Now, more than ever, there is a great emphasis on personal identity. Who are we, how do we define ourselves? In becoming a mother, I first felt that all my previous qualities got swept away in a tsunami. I hated it. Then I owned it and let it overtake me. Then it began to feel weird again, like overkill. I still long to connect easily with my non-parent friends, I dream of easy outings and spending my money on hair products or something. Who am I besides Mama? What makes me the mother I am? When I look in the mirror, now more than ever, I truly see a woman instead of a girl.
I’ve been interested in genealogy for a long time, and have had great success charting and mapping my family’s history through public records and remembered anecdotes. When I see my reflection, I can’t help wondering which features come from which family members. My own heritage is mainly European, of course. French and British and Irish, predominantly. Like so many American families, however, there are mysteries. The biggest mystery is in my great grandfather, and the longstanding rumor that he was (in my grandparents’ dated terminology) a “half-Indian”. I hope that doesn’t make any reader too uncomfortable, the terms ‘Native American’ or ‘First Nation’ just didn’t exist for rural Northern Vermonters back then.
This is Levi, my great grandfather and a well-known town jerk. The kind of guy to get drunk and smash through dance halls and get married only to leave his wife to fend for herself with six kids. He was barely around, and had barely any relationship with my grandfather aside from signing his enlistment papers for him.
Levi has no birth certificate, unlike his siblings. We have scoured records and websites and societies.
When my grandfather was a child, he remembers going on a walk with his father, near a part of their town where many Abenaki people lived. Levi pointed one woman out to my grandfather and said “that woman is your aunt.”
Townspeople knew of Levi as being “part Indian”, and when Levi’s mother was on her deathbed, she begged to tell Levi’s oldest child something important–but he was too scared to see her and she died before she could pass on her message.
Many bits of murky details, combined with what must have been a desire to connect with his absent father, led my grandfather to research Abenaki history. He went so far as to somehow gain membership in an Abenaki band or council, and we were all given tribal membership cards as well. For a time as a little girl, I went with my grandparents to pow wows and events. I circle danced and carried a little medicine pouch.
In a time where indigenous people deserve honor and recognition more than ever with the DAPL tragedy and recent political upheaval, I feel anxious sharing this, knowing the potential for someone to interpret me as yet another white person trying to encroach upon a heritage that is decidedly not hers. Being indigenous isn’t going to pow wows or having a card, and I need to clarify that my own desire to determine ancestry is not a need to identify as native. I know I am not. I have never suffered discrimination, I truly do not wish to snag an identity or appropriate. I’m not attempting to cutely claim ownership of something so deep and powerful and honorable.
I have read viewpoints from indigenous people who mock and disparage those individuals who claim partial heritage. I easily see their point. This isn’t a game, a fad or a fashion statement. I also feel, however, that heritage should be respected and honored, and not erased. If Levi was truly Abenaki, it was not a source of pride back then. It was hidden and deflected, people lied on census records and forced sterilization was a real threat. This is a shameful, dark and sad thing. Unlike some tribes, you can’t find many pure Abenaki today. I still need to educate myself more on this topic.
I’ve considered DNA testing, sheerly to gain a rough view of potential family identity. It seems so iffy, though.
I come back to this family topic frequently, and wonder if I will ever know more than I do already. Who was my great grandfather really? Who was his father?
We are such small blips in time. It absolutely fascinates me, and somehow feels both calming and terrifying.
Do you have a story like mine? I welcome comments and conversation, as always.