I’ve given a lot of thought to Native American identity, especially when it comes to mixed-race identity. One of my favorite works of art is a photograph by Erica Lord from her Tanning Project series (shown below) because I can so easily relate to it. Her statement on her website talks about her mixed identity and the relationship it bears to her art:
“My culture and idea of home began in Alaska, moved and adopted Michigan, and ever since, has existed somewhere in between, amongst, and within a mixed cultural legacy. That legacy and my identity stem from many families: Athabascan, Iñupiaq, Finnish, Swedish, English, and Japanese. My origins include a lineage that I was born into, and a land I was removed from. My cultural limbo and precarious balances have molded my identity and fueled my art. Because of circumstance and chance, I became an emigrant from each home, adapting with each move. Constant moving and rootlessness are part of the American experience, but my near perpetual movement is an experience that lies within a larger history: the Native diaspora.”
Why am I bringing this up? Because of an article in The New York Times called, “Who is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question.” The gist of it was that a Jewish high school denied entry to a student who’s mother had converted to Judaism in a Progressive, not Orthodox, synagogue. The family sued and lost, but then the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling as discriminatory since the school was basing its decision to deny entry on the student’s mother as opposed to whether the student considered himself to be Jewish and practiced Judaism.
This is just another example of a person with dual identities running into problems. I can recall my parents making comments about mixed-race couples saying things along the lines of, “But what if they have children? What kind of life will those children have?” It didn’t mean a lot to me at the time, but looking back at it, I’m amused since they themselves had adopted a mixed-race child. Of course, I think since I generally appear to be white it was easy for them to overlook that. The real problem in their eyes was when it became difficult to classify a person in a convenient category. A part of me wonders if they would have adopted me if I’d been 7/32 black instead of 7/32 Karuk?
It seems important that people be able to define for themselves who they are. I’ve probably mentioned this previously here, but I had been hanging out with a friend of a friend several years ago, and when our conversation turned to my mixed-race ancestry, he said that I had to make a choice to be one or the other, that it wasn’t fair for me to be able to be both. This took place during a time when I was really struggling to figure out who I was and how to self-identify racially, so I felt very conflicted hearing that. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is pointless to try to fit into someone else’s categories. I’m never going to be fully Karuk, either ethnically or culturally. But even though I’m mostly white and have been raised in American mainstream culture, I’m never going to be fully Caucasian either. This became most apparent to me after my divorce when I had come out and was heavily enmeshed in the looks-oriented gay bar scene. It didn’t matter that, at that point, my internal identification was white. I still physically looked just different enough from the gay ideal of an all-American-boy because of my mixed race, and it suddenly hit me that I was striving to be something that I never could be.
That was about the time I started to think of myself as being “white enough.” And as difficult as it may have been for me internally, I still recognize how lucky I am to have had the luxury to grow up as a middle-class American, to be able to document my ethnicity and enroll in my tribe, to have a tribe that would allow me to enroll with slightly less than 1/4 Karuk “blood.” While it may be confusing to belong to more than one group, it has also given me a fluidity to observe and experience life from various perspectives. And this is what I bring to the table as an artist, designer, and human being.