During this Native Heritage month, I’ve been reflecting on visibility—specifically, the visibility of my Native American identity. From a very young age, I knew that my race carried weighty stereotypes and preconceived notions. People at school would make comments like, “I know you are Native American, but you aren’t like them.” Being “like them” was left open-ended, but it wasn’t a compliment and I was very aware of that.
I am Native American. Choctaw, from my father’s side of the family (also where the Italian last name comes from). I was born in Oklahoma, where the Choctaw Nation and a lot of my extended family reside today.
When I was around three, my father was offered a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Juneau, Alaska. This opportunity was possible because of his Native heritage. Given that there were things about the South (racism and heat to name two) my parents were ready to leave, they decided it was time for our family of six to have a new experience. So, my father took the job.
In Alaska, my three brothers and I grew up as part of the Alaska Native and Eskimo communities. We learned the traditional ways and lived the culture, fully embracing the community that fully embraced us.
We visited many Native villages where everything ran on “Indian time,” engaged in traditional ceremonies, and sat in awe at the Eskimo Olympics each year.
My mom and I shopped the beadwork for Christmas gifts during the holidays and if I was lucky, I would pick out a barrette or pair of earrings for myself. She helped me select beads while I tried my hand at creating with them. (I think my daughter is now much better at the craft than I ever was.) I learned how to use Eskimo yo-yos and was gifted a pair by a friend’s mom who watched me work on it one evening until I could do it without making a mistake.
I treasure these and many other rich memories I have of the interesting and joyful experiences that colored my childhood.
After we left Alaska, we moved to southwest Colorado where my dad worked for the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes. Because of his work, we were consistently introduced to different tribes, and got to know their customs and rituals. And though we were not of a tribe from these regions, we were always accepted into the lives of these amazing people.
So here we are today, and I cannot help but feel fortunate for the diversity of my background. I grew up with a view few people have, seeing distinct cultures living and working in the same space.
The experience has innately informed my work and has provided me with an empathetic perspective and a great appreciation for our individualization, as well as our wholeness. There is beauty in both, and I don’t think it has to be either/or.
A few years ago, I picked the book There, There, a modern-day story of Native Americans, for my book club. It is this modern-day story that is worth reading to further understand present day Natives. Because while the past is rich, there is much to be gained from the present, and we can all benefit from engaging with the extraordinary Native people’s voices that are around us today. Just check out Eighth Generation—a company that is producing Native-designed goods that are by Native Americans. (They have recently partnered with Starbucks—an example of a great cross-cultural partnership.) There are so many contemporary Native influencers to follow; here are just a few: Quannah Chasinghorse, Charlie Amáyá Scott, Haatepah Clearbear. Through listening and learning, we begin to move further away from old, inaccurate assumptions. We gain a greater awareness and understanding of those who were here before modern times and who are clearly still here.