Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother and grandfather talking and sometimes even arguing in a strange language that I couldn’t understand. It turned out to be Mohawk. You see I am half Native American, Mohawk, on my mother’s side and half German/French/English from my father’s. My mom and dad split up before I can even remember and I was raised by my mom and my beautiful Mohawk family.
We didn’t live on the reservation that many of our relatives called home, but rather I called Syracuse, New York my home. You see, the government had many ideas on how to undermine the cultural integrity of Tribes living on reservations and relocation was one of them. My grandmother, who is the strongest woman I have ever known, was placed in a Catholic run boarding school, where she was beaten for speaking her native tongue. She held on to her language despite their efforts and became one of the most devout Christians I have ever known, as well. She would wake up early every morning and do rosaries, then when it was time for mass she would deny herself getting communion and when I asked her why, she said that she wasn’t worthy. If she wasn’t worthy then no body was, as far as I am concerned. My grandfather was a broad-shouldered ironworker, who lost the battle with alcoholism when I was very young. With him gone the Mohawk words faded away and my connection to my culture was in a way lost. There was a place that I hung out at in my youth called the Native American Indian Club and they held language classes while I was in elementary school, but less stuck than what most walk away with from taking Spanish all throughout high school.
We did go up north to the reservation during an occasional summer vacation, but other than fishing it was pretty boring. I was out of place, though I wished I wasn’t. You see, I had always found Native Americans to be more aesthetically pleasing to my eye, so much so that I’d wished I looked more like them. I was my father’s son and had curly hair to boot. I stuck out like a sore thumb, or at least it felt that way. Then, when I thought I was starting to fit in, something would set me straight.
I was invited to a dinner at the Onondaga reservation, which was just outside of Syracuse, and as I sat outside eating I could see these Onondagan boys sitting together and I was envious of how they looked and of how closely knit they seemed to be. That was when the pointing and laughter started…a pale, curly headed boy on the Rez. I don’t know what happened next, all I know is that I ended up having one of them in a scissor-lock and as I squeezed with all my might I cried a flood of tears. I cried for being shunned by those I wished I belonged with most. My trips to the Rez became less frequent.
While in college I met and immediately became friends with a guy straight off the same Rez my relatives came from. We hung out and talked about going up north and using his sweat-lodge. Then one day he started talking to me in Mohawk and when he quickly realized I didn’t speak it, he asked me if I’d ever heard of the term “apple”. I played it off, but inside I felt that same pain I did when I was a kid.
More recently I had entertained the idea of moving up north to the Mohawk reservation (Akwesasne), but when I brought this up to my relatives living up on the Rez, they would politely suggest that I might think about living the next town over…leaving the reason why unsaid. I was even interested in a position with the tribe and when I asked my aunt, who was already a part of the tribal power-structure, via email if I was qualified or out of my depth…I got no response. Maybe I was just that…completely out of my depth.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve never turned my back on either my paternal or maternal heritage, as I am now closer to my father than I have ever been and I know I have him to thank for certain attributes as well as my mom. It was just hard growing up looking ethnic enough to be harassed by the police in my adolescence, but not enough to be truly accepted by my own tribe.
A stranger in a strange land.