I can’t recall the moment when I realized that my skin was brown, or that it was several shades darker than those around me. In the same sense, I can’t recall the moment I was told “you’re adopted.” For as long as I can recall, I have known these things. But having brown skin in a sea of white left me with a conflicted identity. I very much grew up in the wašíču world (white/American). A world where the only native representation was found in mascots and street names. A world I wasn’t meant to survive.
As a Native child establishing my identity in this world, I absolutely adored Pocahontas. I had Pocahontas clothes, dolls, luggage, and of course, the movie on repeat. I had a princess to idolize that looked like me, but I didn’t even know her truth. I was Pocahontas for Halloween, and on nights after school when I just felt like dressing up like an “Indian” and dancing around my living room to pow wow music. I enjoyed this, because it was a time where I felt that I was freely and safely able to celebrate myself as a young Native girl in the only way that I knew how.
My Até (Dad) is Native, too. I’m assuming that him and I together make up the 0.1% Native population in our town, because I was unaware of any other Natives in that area. His family originates from the same area as my biological family– the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He boarded a Greyhound bus by himself at the age of 18 and left the rez for Chicago with the relocation program. An area where he had no family, no friends; to pursue a career in radiology just as his Lekší (Uncle) had done.
I would travel to the rez with him and my mom every year to visit family. My rez has been talked about in news articles and documentaries, with the focus being the fact that it resides in the “second poorest county in the U.S.”. Life on the rez was significantly different from the live I lived in the suburbs of Chicago. But somehow, I found myself always wanting to go and never wanting to leave. I am beginning to understand that more as an adult than I could as a child, but I imagine it felt so much like home to be around people like me.
My Até would share parts of our culture with me, and now we share a lot of this learning together. He grew up during the boarding school era, where our languages and traditions were violently stolen from us. But because of him sharing his knowledge with me and encouraging me to care about my identity, and because of my family in South Dakota and experiences traveling home to the rez, I wasn’t completely unaware of who I was. But this part was a small percentage of my life. I was living, eating and breathing in the wašíču world 98% of the time. I had grown used to being the only Native. I was the only Native in school. The only Native in ballet. The only Native in soccer. I was definitely the only Native in church. But it goes beyond being the only Native. I was the only person of color in the majority of these realms.
Living in the wašíču world means that most of the people in my life are white. My husband is white. Half of my family is white, too. My mom’s side of the family is Norwegian, Polish and Russian. She has been ever present in my life since she came to pick me up from the hospital with my Até when I was two days old. She quit her job to stay home with me when I was 2 weeks old. She was the first to love me, the first to wipe my tears, the first to comfort me when sad and to celebrate with me when happy. There has never been a day in my life where I’ve felt alone, thanks to her. Having her as my mother and best friend meant that my first experiences with a white person were that of selfless love.
I also spent a lot of time with my Papa. His parents immigrated to the United States from Norway in the late 1800s. I was definitely a Papa’s girl. He was a triple bronze star recipient, WWII veteran and very active in his community. He brought me along to all his veteran events. I hung around with all of his WWII veteran friends, most of whom were white, and those are some of my fondest memories. There is a story about one of the veterans asking, “Cali, what type of Indian are you?” And my genuine response as a 4 or 5 year old was “Norwegian Indian!” Which adequately sums up how conflicted my identity would later become.
I navigated throughout life as an “apple” or “coconut” as some have called me. Which means that I was red/brown on the outside and white on the inside. I carried, and still carry, many privileges due to my upbringing – one of those being that I can comfortably navigate in the wašíču world. Some may question whether that is a privilege or not, but I don’t. It means that I am generally comfortable in a room full of white people. It is conflicting to belong to a marginalized group but experience a life full of privilege. At times, I don’t feel credible or that I deserve to have a place to share my voice. But as a result, I have found relationships with non-native allies to be very natural, which has undoubtedly helped me create relationships with new allies. I have noticed that my reach is strongly non-native, and because of my ease in these situations and the history of my upbringing, people tend to find my story somewhat relatable and they listen. So I educate.
My first 27 years of life continued in this way until I moved to Denver, Colorado. My husband, Brian, and I came to Denver to explore the outdoors, but I was unaware that we would be moving to an area with a significantly higher Native population than the 0.1% that I was used to.
I remember texting my Até, saying, “There are people like us here.” I’ll be honest and say that this realization blew my mind. I had become so used to being the “token”, that I assumed it would be that way everywhere I went. We went to our first Denver March Pow Wow the month after we moved and it’s crazy to think that at this time, I didn’t know a single soul there.
During the summer, I began to see news coverage of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota. I began to closely follow the media; observing a strong, rich community that I desired to be a part of as an outsider. But I didn’t know how. Then, on a fall Friday afternoon, it all hit me.
I’m not white. No matter how white I act, or talk, or dress… I’m not white. I’m Lakota. But what have I done with it? What do I have to show? What have I done for my people? How have I lived for 27 years without having a friend of my own race? Can anybody else say the same? Is there any hope for me?
I can’t describe this in any other way except an identity crisis. My family jokes about this being the moment that I realized I wasn’t white. Other people have said similar things to me, like, “I’ve always known you’re Native, but I just always felt like you were white.” Was it because of my social class? Because of my education? Or because I somehow camouflaged into those around me. I wasn’t that dark, but I wasn’t white. I guess I just blended in.
But I didn’t want to blend in anymore. So I took it upon myself to reclaim what I had neglected- my identity as a Lakȟóta wíŋyaŋ.
wašíču – wah-SHE-chu
wíŋyaŋ- WI-ya (ŋ is a nasal vowel)