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What Is An Indian? Self-Identity as an Indigenous Person

Over the course of the next six weeks I will take a stab at trying to define this often asked question from several different yet interwoven aspects of what it means to be an American Indian in the modern world. These will include self-identity, stereotypes, racism, and diversity of Native cultures here in America, legal definition, and blood-quantum.  I make no claim that this series is anywhere near an exhaustive answer. It is my opinion and should be taken that way. So, here we go with part one entitled: “Self-Identity as an Indigenous Person.”

The dictionary defines identity as: “What identifies somebody or something: the name or essential character that identifies somebody or something or the set of characteristics that somebody recognizes as belonging uniquely to himself or herself and constituting his or her individual personality for life.”

In addition to the dictionary’s definition; when we ask ourselves, “who am I,” we can begin to get at the fundamentals of just exactly who we are. So who I am, as an Indian, is a complex riddle wrapped in layers of our individual and collective DNA inside an enigma. (I heard that saying somewhere.)

An important part of the equation has to include where we come from genetically and geographically. My mother and father are both enrolled members of the Ihanktowan Dakota Oyate or more popularly known as the Yankton Sioux Tribe, but I owe the fact that I am part French to my great, great grandfather who was half French. Thus, my identity as an Indian stems from the general knowledge that I am an American Indian with the French part of me sprinkled in there.

Now, about the word American Indian When I introduce myself (as is true with many Indian people), I don’t like calling myself Indian because it was a name given to me and all indigenous people by Euro Americans who mistook us for India Indians. I am not an India Indian because I do not come from India. However, if a non-Indian refers to me as an American Indian, I am not necessarily offended nor am I offended with being labeled Native American. But, there are Native people who are offended by being called Indian or Redman and there are those who are not. The best policy is to ask the Native individual what they prefer and respect their wishes.

I identify myself as part owner of this western hemisphere along with many other Native people. My origins are here. My people’s remains have been incorporated into the earth for thousands and thousands of years. My personal and collective memories are an indelible part of the land and the very air we breathe. I didn’t arrive here from somewhere else in spite of what non-Indian historians say. My ancestors in the representation of my grandfather have passed down from generation to generation that we originated here. I will tell my children and my grandchildren the same because it is the truth. Our identity as Native people - my identity as a native person - is tied intimately to the land.

I am a member of the Ihanktowan Dakota Oyate, which identifies us as one of seven nations which make up a confederation called the Ocheti Shakowin (Seven Council fires) or the Great Sioux nation who traveled and lived throughout most of the central part of the United States. My identity as a legitimate member of the human family is also intimately tied into this confederation and its long history along with approximately 200,000 other members.

My identity is not tied up in the concept of America (although if anyone were to attack our country I would be the first one to take up arms in her defense), as is the case with many Native people. Indian people, I think, live in the margins of the so-called American dream and can’t decide whether they want to stay there or join in with the American idea. Would we be welcomed with open arms by the Euro Americans and the increasingly diverse citizenry of America?    

Most of all I am very proud of my identity but never in a way that even remotely suggests that I am better than other Americans, after all we are all relatives whether we like it or not. We are all in this together.

Doksha (later). . .

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