“An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess.” – Wilma Mankiller
I want to share my thoughts on this quote. Recently, my mother and I had an in-depth conversation about the degree of Indianness that runs in my family. I also want to add that our Indian identity got mixed with other ethnic families in the past twenty years. Our Indian identity also got lost through so many migration moves we made in the past two generations. The question is: Through repeated changes in our lives, why do we abandon our Indian identity and how can we recuperate it (if lost)?
In my family, 92% of us live in comunas in Ecuador. (A comuna is an Indo-mestizo or Indigenous village, town, or community with a common Indigenous ancestor. The comunas are evolution of what used to be in the 1600s: reservation camps.) The only branch that left the comuna was my great-grandparents. From 1968 to 1999, my grandmother and her sisters migrated to Europe and North America. The new generation was born in New York and Milan, adapting all Euro-American culture, music, language, and lifestyle. That generation is mixed. That generation is losing their Indian identity. That generation is us, my cousins and siblings.
In the United States, 50 of my 60 relatives identify as North Americans. The remaining 10 relatives identify as American-Ecuadorians. A combination of 5-7 identify as South American Indians. In Europe, however, all of relatives strictly identify as Italian-Ecuadorians. Therefore, this leaves us a percentage of almost nothing when it comes to American Indian self-identity.
My nuclear family asked the aunts and cousins, “Do you consider yourself Indian?” This is what we heard:
“Our ancestors were Indians, but that was a long time ago.”
“No because I am American. I speak English.”
“No because we are civilized, not savages.”
The fact that one of them considered us civilized shows the misconception my relatives have about Indians. For them, to be an Indian means to live in nature, paint our bodies, and dance around a rock. To be an Indian means to be illiterate, uneducated, and peasant farmers. To be an Indian means to be brown and braid your black hair with feathers and ribbons. If we did not fit in any of these categories, then we were considered civilized and white.
But I think us Indians are diverse in our cultural background, education, lifestyle, and so forth. Some of us are intellects, writers, poets, dancers, architects, shamans, doctors, politicians, mothers, sons, rappers, wrestlers, daughters, fathers, singers, students, lawyers, and activists. Some of us are traditional with our choice of clothing, religion, language, and dance. Others just want to express themselves with whatever art they find around them. Let’s remember that our ancestors were great writers, mathematicians, architects, politicians, doctors, and activists in their own time. All of this makes us Indians no matter what, not the other way around: civilized, white, or Hispanic.
In 2013, many of our Indian brothers and sisters have mixed with other nations, too. You become a part of two, three, or four cultures. I look at my siblings and we all look different. Some of us have light brown eyes while others have the Indian black hair. We are not 100% Indians because we have mixed with other nations, but that does not mean we cannot identify as a mixed-Indian either. This is what I tell my nuclear family when we talk about why we say we are Hispanics or Latinos when that’s not true. Just because we speak Spanish does not make us “Latinos.” We are Indians who just happens to speak Spanish and English. So what?
And I say to you, my Indo-mestizo brothers and sisters in North, Central, and South America: Recognize your other half. Embrace your Indian heritage. Explore your roots and never forget who came before you. Because we are more in number than what we think. We are 96 millions of federally recognized Indians in the Americas, but we are 500 millions of Indians of all mixed-backgrounds. We let labels wipe the Indian out of us. We let ignorance thrive and let discrimination surround us. We let white-mestizo and Euro society construct our identity and marginalize us in census boxes. We let media depict our Indian brothers and sisters as poor and illiterate when the truth is that some of us are talented and strong.
Five hundred and twenty one years passed, and we are still here. We are not going anywhere. Slowly but surely, we will recuperate our identity across Indian Country. Our dance will echo all the way from North America to South America and that is beautiful in and of itself.