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Articles    H2'ed 6/16/10

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 Natà ve 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.

Finding my father was more difficult. He was in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict. During those days, the USO paid local women to dance with airmen. He and my mother met at such a dance during a time when there was an Air Force Base near our home. They obviously had a deeper relationship than just dancing, but he wouldn't marry her. He wouldn't believe that he was my father. I suspect my mother was frantic to find someone to marry her, because being a single parent in Kentucky in 1953 was not acceptable. She had three other quick relationships, and one was my father's buddy, who married her and named me after him. I think he actually loved my mother, but apparently she didn't love him, and they split up before I was nine months old, before he even got out of the Air Force.

I know all this thanks to private detectives and paternal DNA testing, which cost me a lot back in the days when I was earning more money. I tracked down three of the four potential candidates, interviewed them, arranged paternity testing, and got the results. My father's buddy, who was then living in Florida, told me about my father and his Lakota and French-Canadian heritage. He wouldn't give me a name, because he'd promised my father not to tell anyone. Nevertheless, he told me when and how my father died, and I was able to track down who he probably was. He became the candidate through process of elimination.

This was a long, painful process, and one that I was glad to close the book on. I realized through doing this, that I am what I am. I realize I could have pushed further on both fronts to establish proof of parentage and to get enrolled, but I was tired of it all, and it no longer seemed to matter. I continue to feel that way, though my facebook critic feels differently.

Of course, like many of us who suffer from feeling "Less Than", I did many things to compensate, which turned out to be wonderful for me. I studied Cherokee bodywork with practitioners of that art. I learned as much as I could from a variety of healers, starting in medical school. In fact, I credit a Cherokee elder, Kidla, from Ukiah, California, and another Cherokee elder, Grandfather Roberts, from Eureka, California, for getting me through medical school. I was lucky enough to go to Stanford University because I knew how to run the world's largest carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer while in college. I was shocked when I got to medical school and discovered that there was no course on healing. I wanted to learn healing the way my great-grandmother did it, but the medicine I was learning was so different from the views of my grandparents and great-grandparents that I was in a quandry. I went to the Stanford Indian Center to explain my dllemna and was referred to Kidla who I visited the very next weekend. The support of running a parallel track of participating in Native American ceremonies and receiving Kidla's and Grandfather Robert's teachings kept me sane and able to complete medical school.

I have continued to attend ceremonies since then and have averaged a sweat lodge probably once per week. This will be my 11th year of sundancing and I now attend two dances each summer. I have worked with Native people throughout my career and written scientific papers about bringing elders into health care and working with elders to improve outcomes. I refer people to elders for healing. Some of this is compensation for feeling inferior in the MITT syndrome, but I'm glad I did all these things because they are also high points of my life. The teaching that I do, workshops and the like-is and always has been intended to show other people, mostly health practitioners, the rich resources for healing offered by indigenous peoples. I like to give credit where credit is due, and I am concerned that if we don't take credit the world will not know that osteopathy most likely came from the Pawhnee, that Milton Erickson's hypnotic storytelling most likely came frok the Chippewa, that according to documents in the Smithsonian, (check out James Mooney) the Cherokee used porcupine quills as acupuncture needles.We had a hand in chiropractic doctoring too. Our ideas of community, of the interconnectedness of everything are of themselves healing. I woud feel wrong if I didn't credit the people with the being the source of much of this knowledge.

With more and more evidence for the effectiveness of energy medicines like Reiki (see the studies on the effects of reiki on the growth of bone cells), and other forms of healing, the world is going to run off with these modalities without giveing credit to indigenous people, unless people like me speak up. I like it when the world shows a little respect. I teach to anyone who will listen. I don't turn anyone away from any workshop I give, nor anyone who wants help, whatever their heritage. I understand that as my responsibility in the world. I have lived a break-even life. Much of my work has been free or for small salary, and I have not accumulated possessions. Today, my assets consist of a 2001 Dodge Pick-up truck and a $200 computer and whatever is left in a storage locker in Montana.. My study of Native American healing and my work with Native American people has not made me rich. I work a regular day job.

So what do I tell my critic who wants papers in order to grant me an authentic life? Who says that I can't have learned what I did. Can I say that I don't care? Can I say that I don't need papers? A friend suggested I go get papers to silence such critics, but I confess ambivalence. I don't like being told that I don't exist unless I have papers. I have a stubborn streak which compells me to do the opposite of what I am told to do.

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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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