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More Indian Than Thou

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During this past week I came face to face with what I've heard called "MITT" Syndrome, or "More Indian Than Thou" Syndrome, a term discussed by Joseph Gone in his chapter in the book Mental Health Care for Urban Indians: Clinical Insights From Native Practitioners.

This weekend I was confronted by a man through facebook demanding that I prove my Native American heritage. He said I shouldn't say I have Native American heritage unless I am enrolled in a tribe.


I told him I didn't know if I was enrolled and had never looked into the issue. It wasn't important to me. I didn't want any casino money. I didn't want healthcare through the Indian Health Service. I didn't want government handouts. My grandfather (who was enrolled and was 100% Cherokee, though not genetically related to me) insisted that we never take government handouts. He raised me to follow in his footsteps. He married my grandmother, who at least thought she was Cherokee, had always been told that, and had a mother, my great-grandmother, who knew she was Cherokee, spoke the language and was a healer.

I had to think through my responses to my critic and they seemed worthy of this week's column. First I thought, since I describe myself as one-quarter Cherokee, one-quarter Lakota, one-quarter Scottish, and one-quarter French Canadian, which is as accurate as I can state it, do I need government approval to say that? I don't know anyone who requests government approval and sanctions before they say they are part French, or part Spanish, or part English. If I wanted casino money, that would seem appropriate, but I don't.

I thought this over with a friend, who said, "Why in the world would anyone tell a young person in the 1950s that he was Cherokee if he wasn't, especially in Kentucky." She had a point. It wasn't romantic to be an "indian" until the 1970s. I grew up in the 1950s being told that I was and believing I was Cherokee, practicing Cherokee ways with my grandfather and grandmother (who raised me), and sometimes present in the background for the heailngs my great-grandmother practiced in our home. Their names were Gadd and Shearer. My grandfather taught me to pray with cigars, sending the smoke to the spirits (he made me cross the road if he saw anyone chain-smoking, since you couldn't know what their prayers might be). My great-grandmother spoke Cherokee nand my grandmother understood some, but I was sheltered from the language by my mother who was adamant that we should turn away from Cherokee and be white. She came from that generation who wanted all that came with white status.

I have said some of these things before, but they bear repeating. I grew up in a small Appalachian town in which, still today, 60% of people earn less than $10,000 per year. We grew up poor. Many of my friends were also Cherokee mixes. As children, we played "Cowboys and "."shamelessly making our enemy of the week any ethnic group besides "Indians'. We identified as being Indian, and, since they always lost in the Westerns, we wanted to be the winners.

Identifying as Cherokee got me through a difficult childhood with a step-father who beat me. It was my grandfather's reminding me to have pride in myself as a Natïve person (he certainly did, though he generally kept quiet about most topics in public) that gave me a rallying point to withstand the beatings and eventually stand up to my step-father.

Thanks to maternal DNA testing, I do know that I have Native American ancestry on my mother's side, and being where I came from and how I was raised, the strong chance is that I am Cherokee. Because being Cherokee was so imporant to my survival, it's difficult to imagine not being Cherokee. Still, I posed the question to myself, what if my grandparents had made up my being Cherokee? It certainly wouldn't change much in my perception of myself. I created an identity as a Cherokee and I think I would go on having that identity. It has been 56 years now, so it feels like it's too late to change.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
 

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