publicly talk about, unlike other topics about myself. And if it only happened one time, I would probably just think it was a coincidence. But since February, it has now happened four times.
Around President’s weekend, I had been visiting with a friend with my daughters. We were inside a small shop when a complete stranger came up to me.
Stranger: Excuse me. But are you Native American?
Yep. Not even a “hello”, just jumped right into it. Now a little known secret up until now, yes I am, or at least partially. But the question caught me off guard. I do not really discuss my heritage with anyone, just my daughters, who happen to be Asian. So I have the discussion with them to teach them the importance of knowing your culture. I believe the conversation came up once when I was in elementary school, and of course the kids in school relentlessly mocked me, which became why I never discussed it publicly again.
Stranger: I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just curious. I study indigenous cultures. And I just noticed your strong features. Do you know if you are of Native American background?
Me: Yes I am. (I intentionally gave a short answer, being totally weirded out).
Stranger: By any chance, are you of Cherokee background?
Now I was totally baffled. My great grandmother was Cherokee. I have known this my whole life. I have just never publicly acknowledged it, or made any kind of issue out of it. As far as anyone was concerned, I identified as a Caucasian. Sure, my skin color is slightly darker. But if I am being honest, I really never saw any particular characteristics that would point out a Native American background.
Well, at least until I started growing my hair back out again. For a long time, I kept it very short. The last time I kept my hair long, no one ever mentioned or inquired about my background. But I suppose I can see some Native American in my photos.
So, more of a curiosity, how did my great grandfather meet, get involved with, and marry a Cherokee Indian woman? I am not well versed on racism, other than the blatant examples we see on the news every day, but I do know in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, racism still existed.
First, you need to understand the history of the Cherokee woman. Cherokee women were considered equal to Cherokee men in all aspects of life. Something that American women of today still do not have that right. Financially, spiritually, sexually, Cherokee women were respected as equals to men. Crimes against Cherokee women by Cherokee men were rare, especially rape. Family ancestry actually was guided by the women. Because of land owned by the Cherokee, it was profitable for white men to marry Cherokee women, as it was the Cherokee women who owned and were in charge of the land in most cases. I have only recently begun to study more of the interesting history.
I am enjoying the research I have now given myself to do. And out of the four people who approached me, I have an uneasy feeling that three out of the four had other issues other than genuine curiosity about me, with the fourth actually stating she had an educational background. It is a fact that bigotry and racism are escalating again, and I would like to hope, that I was not experiencing it because of my background. As I mentioned to a classmate of mine, still friends after all these years, “you finding out that I have a Native American background does not affect or change how you know me, does it?” The obvious answer was, “of course not.”