Today might be the day someone asks me The Question. It's a feeling I get around the second Monday in October, and it continues through the end of November, when people at least try to remember who was here first.
But it might be today. I am wearing my favorite J.Okuma dress, after all. There's a daily class offering on the schedule if people catch it, and sometimes they do. There's a flyer in the window for WCU's current display featuring MMIW pieces.
I've been asked The Question many times before, but I finally have the right answer, I think.
"So then, are you Native?"
No. And that's a hard thing to write, as someone who grew up a fairly dark little girl with an animal for a last name, this close to the Qualla Boundary, whose family has been here for a very long time and fiercely love the land, who had friends who all called each other cuz and shared all those stories about that granny with "the look", and whose favorite spooky story has always been Spearfinger. When I lived away from here, I would equivocate, partially because I always wanted it to be true, but also because I knew what was coming or what had preceded The Question - some dumb stereotype I'd feel the need to dismantle. Something about scalping, or casinos, or something else about "those people", or the fairytale versions of history that get told around this time of year. You know, fairy tales that Columbus was a benevolent hero, the Wampanoags welcomed Europeans with open arms and created the Thanksgiving tradition out of gratitude, and that this country was won away fair and square from "merciless Indian savages" (ICYMI that's a direct quote from the Declaration of Independence, that painfully ironic document from US History). Any time I'd try to set the record straight I'd be asked that Question.
And now that I'm home, and now that there is a real Indigenous representation in our media - whether it's "skoden" in Letterkenny or some real tradish shit in Reservation Dogs or finally seeing 60 Minutes specials about residential schools - I don't feel as much like I have to explain. Sometimes I feel like I should, to explain why I know a few words or foods or stories or people or places here and there. But the answer is no. I'm not a tribal member. I don't speak the language. I don't have the lineage on the Roll. (And THESE are the things that count, btw, not your story about your grandmother.) But at least I have an inkling of Native Americans - not just all lumped in to one "aho"-saying, government-cheese-eating, tomahawk and tipi and eagle-feather headdress caricature - but as my friends, my neighbors, and my heroes.
I'm not telling you not to celebrate with your family next Thursday. But I'm also not telling you to go find someone from the EBCI to do the emotional labor and break it down for you as to why it might be a sensitive topic. But maybe when you've got family in town, go to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Unto These Hills instead of just the casino? And maybe find ways to support our Indigenous neighbors.
And if you ask me The Question, my answer will be:
"Do I have to be in order to give a damn?"