When I was a small child my mother told me that we were part “Native American,” which is just as vague as saying “your ancestors are from Europe” which is pretty much what I understood about the other part of my heritage. When I was growing up I learned vague, vaguely racist things about the aboriginal people in this country—that they could walk very quietly, that they wore feathers on their head and paint on their faces. I called myself “part Indian” even though I knew, because my best friend’s mother was actually Indian-from-India, that this was incorrect. I was really part “Native American.” I don’t think I understood at the time how broad of a term this was.
When I got older, my knowledge about the people I came from got a little more precise. I learned that most of my ancestry is Scottish and German, but I still didn’t know the name of the American people I was from. My connection to any of my ancestors is tenuous at best. My ancestors gave me DNA and a last name: Kutcher is German, I think it means “coachman,” but my family doesn’t even pronounce it the German way. When my great-grandfather was in the military his superior officers pronounced his name wrong and he couldn’t correct them because it was the military. So my family pronounces my last name in an American way. I don’t speak any of the languages of my ancestors; I only speak English. I was raised on American chop suey and lentils and birdseed pie and lasagna. I didn’t grow up eating traditional food of any of my ancestors. I was raised Christian. I don’t know any traditional stories or holidays of the cultures I come from. I am thoroughly a white American.
And yet, when I applied to UC, I checked both the boxes for “White” and “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” just another white person taking up space that People of Color need. After several years of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) classes, and the Racial Awareness Program (RAPP) and thinking critically I stopped identifying as part Native American. My single Native American ancestor is so far back in my history that they make up a fraction of my gene pool. But more importantly, I know nothing about that culture, that language, those experiences. I am white. I have white privilege. I grew up in a white American culture. I didn’t even know the name of the tribe I came from. So I stopped being shitty and identifying as part Native and forgot about it. Until last November.
November is Native American Heritage Month. The Office of Ethnic Programs and Services put a lovely display on their door, and Chief Diversity Officer Bleuzette Marshall sent me an email inviting me to a Native American Heritage Month Mixer. How did she know that I used to identify as part Native American? Oh right, cause I told the University that when I applied. My bad decisions were following me around. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to be a white person taking up space in a place for People of Color. But I was curious; would it mostly be white people like me who had some sort of vague understanding of a Native ancestor? Or would there be actual Native American people who knew about the culture they were from? Fortunately, the mixer was on a Monday night during the WILL meeting so the decision not to go was made for me.
But I started thinking. A few years ago, we talked about racial identity in one of my WGSS classes, and I told my classmates that I used to identify as part Native American. One of my classmates told me that they knew someone who looked as white as I did, and who had a very small amount of Native heritage, like I did, but that this person had done research into the culture they were from, that they went to gatherings of people from their tribe, and so they identified as part Native. This made so much sense to me. I was white. I needed to stop identifying as Native American. So I did. But now, it occurred to me that the other response would be to research the people I was from, to learn more. So I started trying to do that.
This is my second cousin, Winona Linn:
She is a poet, and a visual artist, and a world traveler. (She is so cool, in every way.) Her father and my mother are first cousins. Her grandfather and my grandfather were siblings. We share a great-grandmother, Nina Jordan Linn. Nina Jordan Linn in the person through whom our Native ancestry runs.
This is a link to Winona Linn’s website: http://www.winonalinn.com/
And these are three spoken word poems she wrote which touch on themes of Native Identity:
(Winona Linn is a much better writer than I am; I encourage you to listen to these poems [and other poems. All her work is cool.])
The difference between Winona and me isn’t the amount of “Native blood” we have, but the amount of knowledge we have about our Meskwaki ancestry and culture. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to have a conversation with Winona about our heritage, but my mother told me that Winona has done a lot of research into our Native American history and had been to the reservation. It is through Winona’s poems that I learned the name of the people that I come from: Meskwaki. A quick google search told me that the Meskwaki Settlement is in Iowa.
Winona is Meskwaki. And I am not. But I might be, someday. I’m trying to start researching Meskwaki history and culture. But I am busy, like we all are. I have homework to do and I want to read for fun and cuddle my girlfriend and hang out with my friends and work on creative projects. I don’t really want to read any of the books about the Meskwaki that I’ve ordered through interlibrary loan. So here I am. Still a white person taking up space that People of Color need? Maybe. I have, at least, begun to learn about my Meskwaki heritage.
Nat Kutcher will be graduating in April with a BA in Liberal Arts (consisting of a Fine Arts minor, a Creative Writing certificate and a WGSS minor). This is their second and last year in WILL. They are white and maybe a little bit Meskwaki.